Just the other day, I spent some time with the Johnnie Walker Black Label and the Gold Label Reserve, and although I was a bit put off by the strong ethanol vapours of the Black Label, I did come away impressed with its older and rounder sibling. I initially contemplated comparing the Gold against the higher quality Blue Label, and since it was now on my mind, here we are today, albeit with a tasting of the 18-year-old. Meanwhile, I read up on the history of blending and learn a bit about the “teaspooning” practice, which distilleries employ by adding just a teaspoonful of another whisky into the cask that they are selling to a bottler, essentially invalidating it as a single malt, and thereby preserving their brand. Fascinating! So let’s get on with the taste. But first, we need music! Now playing: Marconi Union – Signals.
Before I pour myself a dram of the 18-year-old, I do get another taste of the Black Label again. Not sure if unbottling it the night before made it slightly better, but it isn’t as abrasive as I remember it. Still, the presence of the maize is strong and pungent on the palate. But this is not about Jonny Black. Whereas the Gold Label was immediately sweeter after the Black, the 18-year-old is surprisingly… just there – potentially as an older, longer aged Black, with all of the alcohol giving up its share to the angels. But no, that’s not how it is blended. The whiskies in this blend are at least 18 years of age [I wonder if it also applies to the grain ones]. It’s got a bit more Speyside character in it, and it’s strong on the flavour of oak, very even and almost pastel in its delivery, with just a tiny bit of spice, vanilla notes, and barely a hint of smoke. If any malt from ex-sherry casks was used, it was undoubtedly from Oloroso barrels, that dry and nearly flat type from Jerez. It’s a 40% dram, still with plenty of mystery around it, except at a price tag of £65. It’s not that expensive, but we’re clearly in the single malt price territory now, the type that you can get directly from the cask. All in all, I think I like the Gold a little better than this 18, but let’s see how it stands out to the Blue.
Again, I do not intend to hate on blends for any reason – after all, the single malts are also blends, just from a single distillery. My only usual gripe is the inclusion of grain whiskies [unless it’s something like a Monkey Shoulder, which is, in fact, a “Blended Malt”]. The Blue Label does its best to push aside and hide that punchy presence, and it is a very successful, delightful, and very sensual pour. It’s still at 40% and is very easy to drink straight [no extra water is required], and among the light and rounded texture, one can pick out a bit of that sweetness, possibly a touch of toffee and caramel on the finish. And at the very edge of the cliff, there’s that peat again. Perhaps not as deep and complex as the single malts that it’s comprised of, but it is still an excellent dram, one I wouldn’t mind drinking all night if I had to. It’s just somewhat overpriced. The price tag is now at £145, and although I wouldn’t consider it a very expensive whisky [we’re talking relatively here], it’s up there beyond some of my favourite single malts. Now, Jim Beveridge, who is the master blender for Johnnie Walker [retiring in 2022], will say that the Blue Label should be reserved for a special occasion when one wants to celebrate something in the company of friends. Well, I’m tasting it by myself tonight, and for no particular reason. But at least it’s Christmas!
Johnnie Walker’s market share is staggering. And blends account for over 90% of all the whisky sold globally. In November of 2021, Diageo‘s shares hit a record high, as the giant projected a 16 per cent growth in the new financial year, with a target of a 50% increase by the end of this decade. Whether you love it or hate it, choose to mix in the cheap Black Label or sip at the Blue, it’s not going away. Even if I don’t ever buy another bottle of this legendary whisky, it’s not going to matter in the long run to this conglomerate. Neither will any broader dramatic impacts, like the closing of any of their distilleries – they’ll just pick another single malt. That is the beauty of the blending. The tricky part is to keep it consistent, relevant, and great. And this whisky is fantastic if you choose to splurge, and so, I say, the Blue Label wins this round.