The opaque black bottle reads Black Art. The description reads, “IN THE STYGIAN DARKNESS OF WAREHOUSE NO. 12, A RARE AND COMPLEX SPIRIT AND A TRIBUTE TO THOSE EARLIER ALCHEMISTS.” Whatever you say, Aleister Crowley.
These dark and mysterious bottles are not made by the Dementors on Azkaban, as you might expect, but from the progressive and straightforward Bruichladdich distillery… which, ironically, was the first Islay brand to take off with aggressively transparent marketing tactics.
I have been to the Broo. I toured the distillery in 2018. The staff, when not worshiping Thoth in their underground caves, were a downright cheery lot. They had a tight knit camaraderie. They clearly regarded their tour duties as a pleasure, not just a shift.
Bruichladdich is the brightest of them all, with their signature robin’s egg blue everywhere… or, as they call it, “aquamarine.” The Black Art is a cheeky, Dweeb-Gothic juxtaposition, aesthetically and fundamentally different from everything else Bruiladdich was creating at the time. In real life, actual Satanists are some of the sweetest dorks you’ll ever meet. We Neckbeard Whisky Geeks fit right in. Mix your single malt with Mountain Dew at your next gathering, you have my permission.
To brush up on the bones of the distillery, I recommend reading Kelefa Sanneh’s boffo article, Reinventing Scotch Whisky, found in the February 11, 2013 issue of The New Yorker. The story Sanneh tells is a romantic one, at least until the arrival of The People With Agendas, and then it’s greed and backstabbing a-go-go as the very soul of this small and scrappy company is siphoned off in the name of greed. Granted, that applies to every industry, from education to automobiles.
For Bruichladdich, strangling the small and special, the very thing that made it popular, resulted in less exciting whisky at a more expensive price. So who benefits? I’ll let you guess, but I can assure you they don’t give a fig about Scotch.
The Black Art’s custom is that every spirit’s recipe is a secret. I know. So spooky! Thus speaketh the esoteric teachings of Magyck. Black Art was created so Jim McEwan, the renaissance Brui distiller at the time, could have freedom without the required transparency. Freedom is, as everyone knows, the fourth of the seven fundamental tenets of Satanism. If you know Jim McEwan, there is no better ambassador for a Luciferian lifestyle.
The specifics of its makings are shrouded, the bottles themselves are opaque. As a point of personal preference, let me say that this stresses me out to no end. I understand that you are entitled to keep your recipe a secret, but should the amount of whiskey I have left in the bottle be a secret as well? Can I at least see how much I have left so I know when to start hoarding its remaining contents like Gollum?
Despite what Jim McEwan said about why he created the Black Art range, it’s no different to me than The Glenlivet Nàdurras, or the color coded Macallan core NAS. It’s a cute little trick that is meant to be didactic. It doesn’t really matter how old, how long, what cask, etc. What matters is that you enjoy the liquid. The main difference between these secretive bottlings and Black Art, is that The Black Art expressions are luxury bottlings. Dear Beelzebub, are they expensive!
Which brings me to yet another mystery shrouding the Black Art, one more vexing than your Black Art’s refusal to let me gauge the amount I have left: I cannot figure out how much it costs. My searches say this specific bottle ranges from €250 to US$2,000. What? The euro’s not that strong. What’s going on? I understand taxes on international imports, but there is such a gaping difference in prices depending on the retailer. 6,000 bottles of this were made. They should all fetch the same price, in my opinion. In my commie utopia, they shouldn’t fluctuate from retailer to retailer any more than, say, $20. As they are snatched up, and their rarity increases, a bottle that sold for $1,000 today can sell for $2,000 tomorrow. That is the lack of supply and demand. Not so much a Black Art as a Green one.
I can’t tell you exactly how much my bottle cost because it was a wedding present. I have half a mind to ask the guy what he paid for it. I know, it’s gauche. That said, I’m assuming the price was quite extravagant, and I’m excited to drink it for that reason. But, anything over $700 had better make me tear up like Anton Ego and the end of Ratatouille, or I’m dissatisfied.
When we taste, we select notes from the liquid that are similar to other things. (“This is like that. Hints of that. Faint tracings of that.”) We are looking for tastes and scents that remind us of other tastes and scents; foods, spices, other spirits, everything we have stored in our sense memory bank, instantly transporting us through space and time, taking us back to a different setting. The Bruichladdich Black Art 1989 reminded me of the early 2000s. It reminded me of all the 20-30 year Scotches when I was first allowed to legally drink, and elected to drink something elegant instead of 15 Bud Lights. Before they were criminally priced. Before the new releases were mostly all the same. When you could go to any notable whisky bar in London, Seattle, or Omaha with a vast Scotch menu, the prices between $10-30 per dram, everything was incredible, everything tasted like Christmas, nothing felt underwhelming or like a rip off.
This was the most expensive bottle I’ve tasted in a long time. I’m still, after all this time, still startled that a high price does mean a superior tasting whisky. Average retail is around a grand. As soon as I saw it on our wedding gift table, I clawed it open and dove into it like a wild animal. I poured a couple of drams for some out-of-towners, but after a few parsimonious pours I stashed it out of sight. The opacity of the bottle makes it impossible to see how much liquid is left, and I need to be able to see the damage is being done.
The most notable aspect about this liquid is the red sunset hue. I didn’t clock any other notes at the time because I was distracted, because it was my wedding day. I dusted it off, three months later, for a revisit and a review, happy to discover I still have a nearly full bottle. This review took approximately 3 drams in 24 hours. It’s beautiful. But it’s $1,000! The 1989 either reveals itself painstakingly slow or, it’s not a very nuanced dram.
Bruichladdich Black Art 1989 – Review
Color: Rosy gold, pink copper. Distinguishably more pink than brown-amber. It looks like a white zin in certain lights.
On the nose: Cherry fruit roll up, light raisins, rum cake batter, faint clove, dried strawberry leaves, underripe green grapes, cherries, green apples. With water, the wine comes out to party, perhaps diluted further one might think it was a vino. More dark fruits jump out at you, red grapes, figs, pomegranate, and the typical winey florals, rosy geraniums.
In the mouth: Stroopwaffel! Buttered sourdough, a lovely sour cherry Airhead taste, a high alcohol content you cannot miss, it evaporates fast, too fast for me, it’s gone before it passes your throat, leaving a touch of medicinal tingle, menthol and spicy, tingles tongue and roof of lips. Watered down, there is wet brown sugar in full orchestra, a sour apple Blow Pop.
On the finish, it doesn’t just taper off; it vanishes. The dilution does more for the nose than it does for the mouth. The changing and opening up past the mid-palate is half the fun for me, and this bottle robs me of that fun.
I’m not dinging it for its price. It’s the price, rarity, and distinctly different color that makes this bottle riveting. If a whiskey is over $500, it had better do a drum solo on my taste buds. The nose is intriguing, the color is exciting, but the taste and finish are less than Occult Ritual-grade.