Most established wineries produce a “signature” bottling. Usually a product of their finest grapes, these flagship wines are meant to reflect both the winemaker’s skill and the winery’s specific terroir. These signature wines, often with limited-production runs, tend to be a winery’s most expensive. Indeed, beyond striving for excellence, these signature wines are useful marketing tools; especially if widely and critically acclaimed, as positive buzz tends to shine a light on the rest of the winery’s portfolio.
These flagship wines are customarily saved for holidays or other special occasions. This was the case, for one of us, with the Ramot Naftaly Duet 2010, a blend of cabernet and merlot (with a touch of petit verdot) from the Kedesh Valley of the Upper Galilee. It was opened for family and friends during this year’s Thanksgiving/Chanukah celebration. A full-bodied, softly textured wine, it began with red cherry and raspberry aromas and maintained these red fruit flavors along with layers of currants, plum, cedar, spice and herbs all the way through the finish. Very tasty and food-friendly, it was a very good choice for this year’s meal and would also be worth cellaring for a while to have the flavors integrate a bit more.
Yitzhak Cohen founded Ramot Naftaly Winery in 2003 (kosher since 2009). The winery releases single varietal bottlings of malbec, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and barbera, along with its flagship Duet blend. Cohen was the first to plant barbera grapes in Israel and the winery has been steadily expanding production and distribution of its very appealing wines. The winery is one of four on the eponymous moshav (the single kosher one) and co-hosts the annual local blues festival. Its modern visitors center, along with its delicious wines, make it one of Israel’s wineries certainly worth visiting.
Spirits-wise, we thought we’d finally get back on track with our Islay exploration with a visit to the Bowmore Distillery. One of us had the opportunity to visit this legendary distillery recently and was given the royal treatment by manager Eddie MacAffer. Besides being warm and friendly, Eddie has been in the whisky industry since 1966 and is more than happy to satisfy a whisky-geek’s insatiable curiosity with straightforward, marketing-free information. All you whisky tourists out there should make sure to allow time for Bowmore on your next Islay visit.
Established in 1779, Bowmore is the oldest operating distillery on the island, and is also among the earliest established distilleries still operating in all of Scotland. The distillery stands in the beautiful town of the same name, on the Loch Indaal inlet, basically right in the center of the island.
One of the very few distilleries that still maintains its own floor malting (40 percent of the malt is made in-house; the rest is produced by Simpsons Malt Ltd.), Bowmore produces 1.8 million liters of spirit annually.
Style-wise, Bowmore has always been considered somewhere in between the heavy, peaty, smoky Islay bruisers, like Laphroaig, Ardbeg or Lagavulin, and the more dainty, lighter-peated Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila and Bruichladdich. In place of oomph, Bowmore traditionally offers elegance and class, but with enough body and muscle to remain a contender, and just enough peat and smoke to remind one of its Islay provenance.
Refinement and poise are not, however, hotly sought after by critics in Islay Scotch whiskies of late, and so Bowmore has generally been under-regarded for the past 20 years or so — despite robust sales. Indeed, not until 2007 did owner Morrison Bowmore Distillers Ltd., a holding company wholly owned by Japanese drinks company Suntory since 1994, begin to seriously rebrand and reposition the whisky. Today it is the second biggest selling Islay whisky globally, after Laphroaig. Morrison Bowmore also brought in Rachel Barrie as its new master blender about two years ago. She is the first female master blender in the entire Scotch whisky industry. Barrie previously worked her magic at Ardbeg and Glenmorangie. So before the price tags start to rise commensurate with Bowmore’s growing reputation, try some of its already delicious, often stellar whiskies. Here are some to consider:
Bowmore “Legend,” Islay single-malt Scotch whisky (40 percent abv; $30): this no-age statement whisky is obviously very young, but offers vigorous aromas of brine, iodine, toasted cereal, caramel, dried banana and sweet honey. On the palate, these flavors play second fiddle to the slightly green-malted-barley notes, though the net effect is rich and rewarding, with just enough peat, smoke and iodine to satisfy. The finish is dry and short. This is a great entry-level-priced whisky.
Bowmore 12 Year Old, Islay single-malt Scotch whisky (40 percent abv; $45): This gently peated whisky opens on the nose with distinct floral notes amid the peat and sweet tobacco (think pipe) smoke, followed by ash, dried grass, sea brine, and zesty lemon and orange citrus notes. These are followed on the palate with lovely and well-rounded flavors of peat, spice and honey, offering a subtle balance between dryness, sweetness, peat and smoke. The finish is smoky, briny, citrusy, oily and dry. This is not a massive peat monster, but this is a fantastic, elegant Islay classic.
Bowmore 15 Year Old “Darkest” Islay single-malt Scotch whisky (43 percent abv; $75): This lovely, absorbing whisky offers aromas of dark chocolate, raisins, nutmeg, dark toffee, black pepper, cigar smoke, brine and cedar wood, followed by rich, concentrated, palate-coating flavors of bitter chocolate, dark honey, butterscotch, toffee, vanilla bean, wafts of feint smoke, sweet honey and a hint of smoke and treacle, finishing sweet, delicate, with a touch of smoke. A wonderful, most inviting whisky!
Bowmore 18 Year Old Islay single-malt Scotch whisky (43 percent abv; $130): This great whisky leads aromatically with a combination of rich dried fruit and citrus fruit, malted barley and subtle but distinct peat smoke, dark chocolate and sweet caramel. The palate follows on with chocolate, more dried fruits, honey, brown sugar, vanilla, peat, bitter smoke, a hint of sea brine and some subtle citrus notes. The finish is long with balanced sweet characteristics, peat, and distinct if slightly muted beach bonfire-like smoke. Delightful and complex.
Last but not least is the new, limited release Devils’ Cask.
Bowmore Devil’s Casks, 10 year old, Islay single-malt Scotch whisky (matured in first fill Sherry Casks; 56.9 percent abv; just 1,302 bottles allocated for the U.S.; $90): Fantastic sweet, creamy, complex, clean nose of malt, dark fruits, a hint of restrained peat smoke that pumps up and accentuates the fruit and balances the sweetness, without otherwise announcing itself. It roars hot and tannic on the palate, but just a little splash of water calms this bruiser and opens everything just brilliantly. The deep, dark fruits grow meatier on the now wide-open palate, with lovely intense yet controlled peat smoke and spice lifting everything, and a touch of mocha and coffee creeps in there, too, adding an additional note of complexity. The finish is long and lovingly warming. This is a superb, robust whisky, with great balance between the fruitiness, sweetness and peaty smokiness.