Scotland’s Bowmore is a distillery of great distinction and lengthy history, but not necessarily a lot of popular familiarity. Scotch geeks know the brand, sure—they tend to know all the distilleries on Islay, and Bowmore is the grandpappy of that group—but to the rank and file whisky drinker, they’re not as immediately recognizable as other Islay stalwarts such as Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg.
In all fairness, though, they really should be. Bowmore is indeed the oldest distillery on Islay, and indeed one of the oldest in the whole of Scotland, having been established in 1779. Their ownership under Beam Suntory affords them good access to markets around the world, while their single malt style reflects a rounder and less aggressively peaty/smoky take on Islay scotch whisky. This can actually make Bowmore an ideal introduction to peated single malts for those who want to dip a toe into Islay, as their core lineup balances sweetness, fruit and smoke nicely. If all you’ve ever tasted of Islay is something like Laphroaig 10, this is a much different experience, and not nearly so bombastically smoky. In fact, some of the sherried Bowmore malts are instead on the desserty and decadent side.
So with that said, let’s run through a tasting of the core range of Bowmore single malts, which includes the 12, 15, 18 and 25 year expressions.
Bowmore’s flagship 12-year-old single malt is presented at the baseline of 40% ABV (80 proof), but is plenty flavorful despite that handicap. This is a pretty standard Islay malt as far as the specs are concerned, matured presumably in used American oak, and with a definite portion of peat-smoked malt that is apparent on both the nose and the palate. With Islay single malts, it is often the case that the younger flagship expressions are more aggressively peaty and smoky, and this is the case for Bowmore, although it’s still considerably more mild in this one dimension than much of its competition.
On the nose, Bowmore 12 is somewhat meaty, with BBQ smokiness that pairs nicely with a subtle nuttiness/nut butter quality that makes me think of almond butter. There’s also a bright citrus layer, which combines with the malt to evoke bergamot/Earl gray tea. The smoke level is moderate, but will seem mild to those who are well-versed in other Islay single malts.
On the palate, this one is only mild-to-moderate in terms of peaty intensity, and you’d never mistake it for something from the likes of Laphroaig or Ardbeg. Rather, it has a pleasantly malty sweetness that evokes lots and lots of honey, along with orange blossoms and something a bit more confectionery—almond nougat. The smoke and earthiness dance along the edges of the flavor profile; a co-star rather than the central figure. It’s a pretty solid balance of malty sweetness, flashes of bright citrus and moderate smokiness.
Bowmore’s 15 year old expression is bottled at a slightly higher strength of 43% ABV (86 proof), which remains the same for the rest of the lineup. Looking at the glass, you can immediately see that something is different about this one, as the mahogany coloration is far darker than the golden shine of the Bowmore 12. That extra color is the result of a secondary maturation period in oloroso sherry casks—after spending its first 12 years in bourbon, this one gets three more years in sherry casks, which ultimately makes for a totally different profile in comparison with the 12 year old malt in particular. Where the 12 year is fairly balanced, this one is definitely leaning into the sweeter, more decadent and desserty side of the spectrum.
On the nose, Bowmore 15 actually struck me as a bit milder initially, but this proved to largely be a result of the peat and smoke characteristics having been smoothed out by those additional years in sherry casks. The smoke has become quite mild, just a ghost of a former campfire, which allows more subtle notes to start emerging. I get maple syrup here, and some increasingly jammy dark fruit, along with unexpected florals.
On the palate, this one is considerably more expressive than I found it on the nose, with prominent notes of dark fruit syrup and dried fruits—raisin and plum, chased by hints of mesquite BBQ. The peat flavor has been ironed out considerably, made supple and pliable with time and more sweetness. Whereas in the 12 year you could call it a co-star, the peat/smoke here is undoubtedly a supporting player, lending complexity n the background. This is a fairly sweet dram, with plenty of toffee and vanilla bean, plenty flavorful for its 86 proof. Not a sherry bomb, per se, but definitely a showcase for those dark and dried fruit flavors. If you like your malts on the more decadent side, this is definitely the most available stand-out in the Bowmore lineup.
Unlike the 15 year old Bowmore expression, Bowmore 18 is not a sherried single malt whisky at all—as far as I can tell, it spends all of its 18 years in standard American bourbon barrels. As a rule, that means it should tend to serve as a more direct expression of the distillery’s house style, rather than relying on a special finishing barrel to impart new flavors. MSRP has clearly jumped up a notch as well, although it still manages to seem more or less reasonable compared to the huge jump that awaits us at Bowmore 25. Single malt scotch in general has become sadly quite expensive in the U.S. in recent years, owing in part to Trump-era tariffs, and even with those tariffs gone we may sadly never see these prices come down much now that they’ve been normalized. It is what it is—it’s not like an 18-year-old bourbon would be cheap in the U.S. either.
On the nose, this one strikes an interesting balance between elements present in the 12 and 15 year expressions, while adding its own, oakier flair. Dark honey is an assertive presence, with complex florals, light earthiness, dried fruit and wisps of smoke. The peat is back, to a degree anyway, being more prominent here than it was on the nose of the sweeter Bowmore 15, but less assertive than in the flagship Bowmore 12.
On the palate, Bowmore 18 proves to be perhaps the most unique of this lineup, with intriguing fruit character that evokes pithy blackberry compote—there’s a sweetness to it, but also an underlying bitterness also contributed by a significantly more assertive oak presence. Tannic oak/grape skin contributes a drying effect, but the dryness is balanced out by plenty of dark buckwheat honey, and an alluring thread of cinnamon sugar. In general, one is feeling the age more on the palate of this whisky, as the impressions of old, spicy oak are factor in a way that is absent in the younger expressions. The peat, meanwhile, is still decently assertive on the palate and gives Bowmore 18 both structure and complexity. This is definitely one to mull over.
You won’t be getting Bowmore 25 cheaply, but then again, you probably shouldn’t expect to. This quarter of a century old expression is the apex of the distillery’s “core” lineup, and it’s honestly surprising they would even produce enough of this stuff for it to be regularly available with that kind of age statement. Like the 15 year old, this one experiences both bourbon and Spanish sherry cask maturation, although the distillery provides less detail about what kind of sherry casks, and how long that maturation might be. In general, though, it can be assumed that the folks at Bowmore pull out this bottle when they have someone to impress. Like the other expressions after the flagship 12 year, this one is bottled at 43% ABV (86 proof).
On the nose, the contributions of the sherry have very nicely smoothed out any rough edges that one might fear after so much contact with the oak—no unpleasant tartness or overly woody leanings. The peat, likewise, has faded to a distant memory. What you get most prominently instead are some lovely fruit impressions—juicy orange, plum jelly and dried fruit, blending with biscuity malt, vanilla bean, mocha and the slightest hint of meaty smoke. It’s a pretty excellent nose.
On the palate, the first thing that jumps out at you, even immediately after having sampled Bowmore 18, is the way that this extended sherry maturation has created an incredibly supple and velvety mouthfeel. This just has a very luxurious texture that makes it feel bigger than its 86 proof on the tongue, appreciably full and rich. Notes of dark chocolate and flashes of coffee roast again suggest mocha, met by prune, raisin and plenty of juicier stewed fruits, spread over honeycomb. The smoke still pops up a bit here from place to place, but it’s become very gentle indeed, and not at all what so many scotch drinkers picture when they think “Islay.” There’s just enough oaky dryness, at the same time, to not make Bowmore 25 read as predominantly decadent—all in all I think it comes off as a more nuanced take on the 15 year old, which isn’t a bad thing. Pretty delicious stuff.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.