Johnnie Walker is arguably the most recognisable and well know Scotch brand in the world and with annual sales of 223.7 million bottles worldwide (2016 sales figures) the ‘Striding Man’ certainly travels far and wide.
The blend contains a wide variety of components from across the whisky spectrum. Over 30 different whiskies is the often quoted figure (although I have also read figures of 40 and over but due to the blending process we can expect a variation)
John Walker established a grocers shop in Kilmarnock in 1819 which, due to his dealings and retailing of spirits, eventually led him into the whisky industry.
The business passed to his son Alexander in 1857 upon his death and ten years later Alexander released ‘Walkers Old Highland Blend’ which would eventually become Red and Black Label.
Many of the initial acquisitions of the Walker family business focused on acquiring the distilleries that produced the key constituent malts of the blended whiskies they made that were becoming so popular to ensure a plentiful supply.
Cardhu was purchased in 1893 (at the time Cardhu was a key component of the Walkers blend ‘Old Highland Whisky’) along with Clynelish and Coleburn in 1915, followed by the Dailuaine – Talisker Company in 1916. Mortlach was added to the portfolio in 1923.
The famous Striding Man made his first appearance in 1909 with the rebranding of Old Highland Whisky to Johnnie Walker and the various expressions of Old Highland being renamed after the colour of their labels (White, Red and Black) Johnnie Walker White was however discontinued after WW1.
The signature shaped bottle was introduced in 1860 and as well as giving it a unique look the easily packed square bottle shape allowed for more bottles in the box and less breakages in transit (ideal for a whisky that is widely exported)
John Walker & Sons became part of the Distillers Company Ltd in 1925, which in turn became Diageo in 1997 after being acquired by Guinness in 1986 and later merging with Grand Metropolitan.
Which leads us to today and the Johnnie Walker expressions lined up on the tasting mat are:
Johnnie Waker Black Label 12 Year Old.
Johnnie Walker Black Label from circa 1980’s
Johnnie Walker Blenders Batch ‘Espresso Roast’
Johnnie Walker Red Label from circa 1970’s
Johnnie Walker Black Label 12yo, 40%abv, OB, official sample, available here.
Gold copper in colour. Leaves thin teardrop legs around the glass.
On the nose there is a wisp of woodsmoke initially with a mix of red and green apples underneath. There is a faint wood aroma, mixing with some cereal and malt notes and quite a strong lemon citrus element. Touch of pepper pops up amongst some soft spices and faint raisins.
There are not a lot of distinct flavours on the palate, its mixed and balanced well. It is slightly biscuity with some syrupy peaches and a little woodsmoke. The subtle spices emerge again along with an increasing oak influence.
The subtle smoke seems to be the key flavour compound here along with some gentle spices and some mild tannins.
Thoughts? Easy drinking simple sipper. Just as we would expect it to be.
This will be the bench mark for the rest of the flight.
(N.B This was a special promo bottle for International Scotch Day, hence the slightly different packaging)
Johnnie Walker Black Label, (circa 1980’s), from my collection (auction win).
Dark straw in colour. Slow, rounded legs in the glass.
Right away the nose is different from the modern version. Somewhat herby and with touches of old polish.There is a solid base of softly spiced stewed fruits and a touch of vanilla essence underneath. Theres a faint note of treacle and some less dominant citrus. There a strange note I couldn’t quite place but I can only describe it as dunnage warehouse-esque. Woody, damp and perhaps even a little earthy.
The palate is woody and spiced with elements of orange and cedar wood. Its a little tannic at times and there is quite a strong ginger note.
There is a mix of cinnamon, wood (balsa initially, turning to oak) alongside quite a generous twist of black pepper and a puff of smoke. Tannic elements dry the mouth.
Johnnie Walker Blenders Batch Espresso Roast, OB, 43.2%abv, official sample, available here.
The problem with giving such a title to a dram is that its hard NOT to think coffee flavoured thoughts when sampling it…
This was part of Johnnie Walkers Blenders Batch Experimental series. This particular expression used some heavily roasted barley to alter the flavour.
Heavy copper with a slight orange tinge. Slow and thin legs in the glass.
Mocha, chocolate, spices and balsa mix together to give quite a deep nose, much deeper than you would expect from JW. There is a pleasant orange element here, along with some spices and, given a little time, a burst of vanilla.
The chocolate element turns from milk to dark on the palate. There is a little toffee followed by a nutty and biscuity feeling. The vanilla appears again
Not much to pick out on the finish. It is rather longer than the thin-ish feeling on the palate led me to think it might be.
There are some nice spices and mixed nuts. perhaps even a touch of marmalade before a little tannic and smoked twist.
Johnnie Walker Red Label, (circa 1970’s) 70% Proof (40%abv) from my collection (auction win)
Copper in colour. Slow and medium thick legs around the glass.
Right away there is a distinct similarity with the 1980’s Black Label, however it feels softer and slightly more balanced.
The nose starts off with a mix of soft brown sugar, old polish, soft spices and an aroma of gingerbread. There is a touch of leather and a faint whiff of toffee after some time in the glass.
The palate starts off a little woody but more tamed then the 1980’s Black Label, more in line with the modern Black Label curiously enough. There are a few apricots and a touch of honey here too. There is a definite herby undertone and a mild ginger element.
As with all JW’s there is a nice soft smoke here, it lingers for a while and then there is a gingery and peppery twist.
Overall an interesting comparison between old, new and experimental.
I was especially excited to try the older Black and Red Labels, which were both intriguing and didn’t disappoint. The Red Label did appear to be much mellower than I thought it might be considering it is a cheaper alternative to the Black. I’d put this down to a combination of the time spent in the bottle and the era it was from. Not necessary proof that old blends were better but an interesting point nonetheless.
I also really enjoyed the Espresso Roast, much more than I thought I would in fact. Nice to try a twist on the classic JW blends. I’ve found myself reaching for this bottle on several occasions recently.
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