Johnnie, Johnnie, Johnnie, Johnnie, Johnnie…
How many expressions of blended Scotch whisky does one house need? Twenty-nine, says John Walker and Sons Limited – or their corporate overlords at Diageo. The core of Johnnie Walker’s range encompasses seven labels (Red, Black, Double Black, Green, Gold Label Reserve, Aged 18 Years, and Blue) with an additional four “Exclusive Blends” (XR21, King George V, Odyssey, and The John Walker), nine Limited Editions (Blenders’ Batch Triple Grain American Oak, Blenders’ Batch Wine Cask Blend, The Jane Walker, White Walker, Blue Label Ghost and Rare Brora, Blue Label Ghost and Rare Port Ellen, Blue Label Year of the Pig, Game of Thrones Ice, and Game of Thrones Fire). This is not counting the travel retail exclusive editions such as the four Black Label Origins bottlings (Highlands, Speyside, Lowlands, and Islay), Swing, the Blenders’ Batch Red Rye Finish, and the three Explorers’ Club (Gold Route, Royal Route, and Spice Road). For the collectors, there are additional city-specific editions of the Blue Label. But wait! As I’m typing this, I have noticed a press release for “The John Walker, The Last Cask.” Make that an even thirty!
Forgive that self-indulgent, Salingerian exercise in list making, but I believe it makes an important point about expression sprawl, of which Macallan is possibly the king. Brands are in competition for shelf space and have intense pressure to devote limited marketing dollars to a set of essential sub-brands with commercial longevity and individual unique selling propositions.
At the same time we – the whisky-drinking public – are a fickle and easily-bored bunch. For those passing through an airport duty-free shop, a novel expression with a perceived scarcity (the oft-abused “Limited Edition” tag gets liberal application) can mean the difference between an impulse purchase and an unmolested wallet.
A steady flow of new-ish releases, or at least fresh coats of paint on old standbys, can also guarantee regular coverage in the “News” section of whisky websites. These “articles,” which are more often regurgitated press releases, provide questionable value to Johnnie and Jane Drinker. However, they unquestionably drive site traffic, an example of the chummy symbiosis which we have eschewed here at MALT in favor of a more substantial – and critical – survey of the landscape.
As a generally curious guy and somewhat of a completist, however, I will admit to the subconscious appeal of “collecting the whole set,” as I was exhorted to do on the back of early 1980’s Star Wars action figure packaging. Today I’ll scratch that itch with a by-no-means-exhaustive survey of a swath of Johnnie Walker expressions. What I’m sacrificing in comprehensiveness I am making up for in convenience, as these came pre-packaged in a set dubbed “Discover.”
I was able to pick up these five 50 ml bottles for $40. I did the boring math and the fair market value for this wee set, based on retail prices for the full-sized bottles of each of these, is closer to $26 for the five. A 50 ml of the Blue Label is available for $20, though, putting market price closer to $34. Either way, I paid a bit of a mark-up. The things I do for you, beloved reader!
In truth, I’m most excited to try the Blue Label. My first and only run-in with this expression came in the middle of the last decade, right after university, when a friend was gifted a bottle for Christmas. Casting his pearls before swine, he opened it at a party where it was consumed rather than savored. Needless to say, my tasting notes from that experience are nonexistent.
Conceptually, I have a skeptical relationship to this expression. It’s everywhere and it’s typically the most expensive bottle on the shelf, which attracts the attention of those less-than-sophisticated drinkers who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. I liken it to the placement of Opus One Napa Valley Red on the wine lists of American steakhouses, where it is usually the priciest option. In the way that people who know nothing about wine “know” that that Opus One is “good wine,” people who know nothing about Scotch whisky “know” that Johnnie Walker Blue is “good Scotch,” based on price alone.
So, I am interested to see if the Blue Label lives up to the top billing it frequently receives. There’s a lot of blended whisky to try first, though. Without further ado, let’s tuck in.
The first is the ubiquitous Black Label, one of my all-time favorite blended Scotch whiskies. I am in the habit of enjoying this over ice at cocktail parties, dive bars, and anywhere else that the selection of whiskies is relatively limited. It is bottled at 40% and sells for around $30 in my neck of the woods, or £30.25 via the Whisky Exchange, just £24 from Amazon,or Master of Malt will charge £26.95.
Johnnie Walker Black Label – Review
Color: Medium golden-orange.
On the nose: Ahh, there it is. Wildflowers, honey and milky grain scents. A weak cup of black tea and some old cinnamon sticks. A bit of chalk and some whipped cream frosting.
In the mouth: It’s really interesting to taste this neat and slowly. At the front of the tongue there’s the astringent and tannic nip of tea – this time, a strong cup. It blossoms at midpalate with tart lemon and richly woody notes, as well as some sharper floral flavors. There’s a fade into the back of the mouth, but this also lingers with some slightly salty nut flavors and a bit of savory broth. Letting this sit a while longer, I’m getting a slightly sour and bitter aftertaste as the only obvious flaw.
This is really the blended Scotch baseline, for me. It is diluted down to minimum strength but does not taste dilute; it is self-possessed and mostly seamless. Not one that inspires philosophical meditation or poetic exuberance, but it does the job adequately for the price.
Johnnie Walker Double Black retails for around $45, but my local has it on sale for $35 currently. You can expect to pay £32.75 via the Whisky Exchange, it’s the same price on Amazon and Master of Malt. It is also bottled at 40%. The official notes state, “Johnnie Walker Double Black is matured in heavily charred casks and uses a greater proportion of characterful West Coast and Island whiskies to elevate iconic flavors to a new level of intensity.” Full disclosure: I tied this before and was not a fan, but I’m keeping an open mind – as one must do with blends – given the inescapable batch variation.
Johnnie Walker Double Black – Review
Color: Identical golden-orange color to the Black Label.
On the nose: More limited than the Black Label. This has some of the floral scents as well as a buttery note of pastry like freshly-baked brioche. There’s the faintest whiff of mint but then… nothing. The more intently I sniff this, the less I am able to discern individual nuances. It performs an olfactory vanishing act.
In the mouth: Rounder, softer, but with less personality. This is distinguished by a very subtle smokiness, but it’s merely an afterthought. The most prominent – nay, only – flavor in the middle of the mouth is a muddled malty-meatiness. There’s a bit of ash on the finish, which otherwise feels weak, save for more tea-like astringency.
The prior batch I tried was marred by an acrid smokiness that seemed like a clumsy overlay and detracted from the character of the basic Black expression. This doesn’t have that flaw, but also doesn’t have much in the way of pleasant characteristics to offset. It remains a step up in price and a step down in quality relative to Black (singular).
The Gold Label Reserve is another 40% bottling. Per the website: “Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve is created using award-winning whiskies – including fruity Highland malts and lighter Speyside malts for sweetness and spice, combined with those from the Scottish islands for our signature smoky finish.” Further, it was “created by Master Blender Jim Beveridge to celebrate nearly 200 years of the art of blending.” It’s priced at a non-celebratory $70, the Whisky Exchange charges £43.75, a more appealing price of £30 via Amazon and Master of Malt will charge £42.90.
Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve– Review
Color: Medium-light gold, a bit fainter than the others.
On the nose: Fruity, indeed. Some mango and grapefruit to start. There’s fruity hard candies and underripe kiwi. A bit of sugary pavlova, enlivened by some lemon zest. Orchard fruit here, too- green apples and yellow pears.
In the mouth: A bit of citrus to start.Vanilla wafers, an evanescent note of custard. The most wispy and fleeting flavor of ground nutmeg. There’s a slightly drying note of chalk here, before a nondescript roundness with a muted grassy accent punctuates the beginning of the finish. And the end of the finish. This literally has no finish. It leaves abruptly, without saying goodbye.
If blending is an art, then Jim Beveridge is blending’s Blinky Palermo (that’s a bit of minimalism humor for you). Considered in isolation, this is cheery and satisfactory, without conspicuous flaws. It would be a solid recommendation at 1/3 of the suggested retail price. At the current ask, this is pretty brazen in its underperformance, and is therefore being docked a point.
The notes for the 18-year-old blend read as follows: “Johnnie Walker Aged 18 Years is a smooth, well-rounded combination of up to 18 different whiskies from all over Scotland. Most of these are classic malt whiskies – which have undergone a slow, easy maturation in Scotland for at least 18 years.” Ah, it’s fascinating how much that sounds like bollocks. Also 40%; they hit you $80 for this one. The Whisky Exchange will ask for £69.95, Amazon just £59.51 and Master of Malt £69.95.
Johnnie Walker Aged 18 Years – Review
Color: Similar medium-light gold to the Gold Label.
On the nose: Ripe red apples and cinnamon, in the manner of apple cider. There’s a slightly green vegetal note, but not forceful enough to be counted as a flaw. Some butter cookies, perhaps? These are getting more amorphous and duller on the nose as the prices rise.
In the mouth: Texturally, this is quite odd. The front of the mouth has an all-together maltiness. This transitions by way of a subtly yeasty note to the midpalate, where it again becomes chalky and drying. Again, the finish is a disappearing act, with serious concentration focusing the mouth’s attention on the most watery residual flavor of green pears.
Presuming effort and price are correlated, it seems like the harder Mr. Beveridge tries, the less flavor he’s able to coax out of these. Another one that would be innocuous at best if sold for a fractional price relative to what you’re asked to pay. Another point docked.
And now, the main event. “[I]nspired by Alexander Walker’s 1867 Old Highland Whisky,” according to the website, “Johnnie Walker Blue Label is created using a selection of rare casks from the Speyside and Highland distilleries – including delicate Cardhu and Clynelish, warm, rounded Benrinnes, as well as Islay malts for our signature smokiness.” Again, bottled at 40%. This goes for $180, £150 at the Whisky Exchange, just £129.95 at Amazon and Master of Malt. I’m almost terrified to try this, expecting it to taste like pure tap water given the progression heretofore.
Johnnie Walker Blue Label – Review
Color: Same pale gold.
On the nose: More orchard fruit. Pear hard candies, the type they used to sell in a little round tin. A gentle overlay of vanilla. I’m trying very, very hard to come up with more descriptors, but I’m not being given anything to work with. It’s like having a conversation with a monosyllabic respondent.
In the mouth: Tastes like… nothing. Seriously, this may be the weakest of the bunch by far, and it’s got some lily-livered competition. If I give this a really aggressive swirl and swish it through my teeth, there’s an impossibly vague roasty-smokiness here. The palate almost has some discernible flavor at the tip of the tongue but, then again… nope. Oh, wait, there’s the musty funkiness of a shop full of old books for, like, a second. And there it goes. It’s gone.
As the old ad went, “This is a travesty and a sham and a mockery. It’s a traveshamockery!” I can’t believe this sells for $18, much less $180. The epitome of the triumph of style over substance. The marketing folks at Diageo must be geniuses; seriously, Johnnie Walker must have raided the M.I.T. physics department to find people clever enough to convince people to pay this much for this little. It’s fine, it doesn’t make me want to throw up, but… damn. $180?!? Docked double points for the preposterous asking price.
Well, that went south very quickly. I don’t know whether to be enraged or relieved. On the one hand, Johnnie Walker is ripping off anyone who pays up with the expectation of superior raw materials or craftsmanship, as the finished products bear no traces of either. But, to put a positive spin on this Hindenburg Zeppelin of a vertical tasting: if you’ve only ever tasted Johnnie Walker Black, you’re not missing anything. As in, not a consarned thing. The emperor has no clothes; he doesn’t even have chest hair.
Fools and knaves may brag about their top-shelf bottles, but now you know the secret: spend $30 and you can enjoy the best that Johnnie Walker has to offer. And, if you find yourself tempted by any of the more “prestigious” offerings sampled here, you’d best make like Johnnie and walk on.
There are commission links within this article but as you can see, they don’t affect our judgement. Images from the Whisky Exchange.