For over 200 years, the name Johnnie Walker has been synonymous with blended scotch whisky. Since John Walker’s first blends of “Old Highland Whisky” in the family’s grocery store, the name and brand has built and built to become the biggest name in scotch whisky globally.
The history of the business has become an immersive experience in Princes St, Edinburgh, but the origins lay in John Walker’s move to Kilmarnock in the early 1800s. Having grown up on a farm, the death of his father and sale of the family farm saw John Walker starting a grocery shop, which – as was fashionable, if not essential at the time – featured its own whiskies. Their “Old Highland Whisky”, “Special Old Highland Whisky”, and “Extra Special Old Highland Whisky” became colloquially known as their White Label, Red Label, and Black Label whiskies respectively.
Marketing and business acumen seems to run in the family alongside good whisky making because in 1867, the whiskies became newly housed in square bottles in order to store more bottles together, and the labels put at a 24 degree angle to allow for more visible titles. Then, after almost 90 years of trading blended whiskies, the Walker family struck on two further major marketing coups: 1) rebranding the whiskies to just the colours of the labels that everyone referred to them by, and 2) the introduction of the Striding Man. The names and images have stood the test of time are now instantly recognisable worldwide, over a 110 years on.
The heart of their growth has lay in the art of blending scotch whiskies. By that I specifically refer to blending malt and grain whiskies together under the title of “blended scotch”. Their expansion across decades has seen the acquisition of numerous distilleries to produce their own malt and grain whiskies, with some of today’s most recognised names in single malts featuring in them: Cardhu, Clynelish, and Talisker, to name a few. The blended scotch style has been at the core of the expanding list of coloured labels with little deviation through time.
One relatively recent exception to this plan is their sole “Malts Blend”. First introduced in 1997 as Johnnie Walker Pure Malt, and then rebranded in 2004 simply as “Green Label”, this blended malt scotch whisky, features exclusively malt whiskies – no grain whisky appears here. Each constituent malt has been matured for a minimum of 15 years in European or American oak, and the Green Label recipe features malts from the “four corners of the Scotland”.
The final whisky is brought together at 43% ABV, and features in the distinct Johnnie Walker squared bottle with the requisite slanted Green Label – available ca £49 RRP.
Warming bonfire peat smoke. Briny maritime smells. Floral sweetness with some tart apple fruitiness. After a bit of time there’s a distinct bittersweet maybe even sour fruit smell: think rhubarb, gooseberry, or grapefruit. A little nutty and quite spicy too.
Toffee, vanilla, and rich butterscotch start the series of sweet flavours before crisp green apples, honeyed stone fruits, and apricot jam bring some fruitiness to the sweet medley. There’s a slight sharpness to it which brings that grapefruit note back but it blends in with the peat smoke and gradually increasing amount of oak flavour and spice.
Quite an intense oaky finish and peppery wood-spice with gentle sweetness, smoke, and baking spices trailing behind. Long after the tingle has gone there’s a malty butterscotch flavour left behind.
This delivered much more than I was expecting. It was smokier, richer, and spicier than I anticipated. Based on the names of the malts going into it, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I guess that’s the magic of blends. Being able to pick and choose those elements from a fine list of makers and bring them together into something that works. And obviously, being within the Diageo family, they have quite the roster to choose from.
There’s a good age and feel to it. Despite the oak and peat profiles dominating, it never feels too rich. The sweetness and fruitiness stop it from being overpowering. More so than a solely peated whisky could offer, at least. It doesn’t mask its intensity either. This is expressly called out on the box, and I was too blasé about it being a Johnnie Walker blend to think that the peat and oak would be so pronounced. That said, a little dilution with water and the intensity really drops off and brings those sweeter flavours come to the fore.
The whisky nerd in me would really like to know all the constituent malts. The description uses the word “including” which suggests that it’s got more than the named Talisker, Linkwood, Cragganmore, and Caol Ila in it. Also – going full detective – it mentions the four corners of Scotland and expressly references lowland malts, and none of these 4 are lowlands. Given that its likely to be a Diageo component then maybe it contains Glenkinchie too?
Maybe I’m just barking up the wrong tree, but with the wealth of distilleries available within the Diageo arsenal they can afford to pick and choose from wherever in order to get that desired flavour profile, provided those 4 named ones appear. That’s one thing that strikes me about blends: you have to get that same flavour profile each and every time, and with the sheer volume of whisky produced and harnessed across Johnnie Walker’s many labels, that must make this a leviathan task. Particularly when you think about the wide variety of whiskies being produced and the variants between each cask per distillery alone.
Theres an interesting quote from Johnnie Walker’s master blender on the box: “I created this perfectly balanced blend of single malt whiskies for a greater depth and unique character that just isn’t possible from single malt whisky alone.” Trumpet blowing and marketing aside, that is a really interesting point though: can you really get all of that layering and influence from a single single malt? You’d be hard pressed to. Not least without the distillery regularly having to clear out their stills for different gradations of peat influence. Maybe I’m thinking too small, given the size of Johnnie Walker.
On that note, the packaging contains the German notice “Mit Farbstoff (Zuckerkulör)” which means that there’s E150 caramel in there. Not surprising when you think of consistency needed across all batches.
Talking of the container: what an expertly presented package. The little details throughout the box and bottle have all clearly been well thought through and executed.
Overall, a rich and flavourful experience and a bottle that I will probably finish off fairly quickly. Not before tasting it next to the other Labels though!
Also: Jim Beveridge? There was only one industry for him to excel in, right?
Sample disclosure: I bought this bottle myself after pouncing on an available deal: just £36 – one of the benefits of the Johnnie Walkers appearing in big retailers and supermarkets! All notes are intended as an honest, fair, and independent review of the whisky, and not as a promotion. Please drink responsibly. Please drink wisely.
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