Like bumping into an old acquaintance, an unexpected sample of a former favorite brand can elicit diverse emotions.
There’s the initial jolt of surprise, which morphs quickly into the small thrill of recognition. This familiarity brings back recollections of shared times in days long since gone. Even if these memories are happy ones, there’s the slightly bitter twinge that comes from the realization of time’s inexorable passage. There can also be a slight awkwardness, as life’s divergent paths are manifest in the contrasts in appearance. Some of us age better than others.
Johnnie Walker was a companion to me at a time when I knew little about whisky and cared even less about it. That may come as a surprise to our readers who have endured my many obsessive, persnickety, pedantic dissertations on this site. Believe it or not, I once had better things to do (friends to meet out, parties to attend, women to try – mostly unsuccessfully – to charm) than bloviate endlessly about brown spirits.
I grew up, got married (call her “the one who failed to get away”), and have been blessed with two happy, healthy kids. On the whisky side, my tastes gradually evolved to favor single malts more than blends, and eventually shifted more toward other whisky regions outside Scotland. Throughout this process, Johnnie Walker dwindled in my whisky consciousness, to the point I barely thought about it at all.
This mostly reflects conditions inside my head rather than any external diminishing of the brand. On the contrary, Diageo’s darling Johnnie has become, if anything, a more persistent presence in the intervening two decades about which I am writing. Johnnie Walker remains the biggest selling whisky brand in the world among those likely to be familiar to our readers; I am disqualifying the Indian malts like Imperial Blue and Royal Stag that occupy the top four spots by volume.
As for me: oh, sure, I’d ask for a Johnnie Black on the rocks when I was at a cocktail party (an event that occurred more infrequently before the pandemic and has yet to resume at all, at least for me). In my years spent scouring supermarkets and liquor stores for coveted bottles, I certainly didn’t see many shelves that failed to contain a bottle of Johnnie Walker in one of its many incarnations. I was even tempted by a tasting set that, if anything, confirmed that my recent apathy toward the brand was well founded.
And yet, in that way that might muse on the path taken by an erstwhile associate, I sometimes found myself thinking “I wonder what Johnnie is up to?”
The answer came to me serendipitously, in the form of a sample shared by Ryan (thank you as always for your generosity). This is a new one to me: Johnnie Walker High Rye. Intrigued, I set about a little research to uncover what sets this expression apart from the others in the Walker portfolio.
As always, it’s fun to reproduce the brand’s own description verbatim:
“A mastery of blending to create a bold, new offering. It tempts palates with a revolutionary taste profile that can only be born from the powerful blend of key Johnnie Walker Black Label tasting notes and rye whisky flavors. Johnnie Walker High Rye Blended Scotch Whisky features a unique mash bill of 60% rye aged in American oak barrels, and includes notable single malts from distilleries such as Cardhu, an important part of the Johnnie Walker Black Label flavor.”
Can’t write ‘em any more turgid, folks: bold, new, revolutionary, powerful, unique. Though other things change, the ability of big Scotch’s copywriters (or the marketing firms they hire) to style supremely silly sounding statements hasn’t slipped in the least.
Setting aside all of that: this is part of the brand’s “Core Range” which implies that it will be hanging around for some time. It comes to us bottled at a strength of 45% ABV. This retails for $33 locally, consistent with the price charged for a 750 ml of Johnnie Walker Black Label (which is, for reference, 40% ABV).
Johnnie Walker High Rye – Review
Color: Medium-pale yellow gold.
On the nose: Youthful, but cheerful. Both the grain and malt components of the blend present themselves immediately with the fruity sweetness of peaches and cream. There’s the moistly yeasty aroma of underbaked dough. Concentrating on the rye, I do indeed perceive a faint spiciness, as well as a steely metallic note that I associate with that grain. There’s a faint hint of mocha in here as well, but the nose is really dominated by those sweet cream and juvenile grain notes, no matter how many times I revisit it.
In the mouth: The first taste presents more of that young, grainy character, which only grows in power as the whisky travels up the tongue. There’s a spot right in front of the center of the tongue where this hits a high point, flavor-wise. For a moment, I get a rounded richness where sweet, spicy, and savory notes combine harmoniously. This makes a short transition to a sour citrus note before once again reverting to a grain-forward and astringently woody note that screams “young whisky.” On the finish, there’s more milky creaminess that makes way for an off-bitter spiciness. Texturally this is quite flat throughout the front of the mouth; there’s a weakness and a softness to this, but it becomes a little more perky on the back of the tongue and in the throat, where the comparatively higher ABV is felt in the form of a lingering, radiant heat.
I enjoy young(er) rye whisky, and I enjoy Johnnie Walker Black Label, but this meeting of the two misses the mark for me. It’s got none of the Black Label’s maturity and depth of flavor. Rather, it feels like a downgrade in terms of the components, with every added nuance offset by the continual reminder that this is a blend dominated by young grain whisky. I’m sure it’s great for Diageo’s P&L to be able to sell this at the same price as the age-stated Black Label. However, those loyal to that expression and hoping for the equivalent (or better) will be sorely let down by this High Rye. To reflect that, I am knocking a point off of average.
That’s how it goes sometimes: you walk away from the chance encounter wishing that it had never happened. While those of us experiencing awkwardness after meeting an old friend can’t take a time machine back to the good old days, the response to an unfortunate brand expansion is altogether more straightforward. Once again, I’ll encourage those tempted to shell out for Johnnie’s latest to either go back to basics, or to walk on.
Image courtesy of Johnnie Walker.
I think it’s interesting that Johnnie Walker has been putting out ex-rye cask aged Scotch over the years. When rye whiskey started getting more popular, I recall a lot wondering why there weren’t any ex-rye cask Scotch coming out. It’s safe to say that these are most likely Bulleit Rye casks.
I can’t recall if the other brands have bottled Scotch aged in ex-rye casks. So I have to wonder if they’re not buying casks from the big American whiskey producers or they’re just not able to.
You’ve got the wrong end of the stick John. We’re not talking about spirit being aged in Rye casks. We’re talking about the mash bill for the grain whisky in this blend containing an unusually high proportion of rye.
Ugh. Didn’t double read. My bad
John, i would argue that most ex-Rye casks from the US are just called “Ex-Bourbon” or “American oak barrel” in scotch produktion. No (perceived) need to differentiate, as they’re all american standart barrels.
Same goes for Jack Daniel’s ex-Tennessee Whisky casks: Most of the time scotch producers will just call them ex-BC and not give it a second thought.
Ex-Rye casks have been a bit more popular with new distilleries over the last years, as they can impart more spice to a young whisky than ex-BC. The difference in taste should be less noticeable in longer aged whisky.
For good measure: Diageo does not produce Bulleit Rye themselves, it is distilled by MGP and i wouldn’t be to sure if Diageo barrel-store it, or buy ready-to-drink 4-year-old stock, which they only bottle. It is therefore not a given, that they would have any Ex-Rye Casks at hand.
Not that i know for a fact, but it’s certainly possible.
You may have misread the use of rye, but you got the results right. JW Black is better in every way, including in a cocktail. If they’d have made this a Black clone at 95 proof I’d have been thrilled. This is just not a good scotch whisky, full stop.