It seems that whenever a consumer product experiences a surge in popularity, as whisky has the last several years, there’s always a few brands that decide to completely overhaul their product. I suppose it’s an attempt to somehow cash in big, though often the change isn’t always for the better. Black Bottle Blended Scotch Whisky is apparently one of these brands. For a number of years, Black Bottle was one of whisky’s great values, a somewhat peaty blend that had a relatively unique flavor profile and complexity beyond its low price point. In 2013, Burn Stewart Distillers (and parent company Distell), who have owned Black Bottle since 2003, decided to re-brand the brand, giving it a new updated throwback bottle and changing the whisky inside to something more
common mundane approachable…I guess.
Obviously, despite my near-constant critiquing of marketing, I am no marketing expert, but it’s hard to fathom why Burn Stewart would take a somewhat unique product and change it so drastically. Why would they try to re-formulate and re-position their brand in an already crowded field that, let’s be honest, is not renowned for its soaring quality or originality? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to play to this growing legion of whisky fans by touting it’s standout and slightly more powerful flavor profile? Perhaps there was more going on than simple marketing, perhaps it was becoming too costly to produce the blend as it was, and rather than try to succeed at a significantly higher price point, Burn Stewart opted to blend in (no pun intended) more…though they still raised the price. That’s an understandable scenario given that distilleries are being more protective of their stocks, forcing more “independent” blended whisky brands to pay higher prices for their component malts.
Who knows. It’s a moot point now anyway. At least the new flask-shaped, “black” glass, embossed bottle and old-time-y label look actually pretty great. It’s just sad to see an interesting, very affordable, great value whisky disappear as there are fewer and fewer of them out there. It was also a little sad to see Burn Stewart and Black Bottle try to drum up some enthusiasm for the new version with some odd, desperate-sounding, contradictory PR, but I guess that kind of thing is just par for the course these days.
The new Black Bottle has been created with far more Speyside/Highland, malts (no other blends doing that, right?), and far less Islay influence. The one new interesting twist is the “marrying” they’re doing in virgin American Oak casks after blending, though I’ve not read anywhere as to how long this marriage lasts. My guess is not long. Black Bottle’s new black bottle is nod back to the original Black Bottle which apparently came in a black bottle before World War I came around and it became verbotten to use the then German-made black glass. The price, which used to hover around the $20 mark has stepped up to around $25, not a huge jump, but let’s consider what’s in the bottle…
The Nose: Youngish and sharp but not without charm. Honey, apple cobbler, raisins in rice pudding, a bit of brûléed sugar, and some malty grain. Lots of vanilla bean and cinnamon, some sawn oak, and a little clove. Just subtle hints of peat, and a barely a wisp of smoke if any, the sweetness and spice sort of wash over it.
The Palate: Lots of brown sugars and honey initially with more of that rice pudding/crème brûlée quality. A touch of zippy citrus leads to more weighty spice than the nose held. Rough, sharp oak, grippy and tannic, greenish clove, cinnamon and black pepper. There’s definitely more peat and smoke here, but it almost seems tacked on to the end of the sip.
The Finish: Lingering, with brown sugar, cinnamon, clove initially, and tannic oak, mild peat and smoke, and little peppery bitterness towards the end.
Thoughts: In all fairness, the new Black Bottle is not bad. It’s certainly not great. Let’s call it slightly above average. It’s definitely not what it used to be, and that, as I said, is a damn shame. It seems very young and doesn’t have a lot of depth, but it’s a drinkable blend. It’s pleasant on ice and makes a decent Rob Roy as long as you’re using good vermouth. You used to find the old, better Black Bottle for around $20, one of the great values in the Scotch world. The new Black Bottle is far less interesting and lacks a bit of maturity…but at least it’s more expensive.