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!