*Please note, this review is on the “old” version of Black Bottle. In late 2013, the brand was re-formulated.
To me, as a descriptor, the word black conjures up all sorts of alluring, dark, rich, brooding, occasionally awesome, occasionally evil, occasionally both…stuff. Among far too many to list are: the Black Forest (the tree’d kind and the cake), black comedy, black holes, black helicopters, Black Sabbath, black ice (ok, that one sucks), the Black Isle, Big Black, the Black Hand (both the extortion racket and the DC comic villan), Black Flag, black pudding, Black Angels, the Black Plague (yeah, that one sucks, too), and of course black metal. In the whisk(e)y world, the addition of the word “black” to a brand name means….I’m not sure, really. Usually, it connotes a step up to something bolder, richer, perhaps smokier, perhaps just darker in color (be it natural or manufactured). There’s Johnnie Walker Black of course, and now Johnnie Walker Double Black, Black Bush from Bushmills, The Black Grouse, Jim Beam Black, Black Bull, Nikka Black Pure Malt, Tullibardine’s John Black, Bruichladdich’s Black Art, and of course, the infamous, heinous, Loch Dhu.
One of the longest standing, and more unassuming whiskies assuming the “black” moniker is Black Bottle Blended Scotch Whisky. The brand was launched in 1879 by a trio of Aberdeen brothers, Charles, Gordon (a.k.a. the Highland Hammer), and Graham, and quickly became quite successful. The last of the brothers passed away in 1926 and the business was inherited by Charles’ wife, Anne-Jane, who then ran the joint until she passed away in 1958. Shortly after, the brand was sold to Long John Distillers, who apparently turned what was once a high quality, popular blend into a nondescript, economy whisky. Luckily, the story does not end there; in 1990, Allied Lyons (soon to be Allied Domecq, which was eventually consumed by Fortune Brands and Pernod-Ricard) purchased Long John Distillers and over the next five years, worked to revive the brand. By 1995, Black Bottle was back to being known as a high-quality blend with a unique, throw-back flavor profile. In 2003, Burn Stewart Distillers purchased the brand and has continued to put considerable energy behind this storied whisky.
Today, Black Bottle shows its Islay influence proudly, incorporating malt from seven of the distilleries on the island with Bunnhabhain (also owned by Burn Stewart) making up the backbone. Interestingly, Islay was not always the source of the smoke and peat. Originally, it would have been made with malted barley from New Pitsligo in Aberdeenshire which used locally abundant peat to fuel its kilns.
The Nose: A nice initial nose of honeyed malt and subtly tarry, burnt rubber peat. Good fruit notes of under-ripe melon, canned fruit cocktail, and plump golden raisins. Milder notes of coastal brine and fresh-cut green grass. Not much smoke on the nose, just a faint touch of smoldering green wood.
The Palate: A lightly creamy mouthfeel, with more crisp, honeyed malt, vanilla, and unsweetened cocoa notes initially. It’s a little slow to develop, but in due time, youthful herbal, spice notes follow, peppercorns and clove, along with wet hay, slightly salty peat and greenish, lightly bitter woodsmoke.
The Finish: Fairly long-lasting, continued honeyed green wood smoke, a touch ashy, with a little fermented fruit as well.
Thoughts: A deeply complex whisky? No (though for the price, yes). A big, rich, peaty blended fireball? No (though for the price, kind of). An absolutely terrific value and a blended whisky that wears its allegiance to Islay on its sleeve? Yes, definitely. This is very, very good, inexpensive blended Scotch with a unique, surprisingly complex flavor profile for the money. It holds its own sipped neat, is quite good over ice and is a great scotch to use in cocktails when looking for a little smoky, fiery kick. I routinely see Black Bottle for under $20 which, with today’s Scotch prices in mind, is simply mind-blowing. Hell, I just picked up another bottle from the excellent Blue Max Liquors for $16, which is just nuts, value-wise. Easily better than most more well-known blends and a few entry-level single malts, this one has a constant place in my cabinet.