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Exploring Bowmore Distillery: A Journey Through Time and Taste

whisky distillery

March 25, 2024

All you need to know about Bowmore history and whiskies

Here we are again, discussing Bowmore. We’ve recently touched upon this distillery when we suggested some independent bottlings to try. Today, however, we’ll delve into the overall history of the distillery and its whisky. We’ll explore the different vintages and their somewhat controversial positions. Lastly, we’ll also recommend some of our favourite original bottlings!

So, if you’re keen to learn more about one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries, keep on reading. Let’s dive in!

A little bit about Bowmore History

Dating back to 1779, Bowmore Distillery is situated in the charming coastal village of Bowmore, the island’s administrative capital. Founded by John P. Simpson, Bowmore was the first licensed distillery on Islay. However, if you ask around, local knowledge suggests distilling started almost ten years earlier.

Indeed, as Ian Buxton points out in his Whiskies Galore, Bowmore itself was created as a planned village from the late 1760s and there are some commentators who hold that distilling began here almost immediately.” So when the very first Bowmore malt whisky was distilled it’s hard to determine accurately.

Dave Broom in The World Atlas of Whisky reports that “in 1726, “Great” Daniel Campbell of Shawfield used the £9,000 he received in compensation for his house being burned down during the malt tax riots in Glasgow to purchase Islay. His improvements were carried on by his grandson, Daniel the Younger, who built Bowmore. The island was being run like a business. There was flax for weaving into linen, a fishing fleet, and the introduction of the new enlarged farms of two-row barley, which, with its better yields and easier malt-ability, gave a chance to distil on a more commercial scale”.

Of course, there’s no doubt that its isolated location made it a perfect place for moonshining. So yes, probably they did produce whisky from the very start.  

Bowmore Owners through the years

Bowmore’s owners during the 19th century included, of course, John Simpson, as well as William and James Mutter. However, in 1922 the distillery came up for sale again.

After three years, the distillery was acquired by Sherriff’s Bowmore Distillery Ltd. They ran the operations on Islay until 1950 when Bowmore was purchased by William Grigor & Sons Ltd. from Inverness.

A little over a decade later, in 1963, the Stanley P. Morrison Ltd. company bought Bowmore. This came down in history as the golden era for Bowmore. 

During World War II the distillery was closed and the RAF Costal Command resided in the buildings for the war against the submarines. 

Finally, in 1989 the Japanese distiller Suntory bought a stake in the distillery and took full control in 1994.

The Golden Era of Bowmore

As we mentioned above, the 60s marked a prosperous decade for Bowmore. Indeed, Stanley P. Morrison modernized the distillery, increasing the number of stills to four. He also added a visitor centre, one of the first in Scotland (Yes, Bowmore can brag a lot of firsts!). This last move was actually smart, as proved that they sensed a good marketing opportunity, even in a period when the single malt market was still on the small side.

But there’s more. Some whisky fans consider the whisky produced from Bowmore in the 1950s and 1960s their best product. This period is renowned for its balance between the exuberant tropical fruit with a particularly loved mango note and the peat smoke.

But then the 1990s came around, and the malt’s profile changed a lot…

The Divisive Era of Bowmore

Bowmore original bottlings from the 1980s to the 1990s were accused by fans of being too perfumy, with striking notes of lavender, geranium, and heady violets. An unpleasant trait that some described as a flowery soap, and that’s where the name of French w***s perfume comes from (where did this link come from? We don’t know. We rely on the comments of the experts on the subject…).

However, other people say that the infamous #fwp issue is not an issue at all, as it was confined only to some poor expressions of Bowmore (and that happens even to the best). Real or not, it kindled a heated discussion, to the point that it affected buying decisions.

But where does the lavender note come from?

Well, there are a lot of speculations about it. Some say that the washbacks were not properly cleaned during that period and, as a consequence, there was a small amount of soap in each mash. Other says that the lavender notes come from a type of yeast. If you’d love to read some scientific insight about it, then you should check out Lavender in whisky. A conspiracy of French women, British brewers, Peruvian distillers and hot condensers? from Whisky Science. But if you are not a nerd like us and you are satisfied with the simplistic explanations we’ve put in this paragraph for the sake of brevity, then please carry on reading. 

Bowmore whiskies today

A relatively large part of the whisky that is produced at Bowmore is bottled as a single malt whisky. The rest is used in blended whiskies like Rob Roy and Black Bottle. Nevertheless, the fact that today their major production of original bottlings is single malt is indicative of how Bowmore’s whiskies are loved by the general public.

While Islay whiskies are known for their dominant peaty notes, Bowmore whiskies tend to be more smoky. This smokiness is balanced by notes of tropical fruits. In younger whiskies, the peatiness can mask the fruitiness, but after ageing in first-fill sherry casks, an almost exotic character emerges, with a greater presence of mango.

Moreover, due to its proximity to the ocean, Bowmore whiskies develop a unique salinity due to the microclimate created by the sea air. This salinity adds a complex and intriguing layer to the flavour profile of Bowmore whiskies.

Whisky Production

Malting Floors

Bowmore is one of only a few Scotch malt whisky distilleries that still has its own malting facility. However, the malt floors can produce only a third of all the malted barley that Bowmore needs. So, the rest is acquired from mainland Scotland.

At first, the raw barley is steeped for 27 hours in fresh water sourced from the nearby River Laggan. Then the soaked grains are spread out across the stone floors. After 24 hours the barley is ready for turning, a necessary step that maintains the grains aerated, and the rate of germination slow but consistent. The maltmen turn the damp barley every four hours using a large wooden shovel (yes, by hand!). Once the barley is ready, it’s time to dry it.

Peat Smoke

When the barley has germinated, it’s time to make things up! The kiln is where we halt germination and dry the barley so it can be milled into grist. 

The phenol contents of the malted barley for the Bowmore malt whisky average 25 PPM (approximately). However, as we already said, this wasn’t always the case. Indeed, if you pick up an original bottle from the 1960s or earlier (lucky you!) it has a much lighter and floral style to it. 


A significant percentage of the spirit produced is aged in ex-Sherry butts, which, depending on how much the whisky is aged, may take it off in another direction: a whisky with none of the dark fruits, chocolate, coffee, and, of course, smoke.

A significant percentage of the distillery’s whisky is matured on the island, inside the distillery’s legendary No.1 Vault. Some say that the vault is below the level of Loch Indaal, and that’s where that saline note comes from. 

Is it true that Vault No.1 is below sea level? We don’t want to spoil this romantic notion. You should visit Bowmore and find out for yourself!

MNIW team’s favourite original bottles

It’s time to talk a bit more about original bottlings! As we promised, here’s a list of our favourite Bowmore bottles. Enjoy it!

Bowmore ‘Black’ 1964 – first edition

Let’s start with a legend. This 1964 whisky was matured for 29 years in an oloroso cask. It has an extraordinary flavour of tropical fruits mixed with waxy, smoky notes, coffee beans and vanilla. On the palate, you can immediately sense the mango, chocolate and fresh pineapples. A creamy and intense whisky with a long finish.

Bowmore 21 yo 1970

We know. It’s quite a rare bottle, but if you have the chance to taste it…go for it! 

It delivers a delightful interplay of tropical fruits, balanced by subtle hints of sea salt and peat smoke. The taste unfolds further, revealing evocative coastal aromas alongside peat and citrus notes. The finish is remarkably long, yet clean and refreshingly crisp. A truly well-rounded whisky that elevates the notion of perfection.

Bowmore 15 yo ‘Darkest’ (2007)

Bowmore 15 yo ‘Darkest’, bottled in 2007, finished mature two years in oloroso sherry. The nose has notes of oranges, caramel, toffee, and nuts, with a nice peat underlining. On the palate, it offers a great balance between the smoke and the almost wine note. An elegant whisky with a long and creamy finish!

In Conclusion

Now we’ve delved into the history and production of their original bottlings, making you a Bowmore connoisseur.

What are your favourite official Bowmore expressions? Share this article, tag us, and let us know!

*The cover photo of this article is from

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