I honestly can’t believe it took the Newcomers Whisky Club over four years to finally conduct a tasting of The Whiskies of Johnnie Walker! For some of the most well-known, truly ubiquitous whiskies in the world, for us to have waited this long is probably some sort of whisky heresy! But all is now right in the world! NWC can now check of Johnnie Walker from our list of must try whiskies and continue our travels further down the road!
Given that Johnnie Walker is so recognizable, even by non-whisky drinkers (yes, there are a few of those poor souls out there!), I won’t go into a lot of detail here, but it is valuable to understand the impact of this brand to the broader scotch whisky industry.
The Johnnie Walker brand is owned by the gigantic drinks conglomerate, Diageo. With annual sales of over 130 million bottles, Johnnie Walker whiskies are available in almost any country in the world, at nearly every bar or liquor outlet, and on the shelves of countless home bars.
Beyond its inherent popularity, the Johnnie Walker whiskies are a marketing phenomenon that began early in its history. Originally known as Walker’s Kilmarnock Whisky, in 1908 the brand was revamped and the Johnnie Walker name was introduced, along with the slogan “Born 1820—Still going Strong!” and the iconic “Striding Man” logo that is prominently featured on their bottles and in their advertisements.
Another event that had long-lasting impact on the brand occurred in 1860 when Alexander Walker, the son of John Walker, introduced the square bottle as a means of fitting more bottles into the same space and to reduce breakage. Although initially intended for very practical reasons, the square bottle has become en an identifying trademark in its own right.
And the final step in creating its iconic presentation is the label, which is applied to the bottle at a precise angle of 24 degrees. Angling the label allowed the text to be larger and increasing visibility. Combined, the square bottles and the angled label created a unique look that has become synonymous with Johnnie Walker whiskies.
The Whiskies of Johnnie Walker
For our tasting, we followed the whiskies in order of pricing, even though that meant getting a little more smoke early in the lineup, but it also allowed us to save the revered Blue Label for last.
We began, as you’d expect, with the famed Red Label, a non age-statement blended scotch whisky that is reportedly the highest selling scotch whisky in the world! The Red Label might also be considered the first global whisky as it was brought to markets far outside the reaches of the UK. Bottled at 40% abv, Red Label is a blend of 35 grain and malt whiskies. Reportedly, Red Label was the favorite Scotch of Winston Churchill, who mixed it with soda.
From there we moved on to the Black Label, a 12 year old blend of about 40 whiskies. Caol Ila and Talisker are the dominating single malts in this blend and contribute the signature peaty, smoky flavors. Black Label is also bottled at 40% abv.
Continuing down the lineup we sampled the Double Black, a relatively new addition to the core range. An NAS blend, Double Black Label expands on the concept of the Black Label, but goes further using a greater proportion of peaty West Coast and Islay malts and then matured in heavily charred old oak casks.
Our next whisky was a newer release from Johnnie Walker, a 10 year old whisky finished in Rye Casks. The Rye Cask Finish, a 10 year old blend is the first in a planned series of limited edition wood-finished releases. With Cardhu single malt at the heart of the blend, this blend is then finished in ex-rye whiskey casks. The Rye Cask Finish proved to be a rather interesting and enjoyable whisky that showed a surprising evidence of the rye whisky notes!
Moving up the range, we then tried the Gold Label Reserve, a blend of over 15 single malts, particularly Clynelish. The Gold Label used to be released as an 18 year old bottling, but in 2013 Gold Label was replaced with an NAS blend labelled “Gold Label Reserve,” purportedly due to a lack of available matured stock.
Then we sampled the Platinum Label, which now carries the 18 year age statement that the Gold Label used to carry. (hmmm, didn’t they drop the 18 year statement on the Gold Label because of insufficient stocks?). Along with this new 18 year old release came a rather hefty price jump. Where the Gold Label sells for $65, the new Platinum Label carries a $100 price tag.
For the Grand Finale, we sampled the luxury Blue Label, Johnnie Walker’s premium whisky. The Blue Label is another NAS blend intended to recreate the character and taste of 19th century whiskies. Each bottle is numbered and comes in an extravagant box. Until recently, Blue Label has been one of the most expensive blended Scotch whiskies available, although that has changed with some new, high-end blends coming out (Compass Box). Prices for the Blue Label can range from $200 to as high as $450 depending on your market. Fortunately, if you really want to try Blue Label, but don’t want to shell out that much money, they do sell 200 ml bottles ($65 here in Texas).
To close out this summary, I invite you to watch the Johnnie Walker “commercial” it is very, very well done. Titled “The Man Who Walked Around the World” this is:
“a six-minute, one-shot short film stars Robert Carlyle, strolling down a gravel road in the Scottish countryside, recounting Walker’s progress from humble grocery to global whisky brand — all with the help of a few carefully placed props that vary from a wall of TVs and family portraits to a full whisky bar and a highland cow, all appearing along the road with impeccable timing.” (www.adage.com)