Bowmore – inside Islay’s oldest distillery

A windswept Bowmore

Story and photographs by Sam Bygrave

Travel to enough distilleries in Scotland, and you’ll hear about one guy more than any other: whomever the bloke is who maintains the Porteus and Bobby malt mills.

We first encountered the legend of this man at Bowmore. The story goes — and you’ll get a version of this at most distilleries — is that at Bowmore, they use a 1966 Porteous mill to grind their dried malted barley into grist, which is then mixed with hot water to make the wort to be fermented. The thing about Porteus, is, the mills are engineered so well that they never break down, and so the mill makers went out of business. Once you had one, you didn’t need another.

The malted barley

So much so that today, there’s one guy and his apprentice who goes around the distilleries of Scotland, maintaining these mills.

Bowmore does do things a little differently, too, in that they keep a lot of the old traditions. For one, they are the oldest distillery on Islay, having begun legitimate distilling in 1779 (this makes them the second-oldest distillery in Scotland, too).
And whereas all distilleries at one point would have had malting floors on which they malted their barley, these days just seven of them do — and Bowmore is one of them. They smoke their malted barley on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and the malt will spend 18 hours on peat, before being air dried for 42 hours.

The washbacks

Like their Beam Suntory stablemate, Laphroaig, they do buy in malt from elsewhere to complement their own maltings, using 2.2 tonnes of their malt to 5.8 tonnes of malt from Simpsons Malt.

The distillery provides around 30 people with employment — and they use two pot stills that date back to 1938. Their wash backs are 25 metre tall wooden constructions, made from Oregon pine — they did at one point transition to stainless steels wash backs before reverting back to the wood, saying that they lost something of the character of the whisky with stainless.

The controls

The Whiskies If you’re familiar with Bowmore you’ll know that it is lighter in peatsmoke than some others on the island, and you’ll note that in the Bowmore 12 Year Old, along with what is a described as a salty or briny note to the malt. We strongly recommend the primo tour, because they’ll let you at a range of handfilled releases available only at the distillery.