Bruichladdich fans will be familiar with the Black Art series, which have all been un-peated Bruichladdich bottlings, mostly distilled in the late 1980s and early 1990s and released at 20+ years of age. The crucial thing with Black Art is that the cask type/s and size/s are never divulged, so you never know the recipe of the whisky inside it's opaque black bottle. Most releases are widely believed to have mostly used wine casks, but nobody really knows except those that made it, and they're not telling. This concept was the brainchild of former-Bruichladdich master distiller Jim McEwan, after someone assured him that he wouldn't sell a whisky if he didn't tell anyone what was in it. Naturally in true McEwan and Bruichladdich style he proved that person wrong, because these mysterious bottlings have a large cult following, despite being quite expensive. Although they're actually quite reasonably priced if you consider the age you're getting in the bottle, and if you consider the prices of some of the competition, but the last two releases have jumped up significantly in the price department.
Glancing at the photo below, you may notice there's no mention of 'Black Art' anywhere on the packaging. What is there instead is a very convoluted "Octomore OBA Concept OBA/C.0.1" which essentially means Octomore Black Art Concept 01. So Bruichladdich haven't quite committed to calling it Octomore Black Art for some reason, but we'll let that slide for the moment. This "concept" came about during the distillery's open day masterclass during the 2016 Feis Ile, where head distiller Adam Hannett presented a rather mysterious Octomore in the tasting line-up, which he later revealed was Octomore Black Art. Naturally this created a huge amount of interest, and a few months later Bruichladdich sent out an email offering pre-orders of Octomore OBA, due to be released a few more months later in April 2017. It was limited to 2 x 500ml bottles per person on the website, and only 3000 bottles were sold in total. It was also delayed quite significantly by the production of the smaller 500ml bottles and tins, still in the Octomore style, but to Bruichladdich's credit the pricing was really quite reasonable at 95 pounds each including the VAT. Considering the demand there was for this precious stuff they probably could have doubled or even tripled that and it still would have sold out, so they really should be commended for that.
Contrary to Bruichladdich's usual MO, we don't know much about what's in this bottling. There's no ppm level stated like there is in all other Octomore releases, because it's a mix of different vintages and hence different production batches, and there's no age, vintage or cask type stated either, because it's a Black Art. But Bruichladdich have taken a page out of Compass Box's book with a few of their recent NAS bottlings as part of their transparency campaign, so one could enter a code into the distillery's website and get a little more information in return. Basically OBA is a vatting of ten casks of six different types, with the youngest being distilled in 2008, and the oldest being distilled in 2002, not long after the first Octomore batches were produced. So this means that some of the younger contents is 9 years old, which is already old for an Octomore (beaten by only the two 10 year old releases), and the oldest is 14-15 years old. The only other way to taste Octomore of a similar age is to head to Islay for a warehouse tasting at the distillery! Given that it's significantly older than most Octomore bottlings, we shouldn't expect the big peaty punch that the 5 year old bottlings provide, but there's still going to be some smoke in here.
We do know that all of the barley used for this release came from the Scottish mainland, which makes sense seeing as all of those casks involved easily pre-date the first Islay Barley Octomore (6.3, reviewed here). We don't know the cask types or cask sizes used, but after tasting this delicious dram I highly doubt that many of those ten casks were your typical ex-bourbon barrel. And just check out that colour! Speaking of which, I'm sure many were expecting OBA to be presented in an opaque black bottle, but since most Octomores are presented that way, I'm glad they went the other way with the frosted glass and the bright orange tube. It really stands out! Being a Bruichladdich it's all natural colour and is non-chill filtered, and it was bottled at cask strength (59.7%). Which is actually unusual for an Octomore, they're usually slightly reduced before bottling. As with all Black Art releases though, the proof is in the pudding! Let's get to it...
Bruichladdich OBA Concept 01 (Octomore Black Art). NAS, 59.7%. Islay, Scotland.
Vatting of 10 casks of 6 different types. Youngest distilled in 2008, oldest distilled in 2002, all from Scottish mainland barley. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 3000 x 500ml bottles.
Colour: Dark polished bronze. Gorgeous.
Nose: Bloody fantastic! Rich & fruity, dense & sweet. Smoky apricot jam, golden syrup, dusty cigar leaves, a little brine and marzipan (sweet almond paste). Very sweet berries with a little cream, warm buttery pastry, with a beguiling earthy peat underneath. Some gorgeous old oak and a little fizzy cola with more time.
Texture: Heavy weight, thick & oily. Jam-packed with flavour! No heat at all, just excellent.
Taste: Boom! Flavour explosion! So much going on at once. Heavy, oily almost acrid smoke hits first, then masses of sweet stone fruit, thick buttery caramel, some berry compote and fresh salt. Lovely big, fresh earthy peat, a little soft old leather.
Finish: Very long. More delicious fresh earthy peat, cigar smoke, bitter tannins and a little rubber bringing the sweetness down, with more of that smoky apricot jam. Then some more berries but they're much less sweet now. Soft old leather again, some charred salty smoked meat, and burnt stewed stone fruit.
Score: 4.5 out of 5.
Notes: Wow, what a whisky! Very nearly gave this one a 5 out of 5. So absolutely packed with flavour and character, with masses of fruit and surprising sweetness alongside some wonderful salt, peat and smoke. But it's not your typical Octomore by any means, and I'd say that was the idea, so if you go in looking for the 'normal' 5-year old Octomore experience you may be disappointed. But lose those preconceptions and you'll be blown away by the sheer volume of flavours that are on offer. The nose on this Black Art (let's just call a spade a spade) is amazing, almost transcendent, and the palate is almost an out-of-body experience. The peat and smoke are still there, but they're more refined and more mature in the OBA. They're less dominant and confrontational than they are in most younger Octomores, instead they're more supportive and more in harmony with the rest of the experience. And what an experience it is!
Seriously amazing stuff here. OBA is already commanding a high price on the auction circuit, especially considering it's a 500ml bottle, but honestly if you're a Bruichladdich and/or Octomore fan then you've just got to taste this at least once. Just make it happen. The original asking price from the distillery was an absolute bargain, and Bruichladdich really should be commended for that. So if you were lucky enough to score one (or two), you should be counting your blessings and thanking the 'Laddie for their generosity. I know I am.
Will we see a properly-declared Octomore Black Art in the future? Or a Port Charlotte Black Art? Time will tell, but here's hoping! Come on Adam, you know you want to...
All the best for the new year folks, see you in 2018!