On the occasion of my roommate's brother's university graduation, only one Scotch was fine enough for the celebration Johnnie Walker's Blue Label, an almost mythical ambrosia, and a fine whisky at over $30 a dram, and nearly $250 a bottle (as per the Liquor Control Board of Ontario). While I have never tried this masterfully crafted Scotch, I have it on high regard that it is a stellar blend. But something inside of me balks at this, for, at heart, Johnnie Walker's Blue Label, Blend of Rarest Scotch Whiskies is still just that a blend. While I don't want to get picky, I'll simply say that, had I $250 in my pocket for spending on liquor, it would not go toward this Scotch, but toward a fine single malt, one that is, in all likelihood, just as good or better, and at a comparable price. Such is the thinking of the Scotch snob, I suppose. And yet, I must admit that there is an appeal to the Johnnie Walker line up of Scotches. I am not sure what it is about them, but they seem almost to call to you, drawing you in with their simplicity, but also their elegance, and perhaps even their history. Even after a horrendous experience with Johnnie Walker Red Label my first dram of Scotch whisky, and an atrocious one, to say the least I find myself, every time I visit the liquor store, hovering before the selection of Johnnie Walker blends for several minutes before I finally am able to draw myself away. Perhaps it is the admittedly gorgeous, shapely bottles that the company uses. Or perhaps its the simple commercial appeal of the crafty 'striding man' that appears on every bottle. I do not know, and, until about twenty minutes ago, I did not care.
Recommend this product?
I say twenty minutes ago, for that was my first taste of Johnnie Walker Black Label 12 Year Extra Special Old Scotch Whisky, the layman's blend, and the answer to to the question of, What do we drink when the Blue Label is simply too far out of reach? I will admit, right away, that I was pleasantly surprised by Johnnie Walker Black Label, as at only ten dollars more than its younger sibling - I wasn't expecting a much-improved spirit. But, to my shock, I have discovered a rich whisky that, while not as refined or complex as any of my favourite single malts, offers an enjoyable dram, at a price that certainly won't break the bank. At approximately $42 Canadian a bottle (750ml/26oz), the Black Label is in the same price range as Glenfiddich 12 Year Old, a single malt over which and it almost pains me to say this it absolutely dominates.
But perhaps we should take a step back first and, as always, briefly explain Scotch whisky and its various incarnations. Whisky (or whiskey) in broad strokes, is simply a distilled alcoholic beverage crafted from grains and aged in oak barrels. It is a drink that is made nearly anywhere that grain is grown, but often differ greatly in the details. Rye whiskey, for example, must be made from at least 51% rye, while bourbon must be made from 51% to 79% corn. But Scotch whisky, likely the most legendary and revered incarnation of this distilled eau de vive, carries with it its own strict set of rules. Scotch, as the name implies, must be distilled at a Scottish distillery from water and malted barley (though other whole grains may be added), distilled to a strength of less than 94.8% alcohol by volume, and aged or matured there for a minimum of three years in oak casks that previously held bourbon (a process that imparts additional flavours, while adding colour and mellowing the original distilled product). The final, matured product usually bottled at no less than eight-to-ten years must not contain any added substances beyond water and caramel colour, and may furthermore not be bottled at less than 40% alcohol by volume. If these rules sound complicated, this is perhaps more a result of my inability to explain things for a primer on Scotch, you can visit any number of sources that offer far more information and perspective than I could ever offer in a simple glance at the subject.
In any event, the final result offered by Scotch distilleries is deeply affected by any number of factors that arise along the process of distillation, maturation and bottling. Region is often perceived as playing a vital role in the character of a Scotch, with environment subtly shaping the whisky that is produced. Southern Islay distilleries, for example, often share a strong peaty character, with additional iodine and salt notes, while distilleries in the Highland region tend to offer whiskies that are lighter in character. After distillation, maturation can further affect the character of a whisky, with many Scotch makers aging their product in additional casks after primary maturation in American oak barrels (for example, the Balvenie 12 Year Old DoubleWood, which spends time in Oleroso sherry casks, or the Glenmorangie 12 Year Old Port Wood Finish, which spends two years in port pipes after the initial aging period). Even bottling can deeply affect a Scotch, as different whiskies are diluted and bottled at anywhere from 40%-60% and beyond. A number of whisky makers, further (especially some of the larger distilleries), chill-filter their end product, a process that involves chilling and filtering the whisky before bottling it it is a process that removes some of the volatiles produced during distillation or maturation (and prevents the whisky from becoming hazed when it is chilled or when ice is added to it), though critics contend that it also removes some of the vital flavour and body of the whisky.
Finally, there are the classifications of Scotches, upon which so much debate rests, and that is the single malt blended Scotch divide. Single malt Scotch whisky, the domain of connoisseurs and the pretentious, is the product of a single distillery, made from 100% malted barley. Blended Scotch, in contrast, is a mixture of single malt whisky and grain whisky from multiple distillers. A blended Scotch is, generally, made from as many as fifty different single malt and grain whiskies, with the goal in mind of creating a consistent flavour. As such, blended Scotch whiskies if nothing else have the market on consistency virtually cornered; you can be assured, for example, that every bottle of J&B Scotch will have virtually the same nose and palate, bottle after bottle, year after year (as awful as that nose and palate may be). With single malts though they are unquestionably more distinct and often far richer in flavour this is simply not the case; there has, for example, been a well-documented change in the profile of Talisker 10 Year Old over the last several years, with the brand only recently beginning to recapture some of its more unique characteristics. For my part, however, I will nearly always select a single malt over a blend. Perhaps it is pretension, maybe its my bad experience with Johnnie Walker Red Label, or maybe there is a real, true, recognizable difference. I will, however, admit that I have the utmost respect for the master blenders whose job it is to test cask after cask and blend whiskies to consistently create a perfectly harmonious product it is simply breathtaking to consider the difficulty of this task, especially since this blending is undertaken with only the help of the blender's nostrils.
That said, there is no questioning that Johnnie Walker is the absolute and undisputed king of blended Scotch whisky, the most widely distributed brand of Scotch on Earth, with worldwide sales of over 120 million bottles per year. And while their quality can be questioned, their consistency, and their rich heritage, most definitely cannot. Johnnie Walker began life as Walker's Kilmarnock Whisky, when Johnnie himself began selling whisky in his grocery store in Ayrshire, Scotland. But while the brand was popular, it was his son and grandson, Alexander Walker and Alexander Walker II who established the whisky or more cynically, the brand - as the powerhouse that it is today. The company, still family operated (though it is owned by beverage giant Diageo), offers five whiskies, beginning with the bottom-line Red Label, and progressing through the colour spectrum the 12 year old Black Label, The vatted malt Green Label, the 18 year old Gold Label, and the 'extra rare' Blue Label. A sixth Johnnie Walker, Swing, is available only in Duty Free outlets.
Johnnie Walker does not simply blend, however. In addition to the millions of barrels of whisky that they have purchased and warehoused (with which they must craft their blend), the company operates a number of facilities where single malt whisky is distilled. Most notably of these is the Cardow distillery where a core component of Johnnie Walker's blends is crafted, and where tradition still rules: the distillery grows its own barley, employs its own barrel makers, and carries out floor malting in the traditional method.
Johnnie Walker Black Label is made up whiskies as young as twelve years old; in addition to its single malt content, is augmented by grain whisky, which serves to lighten the flavour of the end product (and, cynically, perhaps also to cut production costs?). According to the company's literature, the Black Label is the result of blending as many as forty whiskies (keeping in mind that 12 years is the minimum age of the blend's constituent whiskies), an impressive number no doubt (though, as a single malt fan, I can't help but shudder to think how many of those whiskies would be better enjoyed in isolation). Key in the blend are the whisky of the Cardow distillery - which lends Black Label its malty smoothness and fruitiness - and Caol Ila, which is responsible for the Black Label's substantial peat flavour. Black Label was, of course, allegedly also a favourite of Sir Winston Churchill; I'm compelled to feel that this speaks volume about the whisky's quality. And though it is regrettably also a chill-filtered whisky, it is, in my mind, the point where value and quality intersect a respectable whisky that rivals some 12 year old single malts, but at an absolutely mouthwatering price point.
Johnnie Walker Black Label does lose points in one category, and that is simply the aesthetic quality of the bottled product. Nothing says refined and elegant like the traditional cork bottle cap, which the Red and Black Label are sorely lacking. I will admit, however, that I am quite partial to the shape of the Johnnie Walker bottle in general. But this is beside the point. As I've said in my other Scotch reviews, quality whiskies are best enjoyed neat without ice or mixer in a tumbler or (preferably) a brandy snifter. The poured dram should ideally be cut simply with a few drops of water to slightly dilute the alcohol content and to tie up and subdue any volatiles in the nose or on the palate. While Johnnie Walker Black Label's status as a quality is whisky is debated (and, in fact, the brand's website sacrilegiously recommends it be served over ice or with club soda), I decided to sample it as I would any other Scotch. Perhaps I will try my next dram over ice and note the results.
You simply cannot fault Johnnie Walker Black Label's pour. It splashes into the tumbler a fairly standard whisky colour, considerably darker than the Red Label (to the best of my recollection), but not obviously shaded by any additional finishing. It is a golden shade, with caramel shades, and touches of amber and honey. A swirl of the tumbler reveals a fairly thick and almost syrup-y whisky, offering up gobs of legs which stick sharply on the interior of the glass, falling slowly back to the bottom of the dram. A conventional looking whisky, but appetizing for a whisky is intended to be drunk, not simply appreciated from a distance.
The nose is surprisingly complex, considering not only that Johnnie Walker Black Label is a blend, but also that it is not all that far removed from the horrendous Red Label in price rage and esteem. Before water, there is a definite, almost creaminess to the nose, which is offset by a fairly powerful peaty, smoke-y character (probably the Caol Ila, as the brand's promotional material suggests). Substantial malt presence, with hints of oak, but an obvious touch of sherry. The grain whisky does come through, though it is not as unpleasant as I would have expected, simply lending a dry, cereal grain sort of note that's light and fairly smooth. Just a hint of vanilla is offset by some dark fruits, especially plums and raisins, but also a very engaging orange peel sort of character and a distant oiliness. Faint salt and iodine, though not as much as I might have liked to see. The creaminess is subdued after the dram has sat for a few moments, which is perhaps the nose's greatest disappointment. A bit harsher, perhaps, than some single malts of a similar age expression, but not nearly as much as I might have expected. A few drops of water immediately herald the return of the creaminess, accented by a heavy dose of vanilla. This scent is, however, quickly subdued again, replaced by faint sherry notes, as well as peat and dominant sweet malt (caramel?). Perhaps even a touch of sea salt and brine. Quite an impressive nose, especially after years of being taught to denigrate blends.
The taste picks up where the nose left off. Initially Black Label is a touch chewy, before becoming slightly more viscous and watery on the tongue. Burnt flavours develop, and just a touch of harshness, burn and roughness on the palate do assert themselves at a few points throughout the taste. Still, colour me impressed. A malty taste, with some cereal grain in the background (though the graininess becomes more apparent on the finish). Rich peat and smoke are the most obvious, accented by a variety of fruits, again mostly darker ones, such as raisins and plum. Also just a hint of vanilla and orange peel, though much more subtly than in the nose. Slight sherry, especially near the end of the tasting. Finishes dry, but pleasant, and warms as any good Scotch be it single malt or blend should. A few drops of water bring out the dark fruits quite a bit more, again more plums and burnt raisins. The graininess is stymied somewhat, and the peat and smoke are accented by hints of brine and seaweed. Faint orange peel again, and a touch of spice round out the Black Label. Quite dry for several minutes, but offering faint fruits on the tongue and a touch of malt with lingering peat. Comparable enjoyment to whiskies I've had that were as much as $15 more a bottle, Black Label clearly offers consistent quality at a better price - however, it is also worth noting that, upon enjoying Black Label so thoroughly, I began experimenting with other low-priced blends and discovered that Teacher's Highland Cream is in itself comparable (perhaps slightly better, perhaps marginally worse) to Black Label at a price that's $5 less than even the Red Label (and it's for this reason that I'm going to deduct a star from the Black Label's score, after approximately a week or so of consideration).
I will not lie. I have been suitably impressed by a whisky that I would have not batted an eye at in the past. And, as a student on a budget, the value of Johnnie Walker Black Label calls out to me. It is quite an impressive dram at such a respectable price that I will probably be seeing a lot more of Mr. Walker in the future. Don't get me wrong, this is not the greatest Scotch whisky in the world. It is not even the greatest blended Scotch whisky in the world. But for what it is an excellent, interesting dram at a fairly affordable price it is certainly one of the better. I raise my glass to Johnnie Walker's 12 Year Black Label, and I fill my tumbler with it. I drink, and I savour. And though it's popular enough that most drinkers have already formed an opinion on it, I say that it's certainly worth a try for the uninitiated and a re-sampling for those who have previously tested the waters. A great whisky, blend or not.
Johnnie Walker Green Label 15 Year Old Pure Malt
Teacher's Highland Cream Blended Scotch Whisky
Glenmorangie 12 Year Old Port Wood Finish Scotch Whisky
The Balvenie 12 Year Old DoubleWood Scotch Whisky
Crown Royal Canadian Whisky