...where distraction is the main attraction.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

NOT Single Malt Report: Black Bottle Blended Whisky

I'm attempting to sneak in a few Reports while out visiting family over these next few weeks.  First off:


Brand: Black Bottle
Ownership: Burn Stewart
Distilleries: Seven Islays (probably Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Caol Ila, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, and Bunnahabhain) along with some Highlanders and Speysiders
Type: Scotch Blended Whisky
Age: at least 3 years
Blend: single malts and grain whiskies
Alcohol by Volume: 40%
Chill-filtered? Yes
Caramel Coloring? Yes

The Grahams (much like the Haigs, Ballantines, and Walkers) were a family of grocers that blended their own whiskies for their customers.  Such was the success of their homemade blends that in 1879, they went into selling their best-regarded invention, Black Bottle, to a wider customer base.  Industrial demands during the first World War required Black Bottle to switch from black glass to green glass.  The bottle retained its original potstill shape, and still uses that green glass (though the defunct 10 year old was bottled in black glass during its short run).  After a fire destroyed their offices (and recipes and records) in 1951 and subsequent uncertain management sunk their revenue, the Grahams had to sell the company off to Long John, another whisky maker, in 1964.  Not much information is available about the whisky from 1964 to 1990 other than the product was crap.  Allied Distillers revived the brand in 1990.  Burn Stewart then bought the brand along with Bunnahabhain in 2003.

The blenders say seven Islay malts are in the blend -- likely not including Kilchoman or Port Ellen -- along with a number of Highland and Speyside malts.  The Grahams used Highlands and Speysides in their original recipe, but keep in mind that back then most of those whiskies were also peated.  So a smoky-peated Islay-style blend seems to be the market the brand aims for.

I'd had a glass of Black Bottle last year at a bar and found it okay, if not exceptional: the general quality I'm learning to expect from sub-$20 blends.  I was looking forward to digging into a proper report on it, since I'd read that it was a high-malt (around 40%) blend.  Plus with most of the Islay gang onboard, I thought it would bring a bit of seaside and peat to my Glencairn glass.  I found a 750mL of Black Bottle selling for $16 in Upstate New York, where we were staying with Kristen's family.  Per the forecast, rain was approaching, so the elements had aligned for the right opportunity to pick this up.  Sure enough, the thunderclouds rolled in soon after I bought the Black Bottle

Color - Medium gold
Nose - Anise, beachside (rotting seaweed & all), with a lot of young grainy stuff bursting through a blanket of American oak vanillins. After that there's some freshly cut firewood, pencil lead, and lemon peel.
Palate - Thin, reminds me of a peated JW Red Label. Some sourness; really tart, in fact. There may be a few embers but most of the peat is vegetal.  After some time, vanilla and moss appear and maybe some pound cake.
Finish - Neutral grains (think plastic bottle vodka) first. More of the tartness and light bitterness. Some oak rumbles separately in the back, along with a hint of peat. There's a hint of barbecue, but the peat is more leady than smoky. The experience lasts a little longer than one would prefer in this case.

WITH CLUB SODA (ratio - 2 soda : 1 whisky)
Sugars, vanilla, and a malty note fight their way through the mountain of plain grain.  It's still young and difficult, but more palatable.  A little tangy too.  But there's still some odd lead lingering around.

The first glass out of the bottle was rough, like lightly smoky cheap vodka.  Subsequent pours were slightly better, and, like wine, this whisky benefits from breathing.  The finish is gloomy, especially since the peat reads as lead throughout.  If that lead note isn't the peat, then that's probably not good news.  The whole thing could use more phenols since the little malt (likely no longer 40%) that shows up isn't particularly expressive.  I have a distinct feeling this blend (Black Bottled in 2013) wouldn't match up its earlier incarnations.

I wonder if they've begun using a lot more unpeated malt (of the 3 year old variety) than they used to, especially since peated malt draws premium pricing.  The label does make that point about Highlands and Speysides being included in the mix, plus the ownership also produces millions of liters of unpeated Bunnahabhain each year.

Though I like Bank Note considerably more, Black Bottle is likely one of the better whiskies at $16...... though it's usually at $20-$25, a range shared by some much better starter single malts.  I'm not bummed I bought the bottle since I've found Black Bottle brightens up a little when blended with big sherried whiskies, as per this tweet:
So it's got that going for it, which is nice.

Availability - Many liquor retailers
Pricing - $18-$25
Rating - 70 (Ed. note: Jan. 2014 - after further study, this stuff is getting even uglier. 66)