Surprising an alcohol journalist is not easy. Not when you routinely travel, sample innumerable products, and attend countless tastings in Manhattan. But Bruichladdich pulled off a pleasant surprise this week by chauffeuring writers to an undisclosed location for the 2023 release of their mystery-cloaked Black Art single malt.
Normally, a stylish NYC restaurant is part of the PR pitch. Instead, what caught the eyes of alcohol writers was the lack of known location — only the promise that we would receive rides, there and back. My wife and mother-in-law worried about this cryptic plan; both made me promise to text when I knew where I was dining.
Turns out the trip was only 15 minutes from Grand Central. From there I boarded a Chevrolet Suburban for the short ride to 53 Restaurant, a newer contemporary Asian spot midtown, adjoining the MoMA.
Culinary art was an easy parallel between the food and single malt. Distilled on Islay, Bruichladdich is the region’s rare Scotch produced unpeated. Rather than smokiness, their whiskies are known for a buttery roundness, the backbone beneath bright citrus, dried fruit and salty seaside flavors.
These proved perfect companions for the Asian appetizers. Citrus and maritime elements in the brand’s flagship, The Classic Laddie, matched the richness of Xiaolongbao dumplings and Royal Shumai lobster.
Pairing Bruichladdich with Manhattan delights is quite the comeback for a distillery that spent nearly two decades inoperable. Founded in 1881, Bruichladdich was among many Scotch producers that shut down in the early 1990s, when the industry bottomed out. That was then; now, brown spirits are amidst a new boom time. Bruichladdich reopened in 2001, led by The Classic Laddie in its unusual aqua-blue cannister.
Beyond an eye-catching color, the packaging also includes as much text as you’ll see on a label. And the bottle itself sports a batch code that leads to even more information about each particular product online. “We believe everyone should have the right to know what’s in their whisky,” said Jason Cousins, Bruichladdich brand ambassador, during the tasting.
This commitment to transparency is purposefully and playfully at odds with the mysteries behind the brand’s annual Black Art release. Other than age and ABV, we receive no other info. Typically, these older-age expressions blend a number of cask finishes, including stocks from before the distillery closed down.
The 2023 release, Black Art Edition 11.1, is 24 years old and 44% ABV. On the nose, dried dark fruit and citrus lead into notes of peaches, vanilla and red wine casks. These flavors continue onto the palate, which opens with a salty maritime note before bursting into big fruits above a lovely barley backbone. Altogether, another phenomenal entry in this popular series, perfectly balanced and easy drinking.
And robust enough to stand up against the heavier Asian fare that followed: Beef tenderloin with black peppercorn, Kung Pao quail egg and Black Cod clay pot with crispy rice. The latter was the standout, perfectly cooked with a lovely crunch, a best seller at 53 Restaurant.
Midtown Manhattan, a global tourism mecca, is not what New Yorkers think of for nuanced dining. 53 Restaurant, however, sheds the district’s Disneyworld vibe for an authentic, artsy, modern experience. A visit is well worth the effort of finagling reservations or snaring a spot at the impressively stocked bar.
Black Art bottles, limited in release, are also difficult to come by. Edition 11.1 is likewise worth the effort: a top-shelf expression that belongs in the collection of any Scotch aficionado.
Enjoyable conversation among alcohol industry colleagues caused me to stay too long. With 15 minutes until my Metro-North left for Connecticut, I faced the choice: risk the ride back through New York traffic, or take fate into my own hands — or feet. I ran. Nine blocks total through tourist-packed midtown, past St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Rockefeller Center, down into the liminal depths of Grand Central 47th Street, where I caught my train by seconds, panting and sweating. A familiar Manhattan experience, no mystery in any of that.