Smoke, tea, and green bottles: a history of Black Bottle
Black Bottle is one of those names that whisky drinkers, especially Scotch lovers, will recognise with one take – we grabbed a minute with master distiller Brendan McCarron and global brand manager Craig Black to learn about its history and what’s in store for the future.
How much do you think your dram has in common with your morning cuppa? If you’re sipping on Black Bottle, then its history is more intertwined than you may have thought. “Black Bottle dates back to 1879 and the three Graham brothers, who were tea blenders by trade based out in Torphins, a small village just outside Aberdeen,” global brand manager Craig Black begins telling me.
Having had enough of the family trade, the brothers thought they’d try their hand at whisky blending. “Back then, single malts really weren’t established as a category because the quality varied so much. So a whole range of blended whisky brands were coming out, Black Bottle being one of them.”
To give it a point of difference, the Graham brothers imported a black bottle from Germany to house their whisky. It wasn’t originally christened Black Bottle, its original name being Gordon Graham’s Special Liqueur, “but this mysterious black bottle was so iconic that people just started referring to it as ‘Black Bottle,’ and so it took on the moniker.” The hint of smoke in this original blend was its signature flavour. Fast forward to 1914, and obviously it was getting a little difficult to source this black bottle from Germany, “so the brand moved to a dark green bottle, which it stayed with for about the next 90 years or so,” Black recounts.
It’s not just the name and presentation that’s changed over the years, but the liquid, too – most notably in 2013, when a lighter, less smoky flavour profile was implemented, at the same time the signature black bottle was reinstated. “When there were eight distilleries on Islay, all eight whiskies were in Black Bottle. These days it is still smoky, but it’s maybe not as smoky as it used to be,” master distiller Brendan McCarron notes. “That's why I’m obsessed with Island Smoke, because it is a big step up on that medicinal, peaty, smoky stuff that Islay has got to offer.”
Many brands sell their product from a standpoint of consistency, and that something tastes ‘the way it always has’. So why did the flavour profile change? “Stocks obviously play a huge part in any whisky company,” McCarron acknowledges, “but I think there was a decision that Islay was probably for the few and not for the many and Black Bottle as a result would maybe go down that path.” The smoke isn’t gone though, he’s quick to add – merely reduced.
But this wasn’t the end for peat-lovers! The Alchemy Series was launched globally in August 2021, with Island Smoke, which you enjoyed this month, and another experimental, limited-edition release, Double Cask. “With the Alchemy Series we really wanted to honour the legacy of these original whisky alchemists – the three Graham brothers who, tired of convention, sought out the best ingredients, the best casks, creating a phenomenal but still very unique and unconventional whisky,” McCarron tells me. Experimentation based on the brand’s past is what the series is all about: “If you're going to do experiments and one-offs, you want to show off what your whisky looks like from a different angle – so I love Island Smoke because it goes back to the smoky roots.” McCarron clearly loves the freedom the Alchemy Series has given him to play around with the flavours from Black Bottle’s history. “It’s a great way to really show off the Islay within the blend – it’s not Black Bottle ‘in a new light’, but just from a very different angle.”
I ask if there are plans for more additions to the series. “Always!” McCarron excitedly tells me – but the pair aren’t allowed to say much more than that. “The Alchemy Series gives us the flexibility to explore these things and say ‘what if…?’” Black continues. “‘What if we did a whisky that is seriously smoky, but has got a beautiful cereal sweetness to it?’ That's Island Smoke. The future for the brand is down that ‘what if…?’ route.” Keep your eyes peeled, folks. Although, as with all limited-editions, once they’re gone, they’re gone – so if Island Smoke tickled your taste buds, make sure you grab it while it’s still here!