Here’s Johnnie! – A Tasting of the Johnnie Walker Range

Well, we have definitely moved into whisky weather! DBS & I recently returned from a wonderful trip to Edinburgh, where we explored gins and whiskies alike and generally had a chance to relax in a beautiful city. It was our honeymoon in Edinburgh a few years ago where I first realised that I enjoyed Scotch and so its special for a multitude of reasons.The delightful impromptu whisky tastings on our holiday reminded me that I needed to write about the second half of our visit to Goodwood Revival; it was the most perfectly timed and fitting tasting that I’ve ever been to. To re-set the scene, DBS & I had been invited along to try some Johnnie Walker.


Outside the garage…

We tried the Red and Black Labels outside in the bright summer sunshine, members of an eager audience in vintage garb, all ready to hear the story of Johnnie Walker from Colin and learn about the brand’s “original two” blends. Racing cars were whizzing around the track not too far away and cheerful music was filling the air, along with chatter from the surrounding crowds. It was a lovely, fun way to sample the whiskies and it was great to see a few people drop any boundaries that they might normally have to trying whisky straight and give it a go. Here my notes.

Red Label

Blended from thirty-five grain and malt whiskies, the Red Label has no given (minimum) age. Along with the Black Label, this was one of the original blends that were sold by John’s grandsons from 1906. Back then, it was called ‘Special Old Highland’, but they found that customers simply ended up asking for the bottle with the “red label”, so they introduced the use of the colours in the names. The Red Label, unlike the others that we tried, is apparently blended with the aim of producing a good mixing ingredient, although you can, obviously, still enjoy it on its own.

The nose was distinctively savoury, with notes of grain followed by some spice and apple, but remaining savoury throughout. The taste matched the nose perfectly, with savoury grain and dry fruit being the predominant flavours for me. I found it to be quite sharp and bright; a whisky to wake you up.

Black Label

Back in 1906, this was called ‘Extra Special Old Highland’ and sat alongside the Red Label. Thirty-five malt and five grain whiskies, all aged for at least twelve years, go into making this blend. It contrasted sharply with the Red, with a rich, sweet, syrupy nose that reminded me of a liqueur.
On the tongue, it was viscous and syrupy with a lovely warmth and mouth-feel. There was an elegant smokiness (I was going to write “light”, but it wasn’t – it just wasn’t overwhelming) and an earthiness to it, but both were smoothed out by a spiced honey sweetness that was only accentuated by my trying the savoury Red just prior to this.

Inside the garage…

Later on in the day, David & I were invited to try the other JW “Colours”, which was a wonderful opportunity. We set up our impromptu whisky tasting inside the Rob Walker Racing Bar, which had been dressed marvellously with props and items from the Diageo Archive in Scotland. Simply being at the Revival made me feel like I’d stepped back in time, but this garage was on a level of its own. And now we were sitting down – me on a stool, David on a high-chair and Colin on a rickety workbench – to try whisky. It was superb!

Green Label

The concept behind the Green Label is slightly different to the others; it is blended from a mere four whiskies, all of which are at least fifteen years old, and this definitely comes through. The nose wasn’t sweet, in a similar fashion to the Red, but didn’t have the strong notes of grain. There were some definite notes of lime and other citrus and, maybe by mental association, I got a hint of the sour saltiness that I associate with a tequila.

To taste, this was dry, like a light wood, with a dry, peppercorn-like spice to it (not at all like the chili pepper spiciness of Talisker). Towards the end, I got a prominent “flash” of dark chocolate that intrigued me, because it wasn’t at all sweet or creamy, but the flavour was there nonetheless, followed by a dry finish.

Gold Label

Based on Alexander Walker II’s (John’s grandson) blending notes for a whisky to celebrate Johnnie Walker’s centenary, the production of Gold Label had to be postponed because of a shortage of the whiskies during World War I. Of all of the whiskies that we tried, this one surprised me the most. The nose was sweet and vivacious, underpinned by heavier notes of burnt wood and highlighted by delicate notes of spice and violets.

The flavour profile in the mouth was what really intrigued me here, though; it was not at all linear or flat, but evolved constantly. There was an initial burst of spice and honey, followed by a deceptive dullness that is quickly swept away by a burnt wood smokiness (not peaty, though). The spicy honey notes then seem to fade in and out as the flavour evolves. The flavours reminded me of a liqueur, but it wasn’t sweet.

Another aspect to this whisky that I had underestimated was how much it evolved just by sitting in the glass. Following Colin’s guidance, we frequently returned to each of the Green, Gold and Blue throughout the tasting session, and I found that the Gold both changed the most and for the best: after ten or fifteen minutes, it grew gradually more sweet and syrupy, with notes of marzipan and a buttery nuttiness coming into play alongside the other flavours. It managed to retain its boldness, but generally seemed more rounded, as if it had relaxed after being in your company that little while longer (!). Delicious.

Blue Label

The Blue Label is a premium blend, which is obvious in the luxurious packaging (a silk-lined box and a cap that is initially covered by foil that you remove by pulling a small, gold braid ending in a small medallion) in addition to what’s inside the bottle.

The nose was complex and multidimensional, and I found it difficult to isolate many of the flavours (I think that this is a whisky that I will keep coming back to as I try more and develop my palette!), but got an oaty, malty sweetness that was accompanied by darker wood notes than I’d found in any of the other Labels.

To taste, it seemed more heavy and viscous than the others – so much so that I’ve scribbled, “Almost chewy!” in my notes. It’s also richer in flavour, with more peat and smoke that regularly faded in and out, interrupting an underlying maltiness that is rounded off by spiced honey. As I’ve said above, I can’t help but feel like this is one that I’ll have to keep returning to – long-term, not merely over an hour – before I can fully appreciate it; it was complex and took its time in developing, demanding both attention and patience.

In Conclusion…

My favourite of the day was undoubtedly the Gold Label, although the Green continues to intrigue me in how unique it was against the others (and that hint of dark chocolate!) and the Black has been a family favourite for a while now. One thing that struck me during the tastings, though, was how I could see myself drinking all of the colours, depending on my mood; the real benefit of the day was being able to put them all in perspective with one another; what a family!

Mrs. B

A postscript…

Johnnie Walker DoubleBlack

JW also made a Double Black Label, which is based on the Black, but also uses some peated malts and whiskies that have been aged in charred barrels. It’s currently still only available in duty-free in the UK.

The nose was sweet, light and bright, and characteristically syrupy, like the Black Label, with some flapjack notes and a faint hint of smoke at the end. I even thought that I detected a little liquorice.

On the tongue, it was incredibly smooth, with a texture like runny honey. This develops into a drier and distinctly woody texture, with sweetness keeping it smooth around edges. Rich wood dominates the flavour for me; there’s also a warm, but not overbearing, peatiness all the way around the mouth that’s neatly rounded off with a savoury finish that is clean and yet still warming. In case it isn’t obvious, I really enjoyed this one and will definitely be going back to it; hopefully it’ll become more readily available in the future.