When it comes to my favourite whisky companies, Bruichladdich is right up there with the Compass Box and Glendronach: They know how to make great whisky, they care about the ingredients, and they give many, many shits about presenting it properly. With a firm stand against chill filtration, Crayola colouring and training whisky (40% ABV or lower), every Bruichladdich bottle you buy is up-front, honest and transparent.
Except for this one, that is. You see the Black Art was Jim McEwan’s cheeky pet project: Every release got a new recipe devised by and known only to Jim and the inner-sactum at Bruichladdich HQ, the idea being to experiment with very old, mature whisky and exotic casks and flavours. Heresy! Every batch gets stuck into a ridiculously sexy, matte black bottle emblazoned with satan-esque runes to add to the mystery of the whole endeavour. Thrilling!
We do know one thing about this batch, however: The youngest whisky in this bottle is 23 years old, distilled way back in 1990, and the bottle is offered unto us in a very pleasing 49.2% ABV. It’s also mercilessly expensive. Let’s check it out:
Dark amber, ruby gold. Deep!
A little sweet, a little sour and plenty of fruit. Lots to discover – first up there’s raisins and prunes, with some apricot and grass right at the back. Caramel, maple syrup (nice), candy floss. Finally, a sharpness that pervades – like lemon zest or vinegar. No smoke, but unless I’m totally off base, clear signs of sherry and rum casks in the mix. Lovely!
Woah. Erm… Woah. There’s a massive amount going on here, delivered with a big alcohol bludgeon. Zesty and woody. A smokiness that isn’t present in the nose. Turkish Delight, red fruits and brown sugar. Tangy mayo, salt, cherries. Hmmm… almost too much happening, strange flavours that don’t seem to play nicely with each other. Onwards:
It begins well enough, but develops a very sharp, bitter, salty taste that’s… extremely unpleasant. Ugh.
With a little water it takes on a more Speysidey quality: grass, bark, moss and zest. The taste gets a little sweeter, but absolutely nothing can shake that really hectic salty, port aftertaste, which stays on the palette and makes each sip less enjoyable than the last. Uh oh…
I badly wanted to love this. I thought this would be a stunner given the origin, age, presentation… and price. At first I didn’t want to believe it – maybe it was something I ate? So I tried it again. And again… and again from another bottle. But I’ve got to be honest… the Black Art 1990 just isn’t my style.
That being said, I’m not sure how it could be anyone’s style, really – although the component whiskies are clearly terrific quality, the way they come together is less of an orchestra and more like banging on a xylophone. It’s doing too much, trying to cram all sorts of exotic stuff in there and as a result, inadvertently giving rise to some great bitter-salty behemoth which completely dominates the glass.
Weird, slightly unpleasant and insanely expensive. If you want an excellent Bruichladdich in your life, check out the Classic Laddie (or even better) the majestic Port Charlotte and save yourself a good R3000 in the process. If you want an example of how to do loads of flavours that are tightly integrated and come together beautifully, look no further than the Spice Tree (spicy), Talisker 10 (smokey) or Glenfiddich 21 (rum casks).