In ancient days, keen alchemists mingled so-called lower metals in a futile attempt to create solid gold. The technique was known as transmutation. Today, skilled craftsmen bring together water, barley, yeast, and oak in order to produce liquid gold. The process is called whisky making. To honor the relentless tenacity of the former and the towering achievements of the latter, Distell Group has now released two limited Alchemy bottlings within its enigmatic Black Bottle Blended Scotch Whisky brand. One is called Double Cask, whereas the other is named Island Smoke. A few days ago, I got to try them both in an online tasting with Master Distiller Brendan McCarron and Global Brand Manager Craig Black. The event – that much I say in advance – was quite extraordinary.
In total, we drank four drams that came in black, neutral bottles giving away no other info than a number on the front. The degustation happened under special conditions: The Black Bottle team had prepared dedicated videos for drams number one, two, and four. The imagery, rhythm, and soundscape of each video were designed to support the flavor profile of the correlating whisky; that was a pretty cool gimmick. Only dram number three shifted from that routine: We drank it the old-school way, sipping at the glass while Brendan cited his personal tasting notes to us. The four expressions were pretty different from each other, offering complex interplays of smoke and sweetness in varying ratios, plus a number of supporting notes that differed from sample to sample. At least that’s what I thought … cause when the veil was lifted, me and the other participants were in for a mind-boggling surprise!
As it turned out, we had only savored two whiskies that evening. At first, we drank two glasses of Black Bottle Double Cask back to back. Then we continued with two drams of Black Bottle Island Smoke, which we also enjoyed right after each other. The clue: As the accompanying video and soundtrack was completely unique for each round of the degustation, so was the tasting experience. When the screen was painted red, for example, I subconsciously thought of cherries, raspberries, and strawberries. And when it was all black, I fantasized of coal, tar, and smoke. The tones and noises that came out of the speakers had a similar effect: a sizzle sparked the idea of BBQ smoke, whereas the sound of the sea raised a maritime connotation; playful arrangements made the whisky feel light and elegant, while droning noises made it seem weighty and heavy. Until Brendan revealed the tasting’s twist to us, I did not have the slightest clue. Once the truth was out and the brain was no longer fooled, however, the remaining contents of glass one and two respectively three and four tasted exactly the same to me. It was really crazy!
Besides unwittingly partaking in a psychological experiment, we also did a few other things that evening: having a jolly time, drinking great whisky, and deep-diving into the history of Black Bottle. The brand, which got integrated into Distell Group’s portfolio in 2013, was originally formed 1879 by three brothers (Charles, David and Gordon Graham) eager to challenge the contemporary whisky making conventions. In comparison to other blends at that time, Black Bottle contained a much higher proportion of malt in the recipe; and it was also way smokier. According to Brendan, these two qualities still set Black Bottle apart today. “Malt whisky accounts for almost 50 per cent of the recipe of Black Bottle,” the master blender said. “And the bulk of it comes from Islay.” Given the fact that Distell Group owns Bunnahabhain Distillery, it is no secret where the majority of the used malt whisky comes from. “Of course, there’s lots of Bunna in Black Bottle,” Brendan told us. “Yet, we are not so arrogant as to think that our whisky wouldn’t benefit from the inclusion of other Islay distilleries, too. So we swap casks with them and use their distillates in the vatting as well.” In case of Double Cask and Island Smoke, the two specimen of the Alchemy Series, this approach resulted in two fabulous blended Scotch whiskies with bold flavor profiles and very friendly price tags: For round about 30 quid per bottle, you either get a subtly peated palate pleaser with complex red wine and sherry notes (Double Cask) or an super-fumy smoker with an abundance of mineral and maritime aromas (Island Smoke). I tremendously enjoyed them both!
Black Bottle @ Web: https://www.blackbottle.com/ (Brand)
Black Bottle @ Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/blackbottlewhisky/ (Brand)
Distell Group @ Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/user146512171 (The Taste Experiment)
*** I was kindly invited to the online tasting by Distell Group. Thank you. ***