Black Velvet Whiskey

What colors excite, or revolt, the appetite? It is a popular wisdom that we are not keen, for example, on blue items of food and drink. In America, the “blue” corn of New Mexico is ripely fashionable, but really more purple-tinged. Despite the blue bottle, Bombay Sapphire Gin is colorless. Blue Cura’ao is just for jokey cocktails.

Black, perhaps surprisingly, is a different matter. It has been the pure genius of Guinness advertising to make that smooth, mysterious, profound brew as chic as its black-clad young drinkers. In Brussels, I once enjoyed a pint of Guinness while forking into the black shells of mussels served in a black-enameled kettle. The black clad trendies might prefer it with inkfish risotto.

The Parisian writer J.K. Huysmans, of the ‘decadent’ school, imagined in his 1884 novel Against Nature a ‘virile,’ all-black meal embracing caviar, game ‘in sauces the colour of boot-polish,’ plum puddings, porter, and stout. I may prepare something black for Burns’ Night, January 25. Caviar and smoked salmon? A little black pudding, perhaps, as a second starter? If the haggis is not sufficiently sable, merely a mottled grey, I shall darken it with a splash of black whisky.

Lovers of esoteric whiskies will know the very rare Black Bowmore. This is a single malt made by the distillery at Bowmore, in the western whisky island of Islay. The Bowmore distillery traces its history back to 1779, though it has for some years been controlled by Suntory, of Japan. All Bowmore whiskies have the dark tastes of the iron-tinged rock whence the water rises, the earthy peat over which it flows, and the same material used in the malting kiln. Black Bowmore is a special vintage, laid down in 1964 in sherry casks. The sherry must have been as rich as tar. The whisky emerged almost as dark as black olives, with a firm body and a complex of flavors ranging from flowers and leaves to rooty licorice. A mighty whisky, with a price to match.

At a tenth of that price, there is now an even blacker whisky, and indirectly it comes from Guinness. It is unlikely to receive advertising of “Pure Genius” proportions, but it is aimed at the same audience. Guinness owns United Distillers, which in turn operates more than two dozen malt whisky distilleries and has access to the stocks of another ten that are mothballed, closed, or even demolished. This represents about a third of Scotland’s distilleries.

The new black whisky comes from the Highlands. The distillery is at Mannochmore, on the river Lossie, south of Elgin, one of the main towns of Speyside. Mannochmore is a relatively young distillery, built in the early 1970s to provide malt whisky for the Haig blended Scotches. Its whisky was first released as a single malt in the early 1990s. That version, at 12 years old, was as pale as white wine, very flowery, lightly perfumy, clean and dry. It was intended for marketing only in the area of the distillery.

Now, Mannochmore has introduced a single malt at ten years that is as black as ebony, with the aroma of mint toffee; a light but smooth body, with some texture; and warming, spicy, banana-like flavors. Its lightness of body, and the gentleness of those toffeeish flavors, are in contrast to the assertively black color. I suppose you could say the same of Guinness, and certainly of other popular medium-dry stouts like Murphy’s and Beamish.

This new version of Mannochmore is called Loch Dhu (“Black Lake”). There are plenty of dark-looking waters in the area of the distillery, but the brand-name was really inspired by the color of the whisky. How is this color achieved?

Instead of enjoying the traditional maturation in sherry casks, this Scotch whisky has been aged in Kentucky Bourbon barrels. In itself, that is not unusual. Sherry wood is today less widely used than Bourbon barrels in the Scotch whisky industry as a whole. All Bourbon barrels are charred on the inside, so that the Kentucky whiskey (spelled with an ‘e’) can permeate the wood. This helps give Bourbon its darkish color and rich, oaky, vanilla-like flavor. However, once the wood has imparted its color and flavor to a batch of Bourbon, it has less to give to any Scotch with which it might be filled. This has generally been thought to be a welcome restraint, as excessive oakiness could overwhelm a whisky as delicate and complex as most Scotches.

Used Bourbon barrels are imported to mature Loch Dhu, but they are treated in some way that United Distilleries declines to discuss: ‘That is a secret we intend to keep,’ I was told. As far as I can establish, it involves a coating, and possibly a caramelisation. After this ‘secret treatment,’ the wood is said to receive a second charring. This would certainly yield more vanilla flavors, but I believe the banana and mint notes come from natural chemical reactions promoted in the whisky by the treatment of the wood. Is it worth the trouble? Yes, if the product is a commercial success. There is a further motivation. Whisky distillers are still learning about the sources of aromas and flavors in their products, and especially about the influence of wood. ‘We have 25 years of wood chemistry behind us,’ a spokesman commented to me. ‘It’s time we applied some of this research.’

Black seems to the color of the new year. In France recently, I spotted a Scotch whisky called Black Barrel. This turned out to be a single grain whisky, made at the William Grant distillery at Girvan, in the Lowlands. William Grant is better known for single malts such as Glenfiddich and Balvenie, distilled on Speyside. Grain whiskies may be made from unmalted barley, wheat, or maize. They are usually sweeter, lighter, and less complex than malt whiskies. Black Barrel indicates a well-charred oak, but not a very dark whisky. The product emerges with a full golden color, a smoky aroma, a surprisingly big, smooth body, and an assertively sweet, almost syrupy, palate. Plenty of juicy wood-extract there. This whisky is not yet available in the U.S.

The pioneer of unusual woods, Glenmorangie, has recently introduced two more. After its winey-tasting vintage aged in port pipes comes Glenmorangie Madeira Finish. This golden malt is predictably buttery, with a huge development of flavors towards its big cakey finish. It was introduced in the U.S. in the fall of 1996. More adventurous yet is Glenmorangie Tain L’Hermitage finish, sadly never released in the U.S. This pinkish-amber malt had 12 years in Bourbon wood and five in Rhone wine barrels from the region around the town of Tain L’Hermitage. A neat conjunction there: Glenmorangie is made near the little town of Tain, in the northern Highlands. The whisky of the two Tains is oily yet firm, with a remarkably dry fruitiness (some tasters have found rhubarb, others Victoria plums), and great length. That’s the one after dinner on the 25th.

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