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Black Bottle - a great blend

by Gavin D Smith, 08/06

For far too long, Black Bottle has been a bit of a well-kept secret. It is finally receiving the exposure it deserves, thanks to the ambition and evangelical zeal of owners Burn Stewart Distillers Ltd. Now more and more consumers are being seduced by the original charms of this demonstrably different whisky, as Burn Stewart seeks to have its pride and joy embraced by the wider world. Black Bottle has recently undergone a discreet yet significant packaging makeover, leaving it looking fit and confident.

In these image-conscious days the presentation of the product is very important, but is there enough tangible quality and integrity behind the design work to have discerning consumers coming back for more?

Heritage


Black Bottle boasts a proud and fascinating heritage, with its origins in late 19th century Aberdeen and the firm of Gordon Graham & Co. Their initial blending experience was with tea! Blending the produce of Scotland as well as that of India and Ceylon did not appear to be a problem however, and soon their new baby was being selected by many locals as their whisky choice.

As the whisky trade in Scotland boomed, the Grahams' Black Bottle brand became well loved not just in northeast Scotland, gaining a reputation that ultimately spread far beyond Aberdeenshire. The Black Bottle story features some fascinating characters, such as the redoubtable matriarch Anne Jane Graham, universally known as 'Granny Graham'.

Granny Graham conducted business from her Aberdeen home, perpetually dressed in widow's black. She was an indomitable lady, who even changed her nephew's surname to Graham by deed poll so that the family name would continue to be associated with Black Bottle whisky.
 

Family control ended during the 1950s, however, when asset strippers bought and split up the company, selling on the Black Bottle brand to Long John Distilleries Ltd in 1958. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Black Bottle soon became just another blended whisky, and unfortunately one without too much finesse. The traditional, full-bodied character associated with it during the days of the Grahams disappeared, though happily not forever.

Character


It is believed the 'original' Black Bottle would have had a notably smoky character due to the predominance of Aberdeenshire malts in its composition. These whiskies were distilled using barley malted with peat from New Pitsligo. This gave the finished product a pungency we would most obviously associate today with the whiskies of Islay, Scotland's most revered whisky-producing island, noted for its peaty, smoky malts. In 1995 Black Bottle's original and singular identity was triumphantly restored, when the bold decision was taken to include malts from each of Islay's working distilleries.

Drinkers sometimes have the perception that all Islay whiskies are massive medicinal 'peat monsters', but there is actually a significant range of different styles within the Islay region. When Burn Stewart acquired the Black Bottle brand they also purchased Bunnahabhain Distillery on Islay, and its malt whisky is a key component in Black Bottle. It is fresh and sweet on the nose, gentle on the palate, with rich malt, soft honey, and just a touch of brine.


   The historic Bunnahabhain distillery is managed by John MacLellan, a native Islay man - or Ileach - who has worked there for 17 years.

According to John, "Black Bottle and Bunnahabhain is a marriage made in heaven. Bunnahabhain is absolutely the right choice to be the 'background' of the blend. It is the most lightly peated of the Islay malts, and makes the perfect base. It's the palette that other malts are mixed on. The other Islay malts are the different colours: a dab or two of Ardbeg, Bowmore and so forth.

"As one foreign visitor once said to me, 'These other blends are not blends, they are blands.' I don't know about that, but ours certainly has a lot of character to it. The minute you take the top off a new bottle of Black Bottle in a warm room there's a presence. Everybody looks up."

Leading Scotch whisky authorities have certainly been looking up, as Black Bottle won a highly coveted Gold Award at the 2005 International Wine & Spirit Competition, while whisky writer and author Jim Murray is a devoted fan of the blend. In both the 2005 and 2006 editions of Jim Murray's Whisky Bible he voted Black Bottle 'Best Standard Blended Scotch Whisky', calling it "a blend that has to be tasted to be believed."

The blend


Burn Stewart's Master Blender Ian Macmillan refers to himself as "the 'keeper' of the blend," and he says, "When we bought the business in 2003, Black Bottle was one of the most important aspects of the purchase.

"Black Bottle is a fun blend to work with. The power of the big, peaty Islays is calmed by the considerable Bunnahabhain influence, and sweeter Speyside and Highland malts help to give a really well balanced blend. It has a high malt content, and all the malts in it are highly regarded, quality malts in their own right. The fusion of malt and grain we use gives a nicely structured, rich whisky, with a distinctive nose and flavour. There are few, if any, other blends available in the UK that come close to it in terms of style."

Black Bottle has gone back to its roots in the finest possible fashion, and thankfully stands out proudly from the crowd. That is surely worth raising a glass to.

The Whisky

Black Bottle
Black Bottle has a rich and golden colour, with a nose that is immediately fresh and fruity, with hints of peat. The palate is full, with a slightly honeyed sweetness, followed by a distinctive smoky flavour. The finish is long and warming, with a smoky, Islay character coming through. 40% ABV, 70cl, 14.99, widely available.
      
  

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