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I was looking through a list of my reviews the other day and it dawned on me that I’ve never given much coverage to the core releases of Johnnie Walker. I wrote about their John Walker & Sons Celebratory Blend because it was included in a Pour & Sip sample box but I’d never looked at their flagship brands like Red or Black Label. That hasn’t been a deliberate omission. I didn’t set out to ignore the biggest Scotch whisky brand in the world. I’ve just found myself heading in different directions.
I try not to be snobby about blended Scotch. It is the lifeblood of the industry, after all. Single malt may grab all the headlines but it remains a comparatively tiny fraction of sales. Blended Scotch accounts for the vast majority and Johnnie Walker is the biggest of them all. It would be stupid to sneer at a drink that is the choice of millions. It is deserving of some respect from opinionated amateurs such as myself.
It would be fair to say that Johnnie Walker doesn’t particularly excite me, however. I’ve tasted most of their main offerings over the years and while I’ve always found it pleasant enough, I’ve never been particularly blown away. I always keep an eye out at my local supermarket, however, and when I spotted Black Label discounted to £20, I decided the time was right to get to know it a little better.
John Walker was born in 1805 to a farming family. When his father passed away in 1819, the family sold the farm and invested the proceeds in a grocery, wine and spirits shop on Kilmarnock High Street. The young John Walker was managing the business by the time he was 15. Walker sold Rum, Brandy, Gin and Whisky but the Excise Act of 1823 made it cheaper for distillers to buy a license. There was an explosion in whisky production and Walker’s business became more and more dominated by the sale of such local produce. Walker sold made-to-order blends that were tailored to the specific needs of his customers. In later years he used his own name on the label, giving birth to Walker’s Kilmarnock Whisky.
John Walker passed away in 1857. The business was taken over by his son Alexander, who put even more emphasis on whisky blending. Alexander’s inheritance came with fortuitous timing. The Spirits Act of 1860 made it legal to blend malt and grain whiskies together. For the first time, blenders could create new, gentler flavour profiles that held greater appeal to the customers of the day. Alexander rebranded, introducing the square bottle and slanted label that continues to identify the brand today. Under John, whisky accounted for around 9% of takings but by the time Alexander was handing over to his own son, that figure was closer to 90%.
By the dawn of the 20th century, Walker had three blends on the market. Old Highland 5-year-old, Special Old Highland 9-year-old and Extra Special Old Highland 12-year-old. As time went on, customers began to refer to them by the colour of their label.
A further rebranding in 1909, made it official. Old Highland became White Label. Special Old Highland became Red Label and Extra Special Old Highland became Black Label. The update also saw the introduction of the Striding Man logo, drawn by cartoonist Tom Browne.
Johnnie Walker became part of the Distillers Company Ltd (DCL) in 1925. Through a series of mergers and takeovers, DCL eventually became Diageo in 1997. Diageo remains to this day, the biggest drinks company operating in the Scotch whisky industry. In recent years, it has spent millions on Scotch whisky tourism. A new Johnnie Walker Experience stands in Princes Street in Edinburgh while Clynelish, Glenkinchie, Cardhu and Caol Ila distilleries have undergone upgrades to make them Johnnie Walker’s Four Corners brand homes. The brand has come a very long way from its humble beginnings on the Kilmarnock High Street. Who could have predicted that a grocery, run by a 15-year-old Farmer’s son, would evolve into the biggest Scotch whisky brand in the world?
Black Label is one of the most famous whiskies in the world. It’s 12-years-old and includes around 40 different components. Bottled at 40% abv, it retails around £26.
Smell: Lots of toffee. Honeyed malt. Caramel, of course. Nice black pepper note that compliments some woody smoke. The smoke is subtle at first but it grows in prominence over time in the glass. Ash. Now some apple and pear. Even a touch of citrus. There’s some dried fruits and winter spices in there too.
Taste: More toffee. More caramel. Pepper spice. Smoky finish (smoke rather than peat). It’s nicely balanced. Wee oaky tingle on the lips. Good depth of flavour. Some red apples. Orange zest. Woody, charcoal note. Malt. Barley sugars. Some raisins and currants coming through before the bonfire finish.
Thoughts: This is a nice dram. It’s a little clean and polished, certainly and maybe lacks the robustness, complexity and occasional rawness of a fine single malt but that’s kind of the point. Mass appeal is the name of the game here and it’s clearly very good at that. It’s like it nails the combination of the basics of Scotch whisky, including, of course, that little bit of smoke which can be off-putting to so many. Nothing overly complicated or surprising but maybe there’s more character than you might expect. A perfectly pleasant sip.
Price: 12 years is a decent age statement for such a widely available blended Scotch and I think it could hold its own with many of the budget single malts on the market. If, like me, you can get it discounted a little, you’re onto a winner, especially if you can manage your expectations. After all, there’s a cost of living crisis going on and the price of single malt is spiralling to ever more ridiculous sums. Perhaps its time we re-evaluate the more affordable options? Johnnie Walker seems as good a place as any to start.
You can buy Johnnie Walker Black Label from Master of Malt.
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For more on Johnnie Walker visit https://www.johnniewalker.com