March 24th, 2011 — A Night for the Ages
I woke up this morning and sat down at the computer, looking for a few good archive photos to throw on the K&L Instagram account. Deciding to dig deep into the past, into the folder named "Scotland 2011" on my external hard drive, I came across this memorable shot: an image of my spirits partner David Othenin-Girard with Bowmore's Jamie MacKenzie, standing in front of the legendary Islay distillery on a cold, misty Islay night, a glass of 1969 Bowmore in their hands, and the smell of the sea whipping through their nostrils.
I texted it to David right when I found it and he responded immediately with" "probably the greatest night of my career."
I have to concur. When we both talk about how much we love Bowmore, much of our emotion stems from an incredible evening we enjoyed at the distillery back in the early Spring of 2011. At around 1 AM, after running through the entire distillery, raking barley in the mill and taking samples from the still as it ran, we went around behind the warehouse where the water comes into the bay and sat there taking pulls from a bottle of the twelve year. After posting this image to the spirits blog and social media sites to celebrate the launch of our new Bowmore 15 year old single barrel, I thought I'd do an entire tribute to that magical evening and post a few more unseen photos from that formative affair.
The first thing that struck me when looking back at these photos was the lodging. I had forgotten that we actually stayed at Bowmore distillery that night, in the guest houses they have on site for industry visitors like ourselves. I think that's part of the reason we went crazy—we didn't have anywhere else to go! I remember there was an issue with the ferry coming over from Kennecraig, so we didn't get to the distillery until 8:45 PM. We were scheduled to have a late dinner next door to the distillery at the Harbour Inn. Jamie was jumping up and down as we pulled in, smiling and waving at us, anticipating our arrival. This was our first trip to Islay, the spiritual home of single malt whisky, so his enthusiasm played directly into our own. There was no time for small talk, however, as the restaurant closed at nine and would be accommodating us after hours despite our tardiness. We killed two bottles of wine while feasting on local Islay fare before heading back to the guest house for drinks. That's when the party really began.
When you've just taken a ferry across the cold Scottish sea, to a famed island known for its incredible whiskies, gorged on local scallops and oysters, guzzled cold Champagne, and your host pulls a flask like this from his back pocket, you get weak in the knees. Old Bowmore whiskies like this are not only the stuff of lore, they're incredibly expensive! Today you'd expect to see a bottle of this magnitude in the $2500 - $10,000 range depending on the bottler. And that's how we started our distillery tour!
Glasses of 1969 Bowmore in hand, we set out for the floor malting room where Bowmore still handles a percentage of their own barley in-house. We all took a turn with the rake and I'm pretty sure this was my first experience tasting both malted and unmalted barley first hand. The hour was late, but the lights were still on.
From there it was over to the ancient kiln where Bowmore still peats a portion of that in-house barley malt. We loaded our own peat bricks into the oven and basked in that trademark aroma of Islay smoke. There's nothing like having one of the world's most iconic distilleries to yourself and running every step of the production to get you excited about Scotch!
Before you can distill single malt whisky, you have to create a distiller's beer or wash from the fermenting barley. That's what eventually goes into the still and gets vaporized before condensing back down into the whisky's first distillate. How often do you get to drink a big wine glass of Bowmore's pre-distillation barley beer?
Behind the distillery, the sea washes right up on to the rocks along the bay. We grabbed a bottle of the 12 year and decided to drink next to the sea, the cold wind whipping through our hair as the yellow and orange lights from the distillery illuminated our way.
There we did a toast to Islay and the bay of Bowmore. We were running on pure adrenaline at that point. The sea spray and salty suds heightening each sip of the elixir.
It's only been six years since that incredible night at Bowmore, but it feels like an eternity ago. Back then the entire Scotch world was still in front of us. There were countless adventures awaiting our discovery. Anything seemed possible. Then I take a sip of the new Bowmore 15 year cask we just brought in and it all rushes back. It's nostalgia in a bottle. It's a bond that will never fade.