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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

NOT Single Malt Report: Black & White Blended Scotch Whisky

The Personal Classics, Part 1:  Black & White

Original Producer: James Buchanan & Sons
Current Owner: Diaego (they don't even show it on their site)
Brand: Black & White (no brand website)
Type: Blended Scotch Whiskey
Age: minimum 3 years
Alcohol by Volume: 40%

This the first in a small series of Reports covering whiskies that are of historical import to me.  These are the whiskies that that greatly influenced my whisky love.  And I'm starting with the rarely seen (in the US), but always cheap, Black & White.

Personal History
In mid-October 2002, I left my job at a talent agency, took a bunch of cash I'd saved up and headed east towards the British Isles.  I spent over three weeks wandering across Ireland and Scotland, staying in cheap hostels, walking five or six miles a day, soaking up the rain, coming to terms with my failures as a human being, embracing being lost, and drinking copiously with hostel-mates from around the world.  I also ran up a credit card debt that took three years to pay off.

It was the loveliest three weeks of my life.  Not only did I sort through considerable personal issues, but I developed an internal connection with Ireland and Scotland that has never left me.

At that point my Scotch drinking had been minimal.  I drank all sorts of stupid stuff in college, but I had enjoyed the Scotch that my cousin Jon had introduced me to a few years before.  Otherwise, there was a lot of vodka shooting in my then recent past.

My brother was working in Dublin at the time for the Irish government.  Perhaps that influenced me to travel that direction, I really don't remember the full reasoning.  But I stayed at his place in Dun Laoghaire for a few nights at the start.  Then we met up at Killarney National Park (Ireland) for a couple of days.  Also staying at the cheap Killarney hotel was a NUTTY Scot, John, that I'd just hung out with in Galway.

One night the three of us headed down to the hotel pub for a drink.  I asked John what working folks drank where he came from.  He surveyed the whisky bottles and ordered me a Black & White on the rocks.  I continued to drink Black & White throughout the trip, in between gallons of stout.

When I returned to The States, Black & White was nowhere to be found.  I once found a big ol' 1.75liter handle of it in a liquor store in Maryland in '06, but then it was gone the next time I went back.  Then, this past December, I spotted a caseload of 1 liter Black & White bottles sitting high on a shelf at Mission Liquor in Pasadena.  I bought a bottle of this old friend for the new year.

Whisky History
There's very little information about this blend online and the little that can be found is debatable.  For instance, Wikipedia says that it's not available in the UK.  It certainly was when I was there, plus one can find Scots reviewing it online.  What does seem to line up is this:

James Buchanan created this blend (called then Buchanan's Blend) in the early 1880s and through a level of influence obtained the contract to supply the House of Commons bar.  It became the only scotch blend they served there, thus it became known as Buchanan's House of Commons Scotch Whisky.

That contract wasn't going to last forever, so Buchanan started selling it at public grocers.  People knew the whisky by its black bottle and white label, thus he labelled it Black & White.  In the 1890s, Buchanan added the Black & White Highland terriers to the label to create a recognizable logo.  One hundred twenty years later, those dogs are still on every bottle.

The Whisky
Most blended scotch whiskies contain 30-40% malt and 60-70% grain whisky.  The cheaper ones tend to have more grain, the pricier ones have more malt (and they usually advertise that element).

Black & White falls on the much lower end of that scale.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if there was less than 30% malt in it, as the grain whisky is so prevalent in its nose and palate.

I'll admit some level of disappointment when I poured my first neat glass of this in January.  It was extremely difficult on first nose and taste.  Instantly, I realized that I'd always had it on the rocks nine years ago.  All the cold and water tampers down the rough young cheapy grains.

What a sensitive little American you have become.
Shut it.

First, let's drink it neat.  The color is a hay-like light amber.  The nose is sickly sweet at first, bourbony, musky, fleshy, and ultimately quite like old vinegar.  The palate is heavily grainy, salty, has lots of smoked cardboard, no sherry, just bourbon, with a creamy texture.  The finish is "gross then gone" at first, then later the grains and vanilla show up upon further sips.

With water, I lowered the ABV to about 31%.  The nose shouts "harsh cheap whisky", pencil lead, sour, oaky, damp cardboard.  Plastic bottle Bourbon is strong on the palate, followed by some dried fruit sweetness, and some rotten cream.  The finish still brings a little heat before it fizzles, leaving behind something quite like chlorine.

Sounds palatable, huh?

Actually, it's not bad in a highball, as it's been my whisky & soda choice for two months.  The soda water curbs all of that vinegar and cardboard while bringing out a pleasant sweetness.  So I recommend it that way.  Try two parts soda to one part Black & White for your first one, then tinker with it from there.

Yes, this was tough at first, but the highball saved it for me.  Will I buy Black & White again?  Maybe, but not if I'm trying to recapture the romance of the past.

Pricing - Good at $20-$25 (for a liter!)
Rating - 73