Bowmore was the first distillery on Islay to spot the potential of whisky tourism and open up their doors. As a result it is still the most frequently visited and as soon as you you go in you know they take it seriously. The visitors reception is smart in a crisp, corporate black and white sort of way and the merchandising area looks like a modern shop, with a bigger range than the other distilleries and nicely designed (making an interesting contrast with its website which has closed its online shop – so if I now wanted a Bowmore cycle jersey I wouldn’t know where to go). This is carried through on the tour as everything is beautifully clean, painted, polished, and shiny so much so that it looks like a heritage project (think lovingly restored steam trains) than a working plant.
I use the word plant deliberately, with its associations with factories and manufacture because it must always be remembered that whisky is an industry. It might have romantic origins in independent crofters defying the Revenue but it is now an important multinational business, which contributes mightily to the country’s economy. We visitors are intruding in a place of work and in this case one that is very clean and tidy and highly polished. I don’t know if this is a natural expression of the care taken with the production of their spirit or whether it has been enhanced to impress us tourists, either way the place is spic and span. We can take it for granted that the stills will look good but in Bowmore the wood as well as being functional is highly decorative, just look at this mash tun – it looks like some enormous pie. The 6 Oregon pine washbacks are mighty and everything is beautifully labelled.
Bowmore is the oldest distillery on the island but you don’t really get a sense of that until you enter Vault Number 1 and see the casks maturing but then it is back to the modern world and the tasting room, which is an extremely smart renovation with the most beautiful view over Loch Indaal. It is as spectacular and if you were looking for a definition of contentment then sitting looking at the changing nature of the sea whilst sipping fine whisky comes very close. However, much as I enjoyed it, I missed the warmth of Laphroaig. It wasn’t that the staff were not friendly – they were – it is just that it all felt a bit more corporate.