Johnnie Walker Black Label vs Gold Label Reserve

The next dram from the Scotch Whisky Advent Calendar of this year [number 7, I think] is the Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve. I spent a few hours going back and forth deciding on what to pair it with – should it be a step up to Blue Label or a step down to Black? Since I didn’t have the Black in my collection, this gave me another reason to go out and buy it [sometimes one doesn’t need a reason, but it’s always lovely to reason about], plus it will also let me give the Gold a little lift – in the past tastings, I managed to find something always better than what the calendar had on offer. Didn’t seem fair. So let’s begin! But first, music! Now playing: r benyfernwood.

First, let’s try the Johnnie Walker Black Label, which is pretty much a staple blend, as far as staple blends go. Now, a member of the Diageo family, Johnnie Walker has a rich history, which is deeply embedded in the world of whisky-making. Way before the boutique distilleries and before the single malts, Johnnie Walker was the go-to blend, marketed worldwide since 1865. First, a quick disclaimer/opinion – there is absolutely nothing wrong with drinking a blend; in fact, many recent whisky makers [like the Compass Box series] are showcasing their art of finding the right proportions of different single malts to make, arguably, even better whisky than that selected by individual distilleries. The only thing I don’t particularly like about the blends is the addition of grain alcohols [like maize, wheat, or rye] – especially the cheap kind. It gives off that strong ethanol flavour that hits the nose and lingers at the back of your tongue, even if the blend is only at 40% ABV. Such is the case with the Black Label. I can peel apart the layers of bourbon-aged malt whisky and maybe just a tad bit of smoke, but it is that burning and that aftertaste that I recognize, which usually puts me off from the cheaper blends. This 12-year-old, which is currently sold at £27 a bottle, kind of falls into that category. I wouldn’t really drink it unless it was the very last bottle at the bar. At least it’s not the Red Label, right? I now have a whole bottle of it. Perhaps I’ll save it for some mixed drinks and an undesired company.

The Gold Label is entirely different. Now with a Reserve added to its name, it originally was released as an 18-year-old blend, which was subsequently rebranded as Platinum Label, and then put out as a “no-age-statement” bottle, only to have another 18-year-old appear on the shelves again. To be fair, the current Gold Label and the 18-year-old are different whiskies. And something tells me that the Gold Label is slightly subpar. Nevertheless, at £40 a bottle, it’s a whole big step up from the Black Label. Although, just as its younger and cheaper sibling, the blend is bottled at 40% ABV, with added colouring, chilled filtration, and god knows what other ingredients [including corn again], it is now a somewhat drinkable dram, and as I put down the glass I can even spot a few oily legs going down the edges. The smoke is a bit more pronounced, the vanilla of the toasted oak is a tad stronger, and, overall, it is a fuller, more rounder whisky. I’ve had the Blue Label many times [it will come up in this lineup again], and I can recall from memory that it is a lighter, more playful dram. Whereas I almost had to force myself to finish the Black [and going back to it, still taste that harsh hit of pure alcohol], the Gold Label holds up pretty well, and I can almost see myself sneaking a 50ml bottle on the next overseas flight [if that ever happens again].

Although I’m not really excited to be drinking the Black Label again [what wouldn’t one do for science?] I’m kind of glad that I picked it for this roundup. If I were to go with the Blue Label, I think the answer would be pretty clear, and the Gold Label would be simply dismissed. However, having lowered the bar, or, rather, established a bottom baseline [and yes, Red Label would be below the bar], the Gold Label is a nice and welcome treat. With that, the call here is clear, and the Gold Label Reserve wins this round.

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