One of the buzziest malts available at the moment, I’d argue. Black Art 5 hit our shores just a week or two back. The buzz was immediate and intense, with plenty of questions flying as to whether or not the whisky justified the $300 price tag (up about $50 from the previous edition). So, let’s see if we can’t find out for ourselves.
I think most folks know by now that Black Art was Jim McEwan’s masterwork. A recipe he held close to his chest, and with which he loved to play the angle of ‘secretive alchemist’. It made for fun stories at his live events and plenty of talking points on blogs and reviews. Without knowing the details of how it’s been put together, I can tell you is that it’s unquestionably a lot of sweet and sour wine cask interplay. The final product is built of pre-renaissance Bruichladdich that has been re-racked into some sort of wine barrels procured under the Reynier-MacGillivray-McEwan era. We know this, of course, because the age statement of 24 years stretches much further back than the distillery’s reopening and because the palate don’t lie: there’s wine all over this one.
A couple bits of disclosure right off: 1) I adore Bruichladdich, and 2) I do not like the Black Art expressions.
But – and I’ve said this before – take that with a grain of salt if you’re one of those folks who likes the wine finished/matured malts that are so prevalent on the shelves nowadays. I personally shy away from these expressions (though there are a few winners), but that doesn’t mean you won’t like ’em. If this sounds like apologism, forget it. I’ve said the same thing about Black Art before. Different tastes make the world go ’round.
So, before we even dive in let me tell you what I expect. A nose that is mature, sweet and appealing – rich in a big, bold fruity/floral melange – but a palate that arrives with a split second of magic before attacking the back and sides of the tongue with a tangy, wine-heavy tenacity. Oh yeah…and a finish that disagrees with me entirely.
I guess the big story this time around though is that this one is Adam Hannett’s baby, not Jim McEwan’s. He likes to say that he got the recipe from Jim, then promptly through it away. I paraphrase, of course, but the message is the same. So, who’s better at?
Nose: Sweet and fruity. Showing some age right off. Sour candy. Some orange and cherry notes. A light smoke behind the jamminess. Hint of dunnage. Slightly floral mid-note. Then more fruit compote. A tick savoury too. Toasted caramel.
Palate: Decent arrival. And…yep…into the weird wine-iness. Maybe not as heavy as some of the past Black Art releases though. Macerated dark fruits. Slightly grapey, with some chocolates and brandy. Peppers and spice. Just a flirting with sulphur, but not heavy. Back end is wet oak and tannins.
Thoughts: Definitely different than Jim’s vattings, but some shared DNA, to be sure. As expected, too wine topheavy for me, but an enjoyable slow sipper nevertheless. Think I prefer this one to Jim’s creations. Shhhh…don’t tell.
– Images & Words: Curt
Finishing—especially wine finishing, I’d say—is often disparaged as a way to put lipstick on a big. Who’s got some speculation about whether the stock for these Black Arts had anything going for it besides the impressive age number before all the “alchemy” began?
I’ve argued it before, and long ago, but I think that the “magic” brought to Bruichladdich’s production by Jim McEwan was principally to apply some unusual (some might say “wonky”) casking to some inherited stock that no one was otherwise excited about and then to hype the living bejesus out of it. French whore perfume in one distillery becomes masterful innovation in another, depending how the marketing wind blows.
I’ve always been leery of the term “alchemy” (plus “magic” and “enchantment”) with regard to whisky because it’s all way too hocus pocus and anti-science for me – and because, in that specific case, it makes the very large assumption that dross is inexplicably “transformed” into gold. Ironically enough, I think Macallan makes dross into Gold all the time by simply looking at the colour and omitting an age statement.
The sad thing is that I really enjoy 20+ year old Bruichladdich IBs that come from the same era, probably from the same type of Nth refill casks that this stuff was in before McEwan recasked it into . . . whatever. Lots of subtle tropical fruit flavors that aren’t so easy to find now that everyone is ACEing/finishing/wood treating such “boring” casks. Up until the past year or two, Bruichladdich IBs from Nth refill casks in this age range were widely available for very reasonable prices. Lately prices seem to have doubled or tripled outside the occasional Signatory 46% bottling. I’m not sure where else (or when) I will be able to find whisky like that, and it’s a real shame.
As for black art . . . I didn’t bite when it was $180USD, and I’m not biting at $300+.
Eric, do you think unpeated Bruichladdich IBs are reliable? My local specialist retailer has a couple that have been sitting there forever, but I’m leery of them due to the reputation of the “old Bruichladdich stock” that the Jim McEwan group inherited.
I can’t say for certain without knowing what’s available to you and what you like, but I have enjoyed the majority of the older Bruichladdich I have tried. I think McEwan et al did a great job of planting the seed that old Bruichladdich stock was somehow subpar (perhaps accidentally?), though I personally suspect a lot of it just didn’t taste the way he wanted it to. I do think a lot of it was aged in inactive casks, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping $300 bottles of 25+ yr old pre-McEwan IB Bruichladdich from showing up lately.
I guess a better question is how willing are you to take a risk now? IB Bruichladdich is not getting cheaper. If you can’t afford to spend $50-$150USD on a whisky you might not like and can live with not trying older era Bruichladdich, then maybe it’s not worth your trouble. But generally speaking, I enjoy it a lot more than IBs of GENERIC SPEYSIDER X of similar age and price, as the style is different enough from many other IB bottlings to be refreshing to me.
If you’re going to take a punt, the time is probably now. Buy a bottle and see what you think. Particularly in the 15+ year range (18-25 years is where I’ve had good success). Maybe it’ll be a mistake, but at least it won’t be a $300+ mistake. Which seems to be where IBs of old style Bruichladdich are headed.
Thanks, Eric. That all sounds like sage advice.
I think the ones at my local shop are all younger (10 years?), but I’ll give them another look next time I pop in there.
And I like your yardstick of “IB of GENERIC SPEYSIDER X”!
The second edition of the Laddie 10 is very good, very typically Bruichladdich and quite affordable. I’m on my second bottle and I will probably buy again as long as it is around. Just a few drops of water settles it’s youthful exuberance down nicely.
There’s a winery in Nova Scotia that produces a wine called Alchemy. Not sure if it has a n age statement because I last had some before that was an issue so I didn’t notice…. I have to admit “Alchemy” is fantastic.