"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Bowmore Distillery, Islay

It is only three miles from Bridgend to Bowmore so I left my car for a day and took the local bus to visit the distillery.  Barnard was provided with a carriage during his stay and took the same route round the mud-flats at the top of Loch Indaal.  Bowmore is the capital of Islay and still has a similar population, 800 when Barnard visited, around 860 now, from a total island population of 3,600 now that had peaked at 15,000 in 1831 and already down to under half that when Barnard visited.

Bowmore Parish Church
Barnard only briefly mentions the unusual church that stands at the top of the hill on whose slopes the town had been built in 1768.  The church is squat and circular in shape, not unlike a deep mash tun, with a spire at the front.  The story is told that it was built circular to ensure that the Devil had no corners to hide in and on one occasion, after being spotted by the parishioners, he was chased and fled and has never returned to Islay since.


Bowmore Distillery is one of the oldest in Scotland and the first recognised on Islay having been built in 1779 by the Simpson family.  The next one founded was Ardbeg in 1794, although both still illicit and not licensed until 1815/1816.  Barnard notes that ‘the old firm’ of Bowmore once also held the Jura Distillery but gave it up due to the distance, difficulty reaching it in winter and the success of Bowmore holding their attention.  This must have been before the licensed history of Jura, which was founded in 1810 but not licensed until 1831, and I haven’t found any other reference to Simpsons there.

The owners when Barnard visited were the Mutter family who took over from the Simpsons in 1837 and remained owners until 1892.  He notes that Bowmore was the first Islay distillery to be feued rather than held on tenancy, although the others changed to feued later.  The Mutters were originally ‘scientific’ farmers improving cultivation on the island and the current descendants in charge had also improved the distillery in the early 1880s.  The buildings were described as “somewhat scattered, but all enclosed” and the same is true today.


Barnard mentions “an unlimited quantity of splendid water from the Laggan” but, not for the first time, the low rainfall in summer 2010 led to the distillery closing for a few weeks, with mashing now (October) increased from 10 to 13 mashes per week to catch up production.  Bowmore, unlike most old market towns, does not sit on a river.  The River Laggan is the main river on Islay but the land near its mouth is too flat and marshy for building and the coastal shelf too shallow and sandy for a port.  Bowmore was built a few miles to the north of where the river flows into Laggan Bay, having begun its journey as tributaries rising in the hills on the east coast.

The old maps of Bowmore show many ‘W’ markings for the wells that were required to supply the town.  The distillery found another solution by building the longest distillery lade in Scotland at 9 miles.  The start of the lade on the River Laggan is a straight line distance of just 3 miles but the gradient on this side of Islay is shallow and undulating so the lade has to take a tortuous route “owing to want of fall”, dropping just 30 metres from source to shore.

Barnard’s description of the works is one of the longest reports in his book and one of the most detailed of any distillery he visited.  His measurements record length and width of every room to the nearest half foot, volume of every vessel to the exact number of gallons and the depths of every spirit dip to the nearest 10th of an inch!  However, there is little that is remarkable or different in most of this, save for some unique arrangements in the still house that we will see later.  He almost seems to burn himself out with all this as his later Islay distilleries carry far less detail than normal, or perhaps Bowmore was his test case for describing what he found on the island?

Don’t worry, I’m not going to indulge in the same exercise in arithmetic.  I pestered Heather and Julie with enough questions, including a couple that I left with them and returned for answers two days later, so I don’t think they would have been happy if I had also brought out a tape measure in every room we visited.  This is also one of my longer reports though, as there are many things to explore in the history of this distillery.


Barnard’s tour began in the granaries and maltings and this is also where Heather first led our party to.  Ahead of us there is a VIP tour conducted by the Manager and I reflect that Barnard would have been the VIP in his day when the then Manager showed him round – us commoners would have to return later to see the barley being turned on the malting floor and smoked above the kiln!

Barnard records two kilns fired by peat, barley laid on old style hair cloth floors, and with “Louvre Ventilators” similar to others he had seen and which can be made out in the etching in Barnard.  The kiln near the shore has since been closed and a double pagoda erected on the roof of the remaining kiln that is still used today.  Bowmore currently malt around 33% of their barley on site, the remainder done in the Scottish Borders where their barley is farmed.  The malt is dried over peat for 15 hours creating a phenol level of 25-26ppm, around half the level of the big Islay peat monsters along the south coast.

Bowmore Killogie
The kiln that remains was recorded by Barnard as “the Killogie, as the firing room is called”.  I thought this may have been a local or slang name with a particular association to Bowmore but it’s not a name used any more and none of the staff had heard of it.  After some research I have found that killogie is an old Scots word for the space in front of a kiln fire and I wonder if Barnard just misunderstood the use of the name when passing through.

I also found reference to an old Scots air once known as A lad and a lassie lay on a killogie and to which Burn’s placed his pro Jacobite song Bannocks O' Bear Meal (a bannock is a flat round cake made from oatmeal or barley and cooked on a griddle).  The image of a lad and lassie lying in front of a kiln fire for warmth brings a romantic element to the name; and you could imagine a nourishing barley cake being warmed on a kiln hotplate by a hungry maltman to help him through a long hard shift.

Mash Tun and 8 tonne Grist Bin
Onward from the malting operation Barnard next saw the mill which was made by J. Copeland & Co from Glasgow, now they have one of the ubiquitous Porteus mills from Leeds installed in 1966.  The grist loft and mash tun were next, the latter “said to be the largest in Islay” at 17 feet wide by 6 feet deep, although measurements elsewhere suggest this may be a close call.  The draff was thrown out by hand down two chutes to the draff house below.  The grist loft has now been replaced with a handsome 8 tonne grist bin directly feeding the mash tun which is smaller at 27,000 litres from 39,000 in Barnard’s time.

A new Tun Room had been built in the 1880s containing 3 new washbacks at c10,300 gallons each (47,000 litres) alongside the old room containing 6 washbacks at c6,000 gallons each (27,000 litres).  I'm not sure when the old backs stopped being used but they are scored through on an 1880s plan, although still in use when Barnard visited.  The layout was changed during renovations in 1964 when the washbacks were also changed from wood to steel (and not stainless!).  These lasted until 1991 when they were changed back to Oregon pine, a distinct difference in the whisky having been noted during the steel phase.

The 'new' tun room
There are now 6 washbacks in the new room each holding 40,000 litres and each named after one of the owners of Bowmore, from Simpson then Mutter through to Morrison today.  The old tun room now contains water tanks, the outside of which have been mocked up to look like washbacks to allow wheelchair visitors who can’t access the stairs to the new room to still get a feel for the process.

Etching of still house in Barnard
We now come to the still house and it’s worth taking some time to explore what Barnard saw and compare it to the modern still house.  The etching above is a good starting point as it contains an extraordinary amount of detail and shows some unique ways of operating.  It is also worth consulting the layout plan below as this records some of the elements that may not be immediately obvious in the etching (I have adjusted the plan from the original to put the layout and legend together for clarity, click to enlarge).

1880s distillery plan

The layout plan was in a picture frame in the tasting room at Bowmore.  Frustratingly it wasn’t dated but this was one of the questions I left with Heather and Julie and their research found that the plan was from the period when W&J Mutter were owners, so around Barnard’s time.  The Mutter family took over in 1837 but William and James were in charge from 1880 and were responsible for the improvements and alterations around that time.  Having a layout plan to support this makes sense and therefore suggests this is contemporary with Barnard’s visit.  This just leaves an uncertainty surrounding the date of the etching.

The etching may have been produced before the 1880s renovations as only four stills are shown and both Barnard and the plan record five, but after careful comparison of all the elements I think it is also possible that the etching simply omitted the middle wash still to allow the detail behind and outside to be shown, and straightened the corner in the room to present a different perspective.  Either reasoning is plausible and we may never know the truth.

There are three unique elements that stand out for me – the shape of the necks on the wash stills, the double head on one of the spirit stills and the outside copper condensers which were the first in use in Islay and resonate to the still house layout today.  Barnard notes that the stills are “of a shape which the firm will not allow any deviation from” showing that knowledge of the exact still shape affecting the whisky has been around for many years.

The curiously shaped necks on the wash stills, together with the tall slender spirit stills (all marked ‘T’ on the plan), may have contributed to a lighter spirit than other Islay distilleries at the time although Barnard makes no mention of the whisky itself.  The three wash stills were from 2,000 to 2,400 gallons (9,000 to 11,000 litres), now there are two at 30,940 litres, both with standard and almost horizontal lyne arms.

I had noted before at Greenock and at Springbank that chains or ‘rummagers’ had been used in some wash stills.  These prevent the pot ale from sticking to the base of direct fired stills and here Barnard noted that “the Wash Still chains are driven by a small overshot water wheel; these chains are made of brass or gun metal, being a pattern of chain found in an old still demolished in the Brackla Distillery some years ago…”.  The wheels can just be made out in the etching above, attached to rods driven from outside mechanisms; the main water wheel (Y on the plan) can be seen through the window on the left.

Bowmore stills today
The double-headed spirit still does seem unique, the spirit being condensed in separate worm tubs outside (W).  The other spirit still and one wash still are condensed through the outside copper condensers (V) the tops of which can be seen through another window.  These are noted as requiring more attention than worm tubs when water is scarce.  The spirit stills were then 1,400 and 1,210 gallons (6,400/5,500 litres) and the two in place now are 14,750 and 14,637 litres, with slightly rising lyne arms.  The arm on the no.2 still, in a throwback to old, projects through the roof to a condenser standing against the outside wall.

Condenser for no.2 spirit still
There are many other details of interest in the etching, including the raised wooden chargers and the spirit vat on opposite side walls, and the various stages of the coal-fired heating.  The current stills were installed in 1964 when the still house was completely renovated after Stanley Morrison took ownership, the heating converted from coal to steam at the same time.

End of the 9 mile distillery lade
After leaving the still room we returned to the maltings via a courtyard where the Laggan water runs over the last fall in the distillery lade, its nine mile meander reaching a proud and glorious end to the effort of bringing it here.  A couple of realisations then happened in the maltings.  First, I realised a wish I had to turn barley on a malting floor by dragging a malt plough, or ‘shuffler’ through the layers.  This is hard going and I’m glad I wasn’t doing it every four hours using a malt shovel, recalling the term ‘monkey shoulder’ for deformities in those maltmen who had done that for a living.

Barnard, barley and Bowmore

The second realisation was when placing some barley on the cover of my copy of Barnard for what I thought may be an interesting photo, I realised that the etching on the front cover was of Bowmore itself, as seen from the loch.  I don’t know why I hadn’t made the connection before, although it’s not named on the cover and I guess that after reading the fascinating contents of the book I didn’t pay much attention to it thereafter, until that moment in the malting.  Barnard, barley and Bowmore – what a wonderful combination.

Barnard noted only two bonded warehouses on site but also “extensive warehouse accommodation in the arches under the Central Station in Glasgow”, beside where Glasgow’s Whisky Club held their inaugural Glasgow Whisky Festival in November this year.  The Mutter family also owned a steam ship, the s.s. James Mutter, which was used to transport casks to Glasgow.  Production was then 200,000 gallons (909,000 litres), now up to over 1.4 million litres.  Bowmore now hold 21,000 casks on Islay and more on the mainland, although no longer at the arches.

Warehouse number 3 was built sometime after Barnard visited and was subsequently converted into the MacTaggart Leisure Centre in 1990, the swimming pool being heated by water flowing from the distillery condensers.  Prior to this the islanders were taught to swim either in the sea (brrr!) or on the mainland at Lochgilphead.

There have been two other changes in ownership worth noting.  J.B. Sheriff & Co owned the distillery from 1925 to 1950 and Sherriff also owned Lochindaal Distillery from around 1855.  He had additionally found interest in Campbeltown when he took over and expanded the Lochead Distillery in the 1890s.  Stanley Morrison oversaw the modernisation of Bowmore in the 1960s and the company became Morrison Bowmore in 1987, now owned by Suntory of Japan and with Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch also in their portfolio.

Our tour ended in the modern visitor centre where a dram of the lovely, soft and smoky 12yo was enjoyed.  The centre has a similar feel to many others although it does have a wonderful view across Loch Indaal.  I found some interesting memorabilia on display but that’s where this story comes to an end.  Iain Banks' deduced thoughts on Bowmore from his book Raw Spirit are boldly stated on the wall here, a neat summary of the range of whiskies on offer that also sounds like an enjoyable challenge to pursue.

Bowmore 12 is a great whisky as an introduction to the peaty Islay style; the distillery is a great place to explore the development of distilling on this isle.  Enjoy both if you can, and if either Heather or Julie are your guide then I know that you will, my thanks to them both.  Slàinte.