DIARY: Appreciating the top Johnny Walker blends.
Captain Bligh and I are sitting at the table after a splendid dinner. I’ve brought out the Scotch bucket, but nothing seems to suit our mood. I recall that hidden in the back of the drinks cabinet are three virgin bottles of Johnnie Walker whiskies. Out pop Johnnie Walker Black, Johnnie Walker Double Black and Johnnie Walker Blue in their fine boxes, especially the Blue in a silk-lined “coffin.” The Black is a Christmas present from my eldest daughter, and the Double Black was purchased at duty free on a recent trip. The Blue was a wedding gift from a kind couple we visited in the US. Time to break the seals. The table is cleared of the detritus of the meal and crystal tasting glasses and a small jug of cold filtered water set on one side.
We are missing a few Johnnies. Green Label is a blended malt, which uses only four malts, each of which has been matured for a minimum of 15 years. Rumour has it that the blend has been discontinued, due to lack of sales, and stocks will run out sometime in 2013. Gold Label is a blend of more than 15 single malts, derived from the founder’s son’s own blending notes to commemorate the whisky’s centenary, and aged between 15 and 18 years. Platinum Label is a blend of 18 year old whiskies released in the Asian market and in Canada. Perhaps some will find its way to the Scotch bucket?
Some more notes before we start.
Black Label is a blend of about 40 whiskies, aged 12 years or more. Double Black is a relatively new blend, starting with Black Label and adding more peaty malts, some aged in deeply charred oak casks. Master Distiller Jim Beveridge calls it an “expression of Black” because it “has the same basic DNA. It is made from the same whiskies in different proportions.” That includes single malts from two well-known Diageo distilleries, Caol Ila (from Islay) and Talisker (from the Isle of Skye). Double Black has more of each, with the other malts adjusted “to maintain the balance.” Other single malts found in Black include Lagavulin from Islay, Glendullan and Mortlach from Speyside and grain whisky from Cameron Brig. Black Label is also reputed to have been the favourite Scotch of Sir Winston Churchill.
Various tasting notes from the web reveal we can expect Black to be rich and full on the nose, with honey, malt and oranges and smidgeon of peat. Then we can expect to find fruit and vanilla, with sultanas, sherry and a hint of smoke at the end. Double Black, as one would expect, is reputed to be more smoky, mildly medicinal with hints of barbecue, vanilla and lemon. Expect pepper, peat and liquorice to reveal themselves.
Blue Label is the premium over-proof blend, created by Beveridge, intended to recreate the character and tastes of some of the earliest blends of the 19th century. One suspects, because of the price, that there may be some very old whiskies blended into Blue, but there is no age statement on the label. Quoting Beveridge again: “Only one in 10 thousand of our casks have sufficient character for Blue Label, and in creating this special edition we really wanted to showcase the incredible flavours that come from the casks themselves.” We can expect to find the flavours of tinned prunes, butterscotch, sherry at first and later identify vanilla, oranges and oak along with the signature smoke.
We check Charles MacLean’s excellent reference book “World Whiskey,” to see if he has any insights. We watch his video and enjoy his posh accent with a subtle hint of Scottish burr.
Then with our tools at hand we start our appreciation of the three blends. The Captain has a better nose than I, perhaps the result of my slight cold.
We start with the Black. It’s classically smoky, we find it has a treacle aftertaste and a hint of vanilla.
Double Black: very smoky, smooth, charred oak flavour, pepper and spice aftertaste.
Blue: Inky, iodine on the mouth, fruity, honey and pepper after taste.
In spite of my own personal bias against the smoky Islay single malts, I enjoy them blended with the classic smoky bite of Johnny Black, which is doubled (of course) in the Double Black. We both like the Black very much, and indeed it is one of my favourite Scotches for everyday drinking on the rocks, and the Double Black even more, but then it costs more. We are disappointed in the Blue, which for the price does not deliver the greatness we would have expected.
Captain Bligh, I know from experience, loves the smoky Islay malts, but he finishes off the evening with a good glass of Aberfeldy 12 from the Scotch bucket, a Highland single malt from Perthshire used in blending in Dewar’s White Label.
Now that the three Johnnies are opened they go into the Scotch bucket for all to enjoy. Perhaps I will come to appreciate the Blue more at my next tasting.
This article was originally posted on January 22, 2013.