Sunday, 1 February 2015

Black Bottle Whisky

Whisky DIscovery
I first came across Black Bottle when reading Ian Buxton's book '101 whiskies to try before you die' and decided to look out for a bottle of it for the shelf. I eventually found it when one of my local supermarkets started stocking it occasionally. Not long after I bought it there was a complete re-branding from owners Burn Stewart Distillers

I thought it would be interesting to taste the two blends alongside each other and looked to see if I could get a sample of it. Somerset Whisky blogger Steve Prentice came to my rescue and during the internet chatter I also managed to secure a sample, from self confessed Bowmore addict Gavin Thomson, of the long discontinued 10 Year Old blend which was also mentioned, and praised in Ian Buxton's book. But before my notes let me educate you with a brief history.

A brief History 
Black Bottle's history starts in 1879 when Aberdonian tea blenders Gordon Graham and Co. decided to try their hand at blending whisky. At the time Aberdeen was a thriving port and tea from Sri Lanka (Ceylon back then) and China were prized commodities. Three bothers, Gordon, David and Charles Graham had established themselves as tea importers and blenders in the heart of Aberdeen's commercial quarters, and tea was still their staple business until 1881 when they decided to concentrate their efforts solely on whisky blending, moving to new offices and building two bonded warehouses. The eldest brother, and original blender of the whisky, Gordon passed away in 1889 and control of the company was passed onto David.
Whisky Discovery
George Graham & Co's first bonded warehouse in Regent Street in Aberdeen
The whisky was originally named after the German made black bottle in which the whisky was sold, but on the outbreak of The Great War in 1914 this obviously had to change, and a green bottle was used. David Graham died in 1919 and the business was left to the youngest brother, Charles Innes Graham, the salesman who had become known as 'The Whiskyman' from his time travelling from town to town-supplying Black Bottle from his car. 

Charles Innes died in 1926, and the profitable business was left to wife Ann Jane Graham who assumed control. Because there was no natural male heir to the business Ann persuaded her nephew Graham Horne to change his name by deed pole to Graham Charles Innis Graham following the death of his mother. 

By the mid 20th century, the Black Bottle brand was becoming highly lucrative, but in 1951 disaster struck when the Market Street offices were completely destroyed by fire and the original recipes, company records and historical paper work were lost. The company remained in family hands until 1959 but after a couple of different owners, the brand was acquired by Highland Distillers in 1995 who started a program of investment, introducing modern Islay malts into the blend, launching three expressions that stated clearly it was a blend made up of a proportion of malt whisky from every distillery on Islay.
  • The Original Blend NAS (no age statement) whiskies contained in this expression were thought to be at least seven years old.
  • Black Bottle 10 Year Old, launched in 1998, the glass bottle was wrapped with black plastic. (discontinued in 2010)
  • Black Bottle 15 Year Old, again the glass bottle was wrapped with black plastic, long discontinued
With the two exclusive expressions discontinued only the 'Original Blend' remained.
Whisky Discovery
In September 2013, current owners Burn Stewart relaunched the brand returning to its original 1879 roots, including the black glass that gave the blend its name and channelling the vintage bottle trend. With less of a focus on malts from Islay, and to be reminiscent of its 1879 recipe having floral and oak aromas and a fruit, smoke, honey and nutmeg flavour.

Burn Stewart master distiller Ian MacMillan stated “The challenge was to develop a liquid that was more in line with the original character of Black Bottle while maintaining all of the quality for which the brand is renowned. I wanted to reintroduce a richness to balance the smokiness of the blend and in turn allow each component to contribute to the overall flavour.”

MacMillan added that the expression moves away from the peatiness of Islay, which became a more prominent note in Black Bottle recipes over the years, and instead channels more Speyside flavours. He noted that “Black Bottle lost itself in Islay” and said the distillery realised there was a need for the Scotch to “return its North East roots.” The expression is stored in a bottle inspired by the long-lost Graham’s Brothers black glass bottle dating back to 1906.

Whisky Discovery #634

Black Bottle 'Original Blend' 2012 40% abv
Blended Scotch Whisky
No longer available
Whisky Discovery
The 'Original Blend' was around until the end of 2013
This is the bottle I bought and the one listed in Ian Buxton's book. The bottle is of green glass and of the traditional lantern type pot still type neck. I saw this going for as little as £11 a bottle in Tesco one Christmas but could easily be picked up for around £15-18 a bottle even after the launch of the new release. I suspect it's all gone now though. The 'blurb' on the back of the box states that it's a blend of Islay single malts blended with Highland, Lowland and Speyside malts and grain whisky.

So What Did I Think?
Colour: Bright golden, I suspect naturally coloured as looks quite light and I haven't been able to find any small print in German on either the packaging or the bottle
Nose: I must admit I was expecting a great deal more peat from this when I first opened it, boldly stating that . It is there to be discovered, but the soft grains seem to dominate the flavours. Later I was finding sappy wood notes alongside a maritime air and a pinch of salt
Taste: Soft woody notes, pencil shavings, alongside some tinned fruit although the flavours are dulled slightly by a syrup sweetness as opposed to fresh. It's quite thin on the palate, but easy drinking. Wood spice comes though as it drys the mouth and a little sweet scented smoke comes through at the end, finishing dry. The following morning the peat rally shows its hand leaving an earthiness in the glass.

Whisky Discovery #983

Black Bottle 2013 40% abv
Blended Scotch Whisky
circa £20.00 70 cl
Whisky Discovery
The new Black Bottle Blended Scotch Whisky launched September 2013
This is the recently re- launched Black Bottle and the new look really does come across well. I like the style and black coloured glass, although not handy if you're monitoring levels. If this is your tipple I'd recommend a kan-ban stocking system so you always have one in the cupboard when it unexpectedly runs out!

So What Did I Think?
Colour: This seems to be orange like when compared to the other two, suggesting that colouring has been used
Nose: This immediately came across as very sweet on the nose, brown sugar, caramel, toffee. There's something more savoury under but it seems to being masked by the sweetness. Later peppery notes develop not too dissimilar to Tequila. Eventually some faint wisps of sweet smoke can be teased out from it.
Taste: Although initially feeling quite creamy it seems to turn thin quickly. With the exceedingly sweet nose I was expecting this same sweetness on the palate which it delivers albeit with a peppery zing appearing towards the end and turning dry with a pithy bitterness. The peat showed itself in the empty glass the following morning with it's earthiness alongside hints of chocolate.

Whisky Discovery #984

Black Bottle 10 Year Old 40% abv
Blended Scotch Whisky
No longer available
Whisky Discovery
The bottle on the 10 Year Old expression was wrapped in black plastic
I'm really pleased that I managed to get a hold of a sample of this to taste. I've not seen either the 10 year of or 15 Year Old come up on the auction sites very often, but then why would you? It was a reasonably price blended Scotch that was meant to be drunk. The packaging states that the heart of this blend is made entirely from Islay malts from each of the island's seven distilleries blended together with grain whiskies.

So What Did I Think?
Colour: Dark golden, but having seen the packaging up close know that this is coloured
Nose: Rich and woody with some dark fruits; black cherry and dark skinned plums, all slightly over ripe. It's not as 'Islay' as I was expecting, but there is a gentle peat smoke note, like that of a dying embers, that just manages to make it's way through the hardwood and fruit. 
Taste: It's rich and woody on the palate and the fruit comes across well too, nicely balanced. The smoke comes through as wood smoke rather than peat, and the finish a good length and a nice balance of the three main flavours, fruit, wood and smoke.. The empty glass the following morning yields rich chocolate notes over a peaty earthiness.

Well the 10 Year Old wins hands down for me, no question about it, however how close any of these expressions are to the original Black Bottle is anyone's guess! All the records and original recipes were lost in the fire in 1951.

What has been done with the new blend should appeal to new whisky drinkers, certainly the updated packaging looks so much more modern, although in a 'retro' style, to the original blend that I'm still drinking. Taste wise I'm not sure which appeals to me more now. At the time of tasting all three alongside each other I was swayed by the latest reincarnation although my notes went on about a sweetness I don't usually enjoy. Recently I've been enjoying sipping my old style Black Bottle, so will probably pick up one of the newer ones to retry alongside each other before I reach the end of this one!

Many thanks to @steveprentice and @LoveBowmore for the samples for this post

Sláinte! Dave

Whisky Discovery

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