Interview with David Turner, Bowmore Distillery ManagerBy Thijs Klaverstijn
It was almost inevitable that David Turner would end up in the Scotch whisky industry — rather a matter of when, not if. He grew up on Islay and his grandfather worked at Bowmore for decades. Working his way through the ranks, Turner now holds the title of Bowmore Distillery Manager overseeing operations at the oldest distillery on Islay. And he’s probably its biggest fan.
Considering the legendary reputation of Bowmore’s single malt from the 1950s and 1960s, it’s not hard to believe Turner when he says his all-time favorite whisky was made at the distillery he now runs. “It’s just like drinking tropical fruit juice”, he remarks on a 40-year-old Bowmore distilled in 1955. “Amazing.” It’s these peaty and tropical flavor characteristics Turner keeps on referencing during his conversation with Distiller.
Especially the distillery’s distinctive floor maltings deserve more recognition for Bowmore’s unique flavor profile, he believes. “I think the most amazing part of the distillery is our malt barns. We talk about our No.1 Vaults a lot, but I think we should be talking about our floor malting too. That’s where our renowned tropical fruit notes come from.”
Working His Way Up
Turner started his career at Bowmore on the 4th of June 1990 at age 16. He’s experienced all aspects of production, from warehousing to distilling and malting, and was finally named Bowmore Distillery Manager in 2012. He grew up in Port Ellen on the south coast of Islay, which is where his dad is from. In fact, Turner attended high school just up the road from the distillery. During his lunch break he used to go down to Bowmore village, as all kids did.
David Turner /Photo Credit: Bowmore
At the time he couldn’t help but peak through the windows and gates of the distillery. “I saw the guys laughing and joking when they were in the yard, and I thought: ‘That looks like a great place to work,’” says Turner. “Because my grandfather had worked there, I thought it’d be quite nice to carry on the legacy.”
His earliest memory of Bowmore is one at the time of his grandfather’s funeral. As an employee of Bowmore during the distillery’s 200th anniversary in 1979, Turner’s grandfather was gifted a bottle of Bowmore Bicentenary. This single malt has nowadays attained a near mythological reputation and helped instill Turner’s love for Bowmore.
“His wish was [for us] to open that bottle the day he was buried behind the round church in Bowmore,” he says. “I’ll always remember being at the funeral and smelling the whisky when they were pouring it, and all the tropical fruits coming from it. Those notes are amazing and unless you’ve tasted and experienced them, it’s hard to know what I’m talking about. Pineapple, mango, papaya, stuff like that.”
Bowmore’s Malting Floor
It’s these types of memories that drive Turner to produce Bowmore to the same high standard of the generations before him. He finds the malt barn and floor maltings hold the key to the distillery’s success. Bowmore is one of only a handful of Scotch whisky distilleries still operating its own malting floor. It’s a traditional technique that has been perfected by many generations of Ileach, including Turner and his grandfather.
Malting floor /Photo Credit: Bowmore
Floor malting is a process designed to trigger enzymes which will convert the barley’s starch into sugar. It’s this sugar the distiller needs to create alcohol later on in production. Malting entails steeping barley in water and letting it germinate in its natural heat on concrete floors. The barley is turned by hand every four hours to control the temperature and rate of germination. The process is halted by heating the barley over a peat fire in the distillery’s kiln.
“The barley we malt at the distillery is hand turned, it’s a craft and an art,” explains Turner. “There’s seasonal variation as well. In the summer the barley grows quicker so it’s only on the floor for five days, in autumn and spring for six days and in winter for seven days.” Roughly 25-30 percent of Bowmore’s barley is malted this way. The rest is sourced from commercial maltsters.
Impact on Flavor
Turner fully attributes his distillery’s unique flavor characteristics to the floor-malted barley. He finds proof for his thesis in years where Bowmore’s production would’ve been lower. At that time, the distillery would’ve bought less malt from third parties and used more of its own. In 1993 for example, just after Suntory bought Bowmore, the Japanese company slowed production down to take a good look at its latest acquisition. That vintage is now well-known for its overt fruitiness. “But,” Turner says, “those fruit notes are coming back and are showing in other vintages from the 1990s and 2000s as well.”
A few years back, Turner put his theory to the test and decided to run annual batches of 100% floor malted whisky. Bowmore has now been making these since 2016 and they’ll be launched as limited releases in the future.
“We’ve been maturing them in different types of casks. In virgin oak, bourbon barrels, oloroso and Pedro Ximénez sherry,” he says. “So, we haven’t picked a date, but the virgin oak casks that were filled on May 29th of 2016 will be five years old soon. I would reckon that some of them will be good to come in the next one to four years. They’re quite intense but there’s a lot of promise and tropical fruit notes are dominant. I’m not saying this just because I made the decision [to distill these batches], but I think it was a really good one and will be great for our future.”
Turner has now been with Bowmore for over 30 years. He was appointed as Bowmore Distillery Manager in 2012 and still thinks of his grandfather often when at work. One of his most memorable moments was the launch of the Black Bowmore 1964 50-year-old. “My grandfather would’ve been working at the warehouse when that cask was laid to rest,” he explained. “I was a distillery manager five decades later when it was released and sold on the market. So, aye, it was quite touching to be at the launch of that whisky. We hand down our tradition from generation to generation and see ourselves as caretakers of time. We’re only here for a moment in time and we’re making good product just now, but we’re also promoting what the last generation made for us. Hopefully in turn we’re making whisky that the next generation will be proud of as well.”
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