Nose: Approachable with sweet aromas of cereals, brown sugar, raisins in rice pudding, freshly sawn oak and just a hint of smoke.
Black Bottle Blended Scotch Whisky
Black Bottle Blended Scotch Whisky was first introduced in 1879 by a family-run company of Aberdeen tea blenders Charles, David and Gordon Graham who branched out into whisky blending. In a stroke of marketing genius the Grahams' decided to package their creation in a distinctive black bottle made of German glass and aptly named the blend "Black Bottle." At that time the blend was mostly comprised of Highland whiskies made with malted barley from New Pitsligo in Aberdeenshire which used local peat in the production process.
The outbreak of the First World War spelled the end of the iconic black glass bottle as trade with the German manufacturer ceased and Gordon Graham & Co. were forced to revert to a standard green glass bottle. Over the next century, ownership of the blend changed hands and with each transaction the recipe was altered.
The latest owner, Burn Stewart Distillers (now owned in turn by South African alcoholic drinks conglomerate, Distell), acquired the brand along with Islay distillery Bunnahabhain in 2003. The Islay-heavy recipe was retained and, for the next ten years, they continued to make the blend as their predecessors had done. Domestically, the whisky was doing well but it remained a mystery as to why it was failing to gain traction in any of its export markets. By 2012, Black Bottle was exported to over 30 countries yet approximately 80% of its sales were realized solely in the UK.
In an effort to revitalize the brand, Burn Stewart Distillers announced in 2013 that Black Bottle would once again be sold in its traditional black glass bottle. However, the change in packaging wasn't the only tweak the company had in mind. Master Distiller Ian MacMillan was charged with re-creating a blend that was more in keeping with the original "north-east" recipe. Speaking after the announcement, MacMilllan is reported to have claimed that "Black Bottle lost itself in Islay...and [that] 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."
The new recipe contains malt from just one Islay distillery, Bunnahabhain, and a host of unpeated Highland and Speyside malt and grain whiskies. In addition to the revised formulation, the blend has undergone a further change as it is now also married in new American oak casks prior to being bottled at 40% ABV.
Palate: Great body for a blend which suggests a high malt content. An oily smokiness is well-balanced alongside sticky, near cloying, dessert-like flavours of caramel, sponge toffee and milk chocolate. Surprisingly smooth; this goes down pretty easy. There's some woody spice evoking ginger and toasted oak but none of the sharp alcoholic heat that can marr blends at this price range.
Finish: Long, chewy and satisfying. Charred wood smokiness slides across the tongue and brings out earthy, mossy and old leather notes.
Overall: The "new" Black Bottle is considerably different than it was a few years ago and I'm aware that the "old" Black Bottle has its devotees who view the change in formula as a loss of a great Islay-driven blend. To those critics let me be clear, I hold no opinion or bias about what came before. I've only had a few nips of the old make that, to be honest, failed to make any particular or lasting impression. That said, there's a charming "fullness" of flavour to this blended scotch whisky that makes it distinctive and quaffable. Sure, maybe it's a tad too sweet but I think it works in balance with the generous malt content, the oily blast of smoke and the lingering phenolic flavours in the finish. In fact, if this bottle was available in the LCBO when we were doing the Battle of the Blends we might've had a different champion! Affordably priced at $32.95 in the LCBO, Black Bottle is worthy of becoming my new daily dram and our new house blend.