Tag Archives: Black Bush

The dynamite of Black and White

Simple names for serious booze

First published in Cheers Magazine (March 2020 edition).

We live in world that has become so complex, so overwhelming, so time-intensive, that I’ve made it a priority to strive for simplicity in my life, although with all the distractions and confusion out there I need to regularly remind myself about it.  And I’m not alone, by far.  Simple logic, simple pleasures, finding the essence of things – these are universally appealing ambitions, capable of explosive impact.  Simplicity offers clarity, and clarity can be priceless.  I spend a lot of time thinking about and sampling booze, probably too much time (and the jury’s out on whether it’s helping me achieve any clarity), so it surprised me recently in light of this priority to simplify, to make an observation that had previously eluded me.  There’s a multitude of simplicity in the naming liquor brands, specifically the use of black or white.

Their monochromatic simplicity aside, these are colours that serve as basic, widely understood symbols, conveying at their core powerful inferences: white as purity, innocence, goodness, and black as elegance, luxury, power, mystery, and at its darker end, degrees of malevolence.  Bruichladdich Black Art, the maverick Islay whisky, playfully taps into this vein to great effect, exuding an enigmatic, slightly dangerous unknowability – perfectly invocating the unusualness of the product itself, with its luscious, layered, almost magical notes.  Was it made in a still or a cauldron?  In Scotland or Middle Earth?  I remain unsure.

One of my favourite whiskeys is Bushmills Black Bush.  I love the rich, fruity, velvety flavour, especially in the context of its not-taking-the-piss price tag.  The name signals the luxury of the liquid, no doubt, but it supports my hypothesis even further – and in this case, a rare case indeed, it’s the people, the fans, that can take the credit.  This whiskey actually started out with a distinctly non-simple and rather cumbersome designation: ‘Old Bushmills Special Old Liqueur Whiskey’, but given its identifiably dark colouring, due to maturation largely in Oloroso sherry casks, and its black label, patrons started calling for it in more basic terms: “Barman, I’ll have the Black Bush please” – the ‘Bush’ being a contraction of Bushmills – to such an extent that this name was formally adopted.  A whiskey of the people, for the people, by the people, or as close to it as you’ll get – although the Scotch whisky Black & White has a similar story (I kid you not), being previously named ‘House of Commons’.

The white-is-good-black-is-evil axis is turned on its head by Johnnie Walker’s White Walker whisky, a commemoration of the Game of Thrones universe, and its nefarious, implacable arch-villains.  They didn’t “keep walking”, being eventually eliminated in one fell swoop, and some of them didn’t walk at all, riding horses and even a dragon, but fear and loathe them as we might, they were redeemingly handy with ice, which is what the name alludes to, so in evoking this basic whisky drinking requirement (for many) it strikes a resonant chord.  A more conventional deployment of ‘white’ can be found in Dewar’s “White Label” whisky, a stamp of quality that has served the product well since its inception in 1899, keeping Dewar’s enduringly within the world’s top 10 best-selling blended Scotch whiskies.  Tommy Dewar, the man credited with taking the brand global, literally and figuratively as he tirelessly travelled from country to country and continent to continent drumming up business, is likely the one who imparted the name.

The world of whisky is littered with appellations using these two colours – from Johnnie Black, Black Velvet, and Black Bottle, to White Horse and Jack Daniel’s White Rabbit Saloon, and even Blackadder, disappointingly named after John, a Scottish preacher, and not Edmund, the character played by Rowan Atkinson – but they certainly aren’t whisky’s exclusive preserve, being employed across a variety of spirits.  Rum and tequila use white in particular, and black sporadically, to distinguish one style from another.  Bacardi injected some Spanish flair into the practice with Carta Blanca, their standard white rum bottling, and Carta Negra, a rum aged in heavily charred casks, producing the intensely dark colour referenced by the name.   Noir King, taking a leaf from the same book, albeit in French, used the word to proudly proclaim the first ever black woman-owned cognac.

Perhaps the most poignant rendition of the theme though is O de V’s Gin White and Gin Black, which not only use the colours as their core descriptors, but which attempt to interpret them in the construction of the liquid itself: “This is the idea that we have pursued, trying to find a recipe of botanicals that characterise ‘Black’ and ‘White’”, using fruit and bold floral ingredients for the black, and softer, more fragrant elements for the white”.  It is simplicity at its poetic finest.

You may ask yourself why this matters; these are just words, pick one, pick another, it’s all the same – it’s what’s in the bottle that’s important.  The fact is though that the words, the branding, and the packaging influence our perception of flavour and our enjoyment of the drink, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the individual and the type of spirit.  This is the reason why some vodkas, to use an obvious example, despite being intrinsically indistinguishable from cheaper counterparts to the average palate, can and do sell at relatively high prices.  And the phenomenon shouldn’t be disparaged – rather the employment of any and all reasonable means to elevate enjoyment deserves applause.  You take your kicks where you get them, gratefully.  Smirnoff Black may not taste altogether very different from its 1818 stablemate, but the indulgence transmitted by this simple idea of black puts it in a different class.  Black and white, they’re a celebration of the simple things in life.  Cheers!

Bang for your buck

An antidote to perverse pricing.  PATRICK LECLEZIO identifies five whiskies vying hardest for value.

First published in Whisky Magazine South Africa (June 2018)

It’s easy to get carried away by whisky fever.  I know because I’m particularly susceptible; I’ll wax lyrical at any given opportunity, and I’ll clamour for the fancy stuff.   There is a plethora of great candidates with much to be recommended.  In fact whisky as a whole just lends itself to this enthusiasm.  The flavours are varied and interesting, and have struck a chord with a multitude of drinkers.  The stories equally are compelling: rich histories, beautiful settings, and colourful characters weave an engaging narrative.  And the industry is highly capable, having carefully cultivated and exploited these attributes.  It’s no surprise then that people tend to get passionate about this drink.  In my circles I’m often talking up all sorts of fine whiskies – usually the type that comes with an increasingly hefty price tag.  Do they warrant their cost overall, or has the market been hypnotised by the hype?   I could make the case that whisky is just a beverage.  You drink it and then it’s gone.  Are we paying the appropriate premium for perceived increments in quality?  It’s a difficult, objectively almost unresolvable, question – but I made a broader associated realisation recently.   Over the years I’ve gradually passed over the cheaper-end whiskies in my bar, subconsciously assuming that I’ll get better satisfaction from the more expensive stuff.   I needed a reality check, so I challenged myself to seek out five whiskies each costing under R500 that I could casually drink with equivalent fulfilment as my top-shelf selection (or even more fulfilment – because who doesn’t appreciate getting the same for less).  Here they are in no particular order.

Bourbon: Maker’s 46

Straight bourbon is probably the most tightly regulated of all spirits.  This situation has its positives and negatives.  Amongst the latter is the narrow band of flavour to which it is inevitably consigned, although lately, encouragingly, this has been levered wider by some innovative product initiatives.  But these can only go so far.  More exciting still is the introduction of a spate of drinks that are straight bourbon (in spirit, no pun intended), but not straight bourbon (according to the letter of the law) i.e. they usually start off as a straight bourbon, but then diverge in one way or another.   You’ll be able to identify these by their labelling, which typically reads “Kentucky Straight Bourbon…” addended with a qualifier of some sort.  Maker’s 46 is one of these.   It is effectively the same  liquid from the standard-bearing Maker’s Mark, but aged for a bit longer, during which time seared French oak staves (the divergence / qualifier) have been introduced into the barrel.   The result is a full-flavoured, hot-cross-bun of a bourbon.   There’s vanilla, toffee and biscuits here, all expected in a wheated bourbon, but I was surprised by the prominent spice, from the staves I’m guessing , and by the thick depth of the flavour:  this is one heck of rich whisky.  Maker’s 46 just squeaks into the budget, but it nails my approval by a wide margin.

Blended Scotch: Dewar’s 12YO and Dewar’s 15YO

Whilst I’ve sort of lost track of it over the years the 12YO Dewar’s had always been a personal favourite.   Nothing seems to have changed.  Dewar’s was a pioneer of “marrying” – the process during which whisky stands and settles for a few months after blending or vatting.  There are other influences of course, but this is likely a contributing factor to its extraordinary balance.  These components have clearly all got to know and like each other.  There isn’t a single argument, and there are no underlying tensions.  All the flavours work together in perfect, contented harmony within and across the nose, palate and finish.  The glorious, integrated array of fruit, cereal, spice, honey and oak in the 12YO will not disappoint, and the 15YO does it again with some added complexity.  You’ll be hard pressed to find better blended Scotch all-rounders at these price points.  Sadly they’re a bit sparse in South Africa compared to some of their peers, but it’s worth hunting around until you find them.

Blended Irish: Black Bush

If I played golf this would be my hole-in-one drink.  I’d want the celebration to be unreservedly enjoyable, I’m picturing a chorus of clicking glasses and vibrant camaraderie, but without excessively punishing my pocket.  Black Bush is the ideal catalyst for this outcome, and indeed many other wonderful occasions.  What it promises on paper: high malt content, predominant Oloroso cask ageing, significant maturation, it delivers emphatically in its full-bodied person: an intense out-of-the-park flavour that is husky, fruity, and spicy, with a masculine background of leather and perhaps tobacco.   If I had to plot the broader continuum of whisky pricing versus performance, definitely featuring a quadrant I’d label “perverse”, Black Bush would dominate the opposite position, at the head of the “charity” quadrant; for what it is they’re almost giving this stuff away.  An enduring classic.  I’ve never had a glass of Black Bush in which I didn’t delight.

Malt: Monkey Shoulder

I’ll allow myself to stand corrected but I think Monkey Shoulder is the only whisky named after an injury – one sustained by distillery workers whilst shifting barley with shiels on a malting floor.  It’s the type of quirkiness that defines this young, fun, monkey-mischievous whisky.   In days past it might have been called a triple malt, with its parts originating from three malt distilleries: Kininvie, Glenfiddich, and The Balvenie, but today it is known as a blended malt – a sadly underrepresented style, those with such clearly identifiable provenance even more so.  For this reason alone, that it’s one of few representatives, it’s a whisky worth noting.  That it’s also smooth, approachable, uncomplicated, and reasonably priced – an ideal introduction to malt whisky drinking, but with enough range of flavour, especially for what is ostensibly a young whisky, to keep the more seasoned interested – puts it over the top and into my group of hard-hitting stars.

As it appeared: http://whiskymag.co.za/bang-for-your-buck/

Hitting some Black Bush

I’ve made a sort of loose commitment to myself that I’m not going to drink tequila anymore.  Actually shoot is more apt because I don’t plan on depriving myself of the occasional margarita – that would be needless overkill.  My rationale?  Why chuck back cactus juice when I could be sipping fine whisky.  It’s taken me a while to unearth this pearl – age it seems has its merits – and to appreciate its simple beauty…but now that I have long may its lustre last.  Tequila buzz, pah…it’s a myth.

Usually occurs after shooting tequila

I recently had the opportunity to put my resolve to the test – during the bachelor party of an Irish friend.  The chaps in attendance had been known to pursue Mexican gold with the enthusiasm of modern-day conquistadors.  Once, crazed by tequila feva, two of them pinned me down whilst I was asleep, and a third squirted tomato sauce into my mouth till it seeped out of my nose.  True story.  Anyhow, on this occasion I steeled myself, ignored the taunts, and meandered towards a bottle of Black Bush.  It proved to be validation indeed – of the highest order.

Black Bush along with its little brother, Bushmills Original, is an unusual specimen amongst blended Irish whiskeys in that its component parts come from different distilleries.  This is common practice in Scotland, but in Ireland, with its mere handful of distilleries, blend composition tends to stay in-house.  Given that Bushmills has no column stills and thus cannot make its own grain whiskey it sources this instead from Irish Distillers’ Midleton distillery.  Black Bush is a malt/grain blend, so it contains no single pot still – that special nectar which I suggested in my last post as being central to the Irish whiskey identity (and of which I now have a bottle, hooray!).   Nevertheless the Bushmills brothers can truly claim to be the most representative of Irish whiskeys – the malt comes from County Anheim in the North, where the Bushmills distillery is located, and the grain comes from County Cork in the South, home to Midleton.   I can well imagine that this would have been the dram served during the Good Friday peace talks.

This is some light-hearted conjecture on my part of course.  But I thought I’d throw it into the mix.  I’m reasonably confident that I’m toeing the party line.  Whisky makers in my opinion are deliberately cagey about the makeup of their products; this both encourages positive conjecture amongst consumers and it keeps their options open.   Marketers will tell you that mystique adds to the allure.  This is all somewhat self-serving.  I’m pretty sure it’s not in the consumer’s best interests to be left in the dark.  When you’re shelling out hundreds of rands and more for a bottle of whisky you deserve to know – as precisely as is reasonable, and as is the case with most other product categories – what it is that you’re getting.

In this game it seems that Bushmills is no exception.   The label claims that it is “matured to perfection in sherry casks” and indeed the sherry influence is its defining feature.  However, I’ve struggled to definitively confirm whether it is exclusively or just predominantly matured in sherry casks.  Frustratingly there are other grey areas; notably its age, and the proportions of grain and malt.  Withholding the latter is hardly unusual, and indeed this may need to vary to maintain flavour consistency from bottling to bottling.  In fact I really don’t mean to single out Black Bush.  I’m for the moment bottling in a full-blown tirade – but springing a few leaks in the process.

Anyhow, as much as I was distracted by picking over these details, I didn’t let it deter me from fully and unreservedly appreciating this exceptional product.  From the first glance at its rich maple syrup colour this whiskey exalts the sherry womb from which it (mostly?) sprang.  The nose is big and fruity with a spicy undertone – I could picture a mince pie made with delicate phyllo pastry.

Inside every bottle of Black Bush

The liquid has a full, but slick mouthfeel, with the intense fruit persisting on the palate, and the spice, identifiably cinnamon, more prominent than before.  The oak is restrained, imbuing the whiskey with a well-rounded, smooth, balanced character without ever taking centre stage.    Fine stuff from start to the finish – which incidentally reminded me of something that I couldn’t quite place at the time: a high quality Turkish Delight.  It was only after sampling some Bushmills 10yo, in which this flavour resonates, that the penny finally dropped.

Pronounced in the 10yo

Black Bush has undoubtedly deepened my love of Irish whiskey.  To coin those famous lyrics “the pipes the pipes are calling”.  I’ll be sure to answer as regularly as I responsibly can.

I love Irish whiskey

And to anyone who doesn’t I have this to say – don’t be an eejit man!  Tree times distilled, you canna go wrong…

One who does not like Irish whiskey

In many ways the history of Irish whiskey reflects the very soul of Ireland itself: tragic, principled, enduring, resurgent, and throughout it all, ebullient, and abundant in lyricism and warmth.  The Irish story is bittersweet, having travelled a course of buoyant victories and bitter setbacks.  It led the charge of whisky in the nineteenth century, but passed on the trend to blend, much to its commercial detriment.  Scottish corporate interference then stunted the industry’s capacity to produce grain whiskey.  One hindrance followed another.  Independence and separation from the Empire deprived it of vast markets.  The industry shunned bootleggers and then was insufficiently prepared for the revocation of Prohibition, leading to severe reversals in one of its most successful markets.  Later post-war government policies further limited development, bringing the once flourishing industry to its knees, ravaged and barely hanging on with only 2 distilleries still operating.

But hang on it did, and in the last 20 odd years it’s been progressively emerging from the darkness.  There are now two new distilleries, independent and Irish-owned to boot.  And then there’s Jameson, the leading Irish whiskey brand and spearhead of the recovery, today logging sales of over 3 million 9-litre cases annually…and still growing.    As the more perceptive amongst you may have gleaned from the title of this post, I’m a big a fan of Irish.  So I couldn’t be happier about this turnaround.  There’s still some way to go but I’m starting to believe that it’s on its way to reclaiming its rightful place in the whisky pantheon – which is important, not only because Ireland is the birthplace of whisky, but more so because Irish offers whisky lovers an astonishingly good, and meaningfully distinct style of whisky.  The more it thrives the richer our whisky adventure becomes.

What makes Irish Irish?  As with Scotch any such analysis is general at best.  The industry may be more limited than that of its celtic cousins, but its whiskeys are significantly diverse.  Nonetheless, certain signature features have evolved over the centuries which on a broad level may be considered representative.  Most people know about triple distillation.  Whether this makes a whiskey “twice as smooth” is debatable, but it certainly does have an effect.  The original strength – i.e. before reduction – is higher than a twice-distilled whisky and this will influence flavour.  Furthermore the stills are notably and consistently larger than those of the Scotch industry.  You’ve probably heard stories of distillers replacing old stills by putting dents in a new still to match those that were on the original: it’s not scientifically quantifiable but it’s accepted as fact that the size, shape, and surface area of a still impact flavour.  They affect the “conversation” of the spirit with the copper.  These are the subtle differences – more tangible is the difference in ingredients.  Irish generally uses unpeated malt in its mashbills, whereas Scotch (very generally) uses peated malt.  And whereas the single malt is the bastion of Scotch, the heart of Irish is the single pot still (previously known as the pure pot still), made from a mixture of malted and unmalted barley (and sometimes a sprinkle of oats).

Peat. Lots in Ireland, little in Irish.

Single pot stills are still scarce, although this is changing as the industry prospers again.  Until recently there were only 2 brands, Redbreast and Green Spot, available…but sparsely distributed.  Two new brands – under the Midleton and Powers umbrellas – were introduced this year.  These are all produced at Irish Distillers’ Midleton Distillery, however there are rumours that Cooley, the aforementioned independent distiller, is now also producing and laying down stocks of single pot still.  Hooray!

The Single Pot Still family

I’ve got to come clean.  I’m trumpeting this news and singing the praises of Irish despite having never tasted a single pot still.  This will imminently change.  A bottle of Redbreast soon will be winging its way to me.  Irish blends can be made with a combination of any or all of single pot stills, single malts, and grain whiskeys.  The grain whiskey is usually lightly flavoured so as not to interfere with the “master” component. I’m very partial to brands such as Jameson, Tullamore Dew, and Powers, but recently, when biting down on my regular-ish Jameson, I’m left with the impression that it’s over-diluted.  I like the flavour tremendously but I’m not getting enough of it.  The more premium versions, like the Gold Reserve, which obviously have a greater proportion of single pot still (and also benefit from longer maturation), go some way to solving the problem, but I want more.  I need to take my appreciation of Irish on a journey, and there can only be one destination – single pot still.  So I’m as familiar with and as confident about this style of whiskey as it’s possible to be without actually having tasted it.

I recently told a mate of mine who works for Diageo that Bushmills wasn’t a real Irish whiskey, because it doesn’t have a single pot still component.  He was seriously unimpressed by this opinion.  Admittedly I was being unfair, and exaggerating my point (I like to stir).  The truest of Irish, the heart of its tradition, is the single pot still, but that should by no means exclude the other fine whiskeys produced on the island.  To make up for this slight I’m going to follow-up on this post with a review of Black Bush, an unfortunately named (try an unfiltered image search on google), but superbly constituted whiskey.

Until then may the dram be with you!