|Bowmore Parish Church|
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.
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|
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|
|Etching of still house in Barnard|
|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|
|Condenser for no.2 spirit still|
|End of the 9 mile distillery lade|
|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.
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.