Sunday, the 8th of March. Outside, people are slowly realizing that there is some sort of virus spreading around. I’m attending the International Malt Whisky Festival in Ghent. Today, I am attending the Bruichladdich Black Art Masterclass, the first one ever on Belgian soil. The masterclass itself has been sold out for a while now, with the room capacity stretched to the maximum. Luckily, brand ambassador Nick Baeyens secured a ticket for me. There’s a sense of mystery surrounding these expressions. I’m ready to take a peek.
Before we get to my tasting impressions of the Black Art collection, let me offer you a sliver of background information about the conception of the Black Art project. In essence, it is the personal project of Jim McEwan, who desired to have a ‘personal’ range of whiskies, of which only limited information is made available to the public. It’s the ‘best kept secret‘ of the Bruichladdich distillery, and only the head distillers (first Jim McEwan, then his protégé Adam Hannett) are able to ‘spill the beans’, without any desire to do so.
The Black Art project, which just sounds like a Doctor Strange storyline, is deeply rooted in the history of the distillery as well. The various expressions were distilled in a different time, by a different generation, before the closure of the distillery in 1994. In 2001, the distillery was dismantled and reassembled, and Jim McEwan was appointed as master distiller and production director. That means that the distillate used for the Black Art range not only survived the closure, it was later used by McEwan to start his passion project. In that sense, it is a literal link to the past. When you open up a Black Art bottle, you are drinking the metaphorical ‘history’ of the distillery.
Still hungry for Bruichladdich history? There’s more! The production of the Bruichladdich products, and therefore also the Black Art expressions, is done by using equipment dating back to 1915 or even earlier. It really is a throwback into time. There’s a greater sense of tradition, of ‘feeling it out’, and of using methods of the previous generation, simply because they seemed to know what they were doing. From Wikipedia, I learned that “[n]o computers are used in production with all processes controlled by a pool of skilled artisans who pass on information orally and largely measure progress using dipsticks and simple flotation devices” (Bruichladdich distillery, Wikipedia).
Lastly, I would like to add that the Black Art expressions were made from distillates that were never conceived to be drunk as ‘single malts’. At the time of distillation, Bruichladdich was still producing whiskies intended to be used in blends. When the distillery re-opened under new management in 2001, the decision was made to start producing single malts.
Background information, check!
The Classic Laddie
When Nick Baeyens started the tasting sessions, he explained that there was not really a lot to say about the Black Art expressions. Given their status of being ‘whisky–enigmas‘, tasting notes can only be based on what you are tasting. There is not link to cask information whatsoever. There is no prediction. You taste what you taste, and you can make educated guesses based on that. Therefore, he thought it would be a good idea to start of with their cornerstone in the Bruichladdich range: The Classic Laddie.
The distillery offers the following information concerning their non-peated single malt, which was made with “[a] classic, floral and elegant Bruichladdich house style” in mind (Bruichladdich.com). This expression is made from 100% Scottish barley, trickle distilled*, and matured in American Oak casks.
*Trickle distillation is a process in which “the heat [is] sensitively controlled to slow the spirit run to a gentle gurgle” (Bruichladdich.com).
In line with the rest of my tasting notes, I would like to offer up a couple of impressions that I had while tasting The Classic Laddie: creamy, with influences of chalk (like a bag of cement that wafts in a breeze). I bet you were not expecting that. It was a crazy afternoon, and the influence of The Whisky Tastebuds did not help either…
Black Art 04.1 (1990) (23y)
The first Black Art dram we tasted was the Black Art 04.1, distilled in 1990 and matured for 23 years in American and French oak casks. The exact composition, though, is only known to its creator: Jim McEwan. It was made with the intention to “explore that most esoteric relationship between spirit and wood” (Bruichladdich.com).
This expression does a lot of things at the same time. It is fresh, sparkling, almost champagne–like. It has a sharp finish, and then decides to lingerin your nose for a bit. Being 48,4% ABV (cask strength), the Black Art 04.1 is a reversal of my expectations. And that’s not the only Black Art expression deserving of that title.
Black Art 05.1 (1992) (24 y)
Next up was 05.1, the first single malt in the series by head distiller Adam Hannett. No information whatsoever, except for a composition of, again, American and French oak.
Compared to the 04.1, this expression is sweeter, with more vanilla in the nose. Flavour-wise, there is a nutty profile, which reminded me of macademia nuts. It’s a ‘slower’ dram, which takes more time to fully develop. As a finish, a hint of black winegums.My buddies at The Whisky Tastebuds did the ‘finger–test‘ (you take a drop and rub it between your thumb and index finger) and had an aroma of pure barley. The texture of this dram is also different from the 04.1. It is higher in viscosity, thicker, and that links up with the slower development.
Black Art 06.1 (1990) (26 y)
The Black Art 06.1 is even more cryptic than the previous expressions. Gone is the information about oak types. The only thing that is mentioned, is that the casks that were used for this expression, were hand-selected and blended by Adam Hannett, who got to know them when he was still working at the warehouses of the distillery.
This expression is 46,9% ABV, and 26 years old. It is a fully-developed, well-rounded expression, drier than the 05.1. There are hints of sherry, and I can’t help but describe this one as more subtle and dimmed. The ghost of a red wine lingers in the expression, too. It is earthy and complex. Lastly, a very personal flavour: this expression reminds me of those raisins that were burnt while baking a raisin bread. I told you the tasting notes were going to be wacky.
Black Art 07.1 (1994) (25y)
Lastly, we tasted the 07.1 (48,4% ABV), possibly the last expression in the Black Art series. It is a symbolic “end of an era“, as in 1994, the distillery closed down, and it seemed to be a final decision at the time.
No information whatsoever here, other than my tasting notes, which are quite fragmented:
There’s a scent of saltines in my nose, though its the kind that only has a little bit of salt on them. It’s less sweet than previous expressions, and again a little bit drier. There’s some fruits, there’s a bit of wood. It has lots of dimension, and it surprised me that people mentioned the flavour of crème brulée (this shows that my palate is not yours, and vice-versa). I got some dark chocolate, but only slightly. It was difficult to grasp. There was so much going on there, and it just kept going and going and going. Deeper and deeper into the void, to the core of the Bruichladdich distillery. Unknown, experimental, and so damn delicious.
I would like to thank Nick Baeyens for the hospitality, and Alexander Verdoodt for accompanying me as my personal photographer.
Photos are © Alexander Verdoodt and © PROGRESSIVE HEBRIDEAN DISTILLERS.