“Whisky has made us what we are. It goes with our climate and with our nature. It rekindles old fires in us, our hatred of cant and privilege, our conviviality, our sense of nationhood, and above all our love of Scotland.”
-Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart
Black Bottle is a wee helluva dram, without pretensions, with reverence for its place, and with enough muscle to slice through the cares of the day like a santoku knife through warm tofu.
Anyone who reads here more than maybe twice knows that I am a single-malt Scotch weenie to the roots of my hair. But that neatly sidesteps the inescapable (and, I sometimes feel) shameful affinity I occasionally develop for blended Scotches, albeit not the ones found on most liquor store shelves.
But, I am also a frugal soul who’s cast very much in the mold of the cliched air-tight Scotsman. I rejoice in finding a stunning $25 Whiskey or a $15 wine or a $6 bottle of craft beer far more than I do in sampling a $400 Bordeaux or a $200 Barolo or a $20 bottle of some precious ‘craft beer as art object’. Having visited Scotland as a very young man and remained eternally charmed by it, I was not entranced by the moors and heathers and all that poetic shit but by its people…its near-berserk, profane, unbridled, sardonic, brilliant, indomitable people whose spirits walk ten feet in front of them and who embrace their own and their country’s excesses and epic misfortunes with a fierce and unshakable pride. I treasure the memory of sitting in a pub in South Lanarkshire, Scotland, with a crowd of people who were all orating madly at volumes that would drown out the Republican Convention, and feeling a sense of community so thick you could tear off chunks and fill a kit bag.
“If on my theme I rightly think/There are five reasons why men drink/—Good wine; a friend; because I’m dry/Or lest I should be by and by/Or — any other reason why.“
Gordon Graham’s Black Bottle was concocted, first, by its namesake, who wanted a “blended whisky without compare…’the perfect dram’, if you will.” Since then, Black Bottle – named for its distinctive jet-black, broad-shouldered container – has gone through a number of hands and some perilous changes. For a while, during the First and Second World Wars, Graham Distillers had to surrender the distinctive black glass bottle…because it was originally made in Germany. When they acquired the brand, in 2003, Burn Stewart of Glasgow’s Master Distiller, Ian MacMillan, was assigned the task of coming as close as was humanly possible to the flavor profile of Graham’s 1897 original. The unanimous verdict is that MacMillan succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. And, to their everlasting credit, Burn Stewart also restored the beloved black glass…and this iconic whisky was well and truly reborn.
This is a soulful, replete, atmospheric, and utterly satisfying bottle; the sort of blended Scotch that makes a single-malt geek like me rethink certain fundamental facts about the nature of the universe. The primary virtues of any great Scotch almost claw their way out of the bottle: caramel, spices, treacle, pepper, cinnamon, pine resins, honey, and a hint of wildflowers, all astride a fat backbone of wet wood and peat smoke. It’s fat and rich on the tongue, with an almost oily feel that allows it to finish with a brazen assertiveness, taking literal minutes to devolve into a lingering spruce/herb tea impression.
At a shockingly paltry retail average of just $21 a bottle, this is everything Gordon Graham hoped it would be: the wee dram that a Scottish workingman could afford and enjoy to celebrate his country’s tradition and bounty. Tasting this again, after tasting it last in 1982, from one of those sad green bottles, I was forcibly confronted with my latent and long-suppressed love for a good, solid, unpretentious blended Scotch, and faced with the inescapable reality that I had allowed the lesser angels of my nature to lead me into the sort of hierarchical nonsense that I routinely decry in others, on other subjects. I am an unabashed snob when it comes to beer, routinely refusing to even consider drinking any of the traditional, mass-produced watery lagers like BudMillerCoorsPabst crap. I claim not to be snobbish in any other area but I had let my passion for single-malts lead me astray and this bottle arrived at just the right time to avoid indulging that effete crap for the rest of my days.
I have no clear memory of what was in the glasses at other tables, there in South Lanarkshire, 47 years ago, but I know what was in my glass and my uncle’s: Usquaebach, one of the world’s great blended Scotches. (More on that little miracle coming SOON) It was expensive, even then, and we were not among a ritzy crowd. I’m fairly sure that some of those auld sods at the bar were tossing back a Black Bottle and doubtless celebrating Gordon Graham a bit as they did it. This is Scotch that goes right to the heart of the soul of Scotland; a common man’s draught that delivers far beyond its price. I can think of few better legacies to leave for one’s ancestors than something delicious and affordable to help them combat the worries of life and the fatigue of the day. I raise a glass to Gordon Graham for this stuff and advise any Scotch drinker reading this not to mimic my own lapse of judgment. Black Bottle is The Real Deal. 95 Points