The story started here.
The most desirable (and by far the most expensive) masterclass of the year is upon us. Desirable for aficionados of a certain type of whiskies, that is -- this might not be for everyone. In any case and despite the price tag, there was little hesitation in OB's, JS's and my mind when the line-up was produced: six Bowmores presented by Eddie McAffer (previous distillery manager) and David Turner (the current manager), a symbolic passing of the baton, with two gentlemen who spent enough time working at the distillery in various roles to have made all the drams today from distillation to bottling -- Eddie was a Bowmorian in the 1960s already, whilst David is launching the newer expressions, these days.
Oh! And guess who is going to referee those fine hosts? None other than Master Dave Broom himself. How could this possibly go wrong? We bought tickets seconds after they went on sale. And here we are.
We are taken to a different venue to last year's, which is nice. The room last year was noisy, cold and felt like a big corridor. This can only be an improvement. On the way there, I share a lift with Charles McLean. I joke that Stuck in a Lift with Charles McLean would be a great title for a book. He is not coming with me, though: he is presenting a Chichibu-and-Kilchoman masterclass in a different place.
Finally, I join my co-tasters and the room is indeed much better. The cream of the whisky world is present, with lots of people from the trade.
Broom gives a quick introduction, not about the distillery, rather about the two presenters. I cannot help but quickly dip my olfactory organ into the six glasses in front of me; that puts a smug grin on my mug. We are in for a treat.
Turner starts off with the first dram, one of "his".
Bowmore 10yo Tempest (54.9%, OB Small Batch Release, First Fill Bourbon Casks, B#VI, b.2016): Turner tells us a bit too soon about sweet almonds and ocean breeze. Nose: marshmallow and citrus, with a distant whiff of smoke. Mouth: spicy and lively; this takes a bit of effort to understand. Ruthless and stormy, yet not fully indomitable. Finish: pink grapefruit, lemon, an elegant veil of smoke and quite a bit of spicy, gingery heat. Those Tempest batches are excellent and show a promising future. 8/10
Bowmore Deluxe (43° G.L., OB, b.1970s): McAffer tells us these bottles were given to all staff at the time, at a rate of one per month. He says the line to the manager's office was very long, in those days. Nose: meaty and musky, fox skin, the sweat of malt-barn boys (EMcA). Behind that, it has a note of grapefruit. The dominant is as said, with also rancid butter (the sweat, see?) However, grapefruit takes over in a dramatic turn of events. Mouth: fresh, grapefruit-y, lively, with coriander and lots of citrus. The musk has now all but gone. Finish: a wonderful mix of sweat, coal smoke and gorgeous grapefruit, tar, rubber and lime peels. This is complex and ever-changing. Wow. 9/10
Around fifteen minutes in, my left-hand-side neighbour leaves with his suitcase. He spent the last ten minutes silently calling a taxi to the airport and rushing through the drams. I am wondering what the point is and think it is displaying a certain lack of respect. I nick his untouched third dram as a consequence.
Bowmore 25yo (43%, OB Small Batch Release, American Bourbon and Spanish Sherry Casks, L3692, b. ca 2016): the 25yo is a staple in Bowmore's catalogue, yet I have never had this particular version before. They changed the livery just a few years ago. Nose: wood and fruit stones, stewed fruit (DT), polished dashboards. Citrus comes out, late in the game and barely makes its way to the top. Mouth: drying wood, prunes, dried figs, caramel. Finish: heather and rubbery tar, liquorice (those sweets that look like black laces), a hint of lavender, as well as caramelised, candied grapefruit peel. This is alright, probably too heavy a profile for my palate, today. Good quality, though. 8/10
Asked whether they felt the dip in quality in production (which both blame on management's insistence to work more efficiently), David Turner answers:
-The 60s were good, the 70s were good... the 80s went downhill a wee bit...
-When did you start at Bowmore? asks Broom. :-)
OC -Does Suntory invest in quality wood today, still?
DB -Ask Shinji! He is at your table, he flew from Japan just for this class!
Broom refers to Suntory's chief blender, Shinji Fukuyo. Remember Suntory (now Beam-Suntory) owns Bowmore and has access to all the stock. The fact that someone as high up as Mr. Fukuyo flew in specially for this masterclass should be an indication of how special the occasion is.
AMcR asks what gave Bowmore the distinct fruitiness of yesteryear. Both managers answer without hesitation that it was the longer wash. That point is very interesting, since, up until today, no-one was ever able (or willing) to give a clean-cut answer to me. Are they right? is the question, I suppose, yet they are close enough to the production to deserve some credit, at least.
The gears, they shift here.
Bowmore 30yo (43%, OB, Ceramic Decanter, b.2003): nose: a LOT of tropical fruits. Mango, papaya, guava, grapefruit, but also sea spray and a hint of smoke. This is so deep and beautiful I could weep. OB is lost in the dram and cannot believe it. He had Bowmore Bicentenary yesterday and still he is shocked. Mouth: citrus-y, grapefruit-y, lime-y, gingery. Perfect balance of fruit and spices. Finish: an explosion of tropical fruit -- pink grapefruit the loudest. A symphony of it, intertwined with distant tar and rubber. This is a killer. 10/10
|Although the confirmation comes from whiskynotes.be|
A lady walks in, sits for ten minutes, talks a bit too loud, then leaves. Once more, I am baffled by the episode.
With quite a bit of ceremony and pomp, Broom and Turner introduce the next dram, which turns out to be an emotionally-heavy one.
Black Bowmore 2nd Edition 30yo 1964/1994 (50%, OB, Sherry Butts, 2000b): nose: earth and fruit, in a nutshell. It has the tropical fruit of the previous dram, alongside toffee, caramel and fudge. Like the fourth release, it is intensely fruity, yet there is a lot more to it. The big difference between the two is that this is not oily and tarry, it is earthy and thickly sweet (caramel syrup). Mouth: thick and chewy, it has caramel again, melted chocolate, dark cake, pain au chocolat. It is really thick and coating, yet surprisingly well-paced. Definitely not one to smack you in the face with any overpowering flavour. Finish: an unbelievable mix of earthy and oily tones and delicious, tropical fruits, chocolate, grapefruit, soot, dry earth. This is incredible. A smell of this took me to another place, earlier. I remind JS that the LA Whisky Society hid a Black Bowmore in a blind line-up and no-one realised they were drinking something exceptional. The point of the article's author was that, once the label is obfuscated, no whisky shines so bright. Our conclusion today is that, despite the LA Whisky Society members being described as "hardcore whisky enthusiasts" by the author, they must have been on crack. This is an unmistakable masterpiece, the sort of things that stop one in their track. No affordable whisky smells like this one. None ever has. None ever will, probably. It might have cost £80 when it was launched, yet who paid £80 for a bottle of whisky in 1994? No-one, that's who. I am delighted JS enjoys this much more than the fourth edition we had a few years ago. I do not, yet I give this one 14/10
Several ask whether there is any hope to find this sort of quality again in the future. Both managers say that it is indeed going to happen, that the focus is now on quality, not on efficiency.
Taster -It's been long coming!
DT -It'll come back.
DT -You're too old, you'll be dead when it's ready!
Room. In stitches.
With the pinnacle of the tasting behind, it is only normal for things to wind down. Except they do not and the pinnacle is supposedly ahead, still. That is right. Black Bowmore was a class warm-up act, not the headliner. What, then?
Broom lets Eddie McAffer introduce the last dram to a room in awe. The bottle has seen a proper Dalmorisation (silver stopper, ginormous case, engraved, hand-blown glass, that sort of stuff) and everyone wonders if the juice will live up to the expectation.
McAffer takes a sniff, tells how it reminds him of the distillery scent in 1964. He takes a gulp and... admits it leaves him speechless. SS is so excited he gets teased by Broom.
Enough filling the gaps -- ram-pam-bum!
Bowmore 46yo d.1964 (42.9%, OB, Fino Sherry Cask, 72b): yep, I also fell off my chair when I discovered this was going to be offered today. Many people we met this week were put off the masterclass by the admission price. To those who paid up and are present today, it seems a bargain. A real bargain, so far. Then again, this last drop could turn out to be a disappointment... Nose: Did I say 'phwoar,' today? This is on another level of phwoar. Name a fruit, it is there. Peach, coconut, mango, lychee, passion fruit, jackfruit, carambola, banana, melon, persimmon, Chinese gooseberry... I will not go on. This is White Bowmore level, perhaps higher. Someone says he has smelled mangoes that smelled less of mango than this. Mr. McAffer himself seems rather emotional about it. Mouth: more fruit-juice pornography, rose water, orange flower water, peach flesh... Solemnity hovers over the room as everyone is lost in contemplation. I have a hard time repressing tears. This is so fruity, so balanced, so complex too. It is beyond words. Humbling. Finish: soft and never-ending, still with that fruity debauchery. Bliss. Plenitude. Life can stop right here, right now (please remember this, it is important for the rest of the article). In need of seventeen new pairs of trousers and a new tissue to dry my watery eyes, I decide this is the best dram I have ever had and wonder if anything will ever top this. The obvious answer is: probably not. A few things that the two MCs said today make me believe it is worth trying a few more all the same. With ease, this scores 18/10
"I have been looking forward to this tasting for about nine years," says half of Simply Whisky.
Three of the above were bottled in the last five years... ;-)
"I was expecting something fabulous. This is way beyond anything I had hoped for," admits OB.
Dave Broom runs a poll for a billboard slogan to promote Bowmore. The best slogan will receive a dram... of Bowmore 46yo Fino!!!1
Several suggestions are put forward, some funny, some witty. I shout mine across the room and receive a murmur of admiration, then a round of applause. I just proudly won a dram of Bowmore 46yo Fino. :-D \o/\o/\o/
We wrap up, take pictures of each bottle, I talk to McAffer and Broom (who was serious about his game: I do indeed receive an extra dram -- thank you so much for that, Dave), thank SS for organising this ("Wasn't it amazing?" is the only thing he answers with an indelible smile) and join my fellow tasters with my extra glass. I cannot wait to share it with them. Since I have two, I let one of the staff try the whisky (she seems excited indeed), then put the rest of my plan to work.
|The finish line trophies|
The clock is ticking, we get out and call the lift. Shinji Fukuyo and his associate are in a corner of the landing. It feels right at the time to cover myself with ridicule and say hello, ask them to carry on making great whiskies and share a few words. Their patience and tolerance regarding my awkward manoeuvre is exemplary and I shamefully thank them for not calling security on me.
It then takes me a while to catch a lift (the first one has gone, with my co-tasters in it) and rush to TWE's stall, where I meet up with JS and OB. Last pour has rung, the show is dwindling down. I want to rush to a few stalls to share the beauty in my hand: MR gets it (and dies a little), the Swissky mafia all get it (and hug me), DR gets to smell it, then rushes away, cursing me for letting him smell it. :-)
My first glass is empty.
I hurry back to TWE's to leave the second glass in good hands: my bladder is begging for mercy. JS and OB are nowhere to be found, though. BA and EG both have a sniff of Bowmore, but I decide against leaving my glass with them: they are packing up and surrounded by a horde of punters, eager for another dram. I try to find my companions. No luck.
I cannot take any more.
I think very carefully about my moves. "Something like that, I have done a multitude of times," I tell myself. "No, too risky," I retort. Eventually, I give in. With my glass firmly stuck in my hand, I proceed to the toilets. As I open the door, I spot someone coming out and stop to let him do so. Some random maintenance worker follows me too closely and smashes into my back. The shock makes the precious liquid spill over my glass and land on my notebook and the floor.
"Sorry," he says.
-This is a multi-thousand-pound dram!
-Well, if you hadn't stopped right in front of me...
-TO LET SOMEONE OUT! Why did you follow me so closely!?
-Sorry. Can you get another one?
-No, I cannot get ANOTHER dram of a £17,000 bottle from a masterclass, after everyone has stopped pouring! (yes, I do realise the RRP was £9,999; adjusted for inflation)
I make no apology on this blog and I do not think my friends see me as someone ever abiding by the rules of political correctness. All the same, I cannot reasonably describe what goes through my mind at this point, for fear of receiving some sort of flak for it, or even a visit from the Old Bill. It takes me all my rationalising to not escalate the already-rotten situation.
I need to pause and explain myself, here. In the grand scheme of things, is this important? The lame-arse "no-one died" would probably be bandied about. It is a First-world problem and a half, of course. The city is full of people who sleep rough and eat irregularly. The world is full of wars and decimated families. Too many animal species are facing extinction and no sooner than last week, there was an article in the papers about farmers in Spain torturing pigs for "fun." And that is even before mentioning deforestation and ocean pollution.
Is the fact that I lost half a dram of an extremely luxurious commodity to the clumsiness of someone in a rush to do their job a catastophe? Many would think not.
The context is that, after two days of drinking whisky, a masterclass which brought me to my knees and an unbelievably generous gift from Dave Broom, whom I admire, losing the (stupidly expensive and) Divine nectar in my glass, which I was so looking forward to sharing with my friends, losing that all of a sudden, is an extremely hard blow. I cannot stop thinking of what I could have done differently to avoid this situation. Firstly, not expressing that the world could now stop and I would die a happy man. I should know by now that the world has much harder lessons to teach one than to just stop like that. Secondly, not stopping on the way out to talk rubbish to esteemed visitors from Japan who probably had better things to do anyway, and consequently lose track of my friends. Thirdly, bringing an empty sample bottle to transport this in, should the opportunity arise (as it did).
The situation upsets me. It makes me more angry than I would have preferred it to. It makes me angry that I was robbed of the privilege of sharing this capital dram with people who I know would have appreciated it as much as I did. Angry and sad.
If the guy who bumped into me at that fateful moment reads this: I have no intention to seek revenge, yet I am afraid I do not accept your apology. You were too close to me, the room was full of imbibed people, your moves were dangerous and could only lead to the horrible conclusion.
Back to the story. I cannot refrain more tears -- not of joy this time, but of rage. When I finally find my patient friends, their comforting and compassion unfortunately do not ease the pain much. The accident ruins the jolly effect of the festival for me for a long moment. I fear that my resulting mood taints the memory of the weekend for my co-tasters too, which I deeply regret and that makes me even sadder and angrier.
And then I remember the brief conversation I had with OB on the way out of the tasting room: is it better to have tasted great whisky and lost or to never have tasted at all?
The answer is uncertain, right now.
On the bright side, my notebook smells really nice.