When it comes to blended Scotch, I’m a Black Label gal all the way. It’s comforting, familiar, restorative, widely-available, and I reach for it on a pretty regular basis. (In fact, I buy the economy-size jug and am sorely tempted to drink it thusly.)
But single malts are another thing altogether. Complicated, challenging, and a bit hit-and-miss for me, if I’m honest. It seems to depend on so many factors — my mood, the weather, the meal I just had. And if it’s true of single malts in general for me, it’s especially true for those from Islay. A heavily-peated Laphroaig can just be a bit like sitting too near a bonfire. I find myself searching for an angle that will afford me some relief from the smoke going directly up my nose.
I am fascinated by peat, by the way. This mass of decomposed grass, heather and moss that forms along the boggy, coastal lands of rainy, green places like Scotland and Ireland is amazing. The lower parts of peat banks are harvested for the hardened, carbonized matter (not unlike coal) that is cut into bricks and used for heating homes. The newer top part is softer and holds more moisture, resulting in lots of smoke when burned, and it plays a vital role in imparting that iconic smoky/salty/briny (peaty) flavor to the malted barley in Islay Scotch production.
I like the depth and complexity that peat brings to the whisky, but a little goes a long way with me. Not surprisingly then, when it comes to Islay single malts, I’m much more likely to lean toward the “prettier” versions. As opposed to the bonfire effect, these are more like those first fall evenings when you step outside and think, “Oh, somebody has a fire going in their fireplace.” The smoke is sweet and distant and beckoning, not overpowering. Bowmore, at some point along the way, became “my” Islay distillery.
Bowmore Legend is the entry level single malt at around $35. It’s young and spicy, with plenty of peaty smoke, but with a round smoothness that makes it accessible. The Bowmore 12-year ($48-ish) seems to me to the most salty and sharp of the line — still less so than most Islay single malts, but with more intense smoky peat than the other Bowmores. The 15-year-old “Darkest” ($85-ish) gets its rich amber hue from aging in Sherry casks, and I do love the amped-up caramelized character that is beautifully offset by Islay smoke and a hint of grapey tannins.
But it’s the Bowmore 18-year that really speaks to me as the perfect balance between ripe fruit, crème brûlée and rich vanilla notes on the one hand, and sweet smoke and deep, briny coastal notes on the other. It’s impressive, enveloping, sturdy stuff. At about $125 for a 750ml bottle (Find it!), it’s not cheap. But not every night is a Bowmore 18 kind of night, so it lasts for a while. (One of these days, I’ll have the opportunity to taste the Bowmore 25, as well as some of their even more limited editions, but I haven’t yet!)
I got this pairing idea right off the Bowmore website, and I really like it. Camembert is one of my favorite cheeses ever (which is saying something) — and the riper and runnier it is, the better I like it. But let’s be honest, the pungency can overwhelm many wines, and bring out an unpleasant funkiness in others. No need to fear that with Bowmore 18. In fact, the Camembert seems to lessen the whisky’s peaty influence and coax out more of the creamy caramel notes. It works with a handful of almonds and dried apricots as an after-dinner cheese course, or as here, with a tangle of mixed greens and toasted bread as dinner.