As we launch Black Art 9, Head Distiller Adam Hannett's fifth edition, he answers some big questions about the concept, the process, and the legacy.
What's the story behind how the Black Art concept started?
The Black Art concept was very much Jim McEwan’s. It was a vehicle for him, starting from ambition and the ability/freedom to explore the wood, to revel in the blending and the role of the cask in making whisky. Jim is a whisky legend who started out as a cooper. Even though he had been running distilleries and involved in everything, one of his great loves was maturation.
When he started at Bruichladdich, they were going into new territory with sourcing casks. They had the freedom and ability to start buying casks from some of the great chateaux in Bordeaux and around the world, using flavours and casks that hadn’t been used before.The quality of the oak that was being used was absolutely phenomenal.
French oak is very different to American oak, which was 99.9% what was used in the whisky industry then. Exploration, challenge, has deep roots in the origins of the distillery and origins of Black Art.It was about trying new things and seeing where the flavour was going.
In my role, I know that when you take some Bruichladdich spirit that’s been maturing in a refill bourbon hogshead with a classic flavour, then you put it into a red wine with amazing French oak behind it, you start picking up all these amazing fruity, charry notes from the wine. Then this lovely structure and quality of the oak comes through to help shape that spirit… You get something completely different! It’s a new lens of flavour. So many new things develop that you completely turn away from the previous maturation profile.
When Jim was blending these casks, he would transfer the whiskies into certain casks and keep adding, making all these layers of flavour, things people hadn’t tasted before. There was this creative storm going on, bringing all these flavours all together.
That was the concept of Black Art. The name idea came to him because somebody asked the question ‘Jim, what are you doing?’ ‘Can’t tell you, completely secret – just trust me’.
So the craft, the secrecy, it was like an opportunity to try things that people hadn’t done before. The more we said, ‘We’re not going to tell you, this is just what we do! You don’t need to know; you just need to enjoy it…”, the more freedom we had to look at the layers of flavour you could get from hundreds of different cask types. The editions follow a sort of instinct through all those different options. They have a similar story, same DNA, but each one is an unrepeatable, unique whisky.
As a project, Black Art has a lovely perpetuity to it: it was started before you by your predecessor, and casks you lay down now will be handled by your successor – how does it feel to be a part of this legacy?
For me that goes wider than Black Art; that’s what distilling is!
That’s one of the great things you very quickly realise when you first walk into a warehouse and start moving barrels that have been laid there, with dates on from before you were born.
For the stock we are laying down today, I won’t be the person putting that into a bottle.
Something that Jim always used to say, and I think I have always been aware of, is that your job is to look after the distillery for the next generation. Leave it in a better place than where you found it.
I look back at Jim and Duncan (McGillivray)… When they brought Bruichladdich back to life, everything was about building it back up. I can see now that they put as much hard work in as they could so that when Allan and I took over those roles, we were in a better position. I see our jobs as the same thing. It’s about growing Bruichladdich, building it and about putting in foundations to pass on to the next generation.
We have interesting challenges just now (I say interesting, but they are scary…). Sustainability concerns, and climate change, mean it’s critical to our job now how we think differently and evolve. How will we leave this distillery in a better place for future generations?
I do see that with Black Art, but its wider than Black Art. That’s what distilling is. It’s time travel I suppose.
The project seems to be a blessing and a curse: it’s one where you have complete creative freedom, but there’s also a pressure to make something incredible every time. How do you overcome these pressures?
I suppose I don’t really see it as pressure. What you have got to remember is that we are not just looking at that one moment? It goes from the barley that’s grown, to the way the spirit’s distilled, to the cask that we fill, the cask that we blend and re-cask… At each part of the process, it’s being monitored to ensure it’s at its best, at every single point. So when I go to blend that Black Art, I’m not worried about anything. We have put the work in so I know that when I start that blending process, I’m starting with excellence.
For Black Art, I may start looking at the recipe seven or eight years before it ends up in a bottle, it could be longer.
It’s not something to worry about, but a lovely thing is you don’t know what you will end up with. There is experience and knowledge there to guide you along the way and you know what you want to try and aim for but you don’t know how that spirit’s going to work out until it’s finished. You have got to take risks – no one ever did anything great from repeating the same old, same old; it’s about trying new things. That’s the DNA that’s been instilled in me, to try new things – it maybe comes quite naturally to the distillery as its what we have always known.
That creative freedom – if you feel pressured by that then you are probably in the wrong job! It should be a pleasure to have that creative freedom, to try new things and see what happens; that’s the essence of Black Art.
Your website says each of the Black Art bottlings capture a moment in time. What moment was that for Black Art 9?
That’s an interesting one! I suppose Black Art 9 was a bit of a reflection on the other eight releases in the series. With Black art 8 I had taken a bit of a different tack in wanting to bring a little more balance to the pre-2001 spirit so it wasn’t always about the flavour from the wood. But with Black Art 9 I took inspiration from the very beginning. The re–casks that we would be doing in those days, you would take your spirit on a Monday and by the end of the week, move it into a different cask. So there was these rapid changes to peel the layers and build the profile from each of those cask types. As Black Art 9 evolved, I wanted to go back to the idea of these very short, short maturation periods so that you were building up layer upon layer upon layer quickly, on top of similar work previously. Then bringing everything together. I think it’s worked really nicely!
What you will find with Black Art 9 is that there are a lot of different facets to it, in how the flavour profile changes as you taste it, and let it open, and nose it…
So Black Art 9 was a combination of looking back at the methods we have used over the years and bringing in another step to it and combining those – a bit of a reflection.
How do you feel about the new release? Do you feel this is the best Black Art yet?
Well, I think it’s probably unfair to say it was the best one yet! Again to refer to the other question about taking over the work that Jim was bringing out, I wouldn’t say any of my whiskies were better than his, or his better than mine. What you are looking at is just these different expressions you are able to create from almost doing the same thing. Just letting that creative freedom take you in different directions and letting the different cask types take you in different directions. And time plays out. That’s the joy of it! We can never recreate them.
The wonderful thing is that they are not meant to be the same all the time. They are going to have these different flavour profiles. That’s what keeps you coming back for more. They are unique spirits – like children – you never have a favourite child, they all have these unique characteristics and unique personalities.It’s a bit like that for me, all magical in their own right.
It is a fantastic whisky, Black Art 9. What we have done with those short periods of maturation, built upon those longer periods of maturation – you just have more depth than we probably ever had before with Black Art.
I have always said that Black Art is the kind of whisky that you can pour one dram and you can sit there for hours drinking it. Just nosing it, smelling it. I think that’s absolutely something that Black Art 9 is for.Just nosing it over the course of time. There’s so much in there, so much complexity, huge depth. It’s fantastic…