A Refreshed Benchmark
Exploring a New Take on a Classic Blend
If you ask a random group of people to name the first thing that comes to mind when they hear Scotch whisky, chances are several will say Johnnie Walker or Black Label. Johnnie Walker is one of the most ubiquitous blended Scotch Whisky in the world, with millions of bottles being sold annually. Those who have read our past posts might already be considering why we would choose to review a blended whisky, given our interest in single malts. Blended whiskies often are perceived as lacking the complexity, depth of flavor, and variety of single malt whisky. However, we have come to believe that blended whisky can be just as enjoyable and interesting as single malts and should not be so easily dismissed.
For those who may not be familiar with the distinction, blended whisky refers to a product that is a blend of whiskies from multiple distilleries. The blend can contain single malt as well as single grain whiskies. Single grain whisky can be composed of barley, wheat, rye, or other grain from a single distillery. It is important to note that the most single malt whisky is, in fact, a blend of different casks, but that the key distinction is that all of the ingredients are from one distillery. Blended whisky may combine malt and grain whisky from several distilleries from different regions of Scotland. To make things a bit more confusing, if a blend contains only single malt whiskies, it is known as a blended malt whisky.
By blending different malt and grain whiskies, a company can create a very consistent product, which one can imagine is crucial to developing a global brand. Blended whisky is also often characterized as smoother or more easy to drink, and this is by design as blending companies attempt to balance the extremes of the whisky flavor spectrum.
Johnnie Walker has been in business since the early 1800s and began producing blended whisky in the middle of the century. The company created innovative marketing and distribution strategies, such as utilizing square bottle to increase shipping volume and reduce inventory breakage. During the 20th century, the company began to market the different varieties of Johnnie Walker using the colored labels themselves as product names. Black Label contains whiskies that are at least 12 years old.
Though there are countless blends to choose from, we chose to review the iconic Black Label because we recently purchased the Jane Walker, a special edition of Black Label that Johnnie Walker produced earlier in 2018. Along with the bottle and packaging featuring a female version of the ‘striding man’ branding (Jane Walker), the company indicated it planned to donate a portion of the proceeds to organizations it feels are advancing women’s progress. The campaign was met with mixed reviews as many believed this was not only an attempt to pander to women to increase sales, but also a marketing ploy to relate to current events. Despite Jane Walker being met with some criticism, others felt the debut of this edition of one of the most iconic whiskies on the planet was a tacit admission that the whisky world is no longer as male-centric of an industry as it once was. One important feature to note is that the Jane Walker edition is not a different blend from Johnnie Walker’s traditional Black Label—the whisky is exactly the same, which sends the message that there are no “women’s whiskies” or “men’s whiskies”, just delicious whisky for all.
On the Eyes: In the glass, the dram is the color of forest honey; like amber, but with more yellow tones than red tones. Giving the glass a swirl, Black Label leaves stripes of long lasting legs and is more rich looking than we would’ve guessed.
On the Nose: The first wave of aroma brings notes of vanilla and honey, an uncomplicated and pleasant sweetness. Further there are more faint floral hints.
Overall, a very clean nose.
To the Taste: Upfront we tasted a light sugary sweetness. A clean transition led to a light building dash of black pepper flavor in the middle which then morphed into slightly bitter notes of mocha.
And the Finish: The rather quick finish brought the pendulum of flavors back to sweet, this time in the form of caramel and vanilla.
The Jane Walker Black Label edition presented us with a unique case study. After years trying increasingly specialized single malts and world whiskies, it was interesting to revisit a global staple and apply what we’ve learned. This pillar of blended whisky proved to be more pleasant than we remembered, but overall very well balanced and straightforward—exactly what a blend is supposed to achieve. The tradeoff of the fine balancing act is that the flavor profile becomes somewhat muted as we tried to tease out components of the blend (could we detect any Islay whisky in there? Were those opening notes Speyside style?). In the end, Black Label gives you a quick sprint tour through the whisky regions of Scotland that implies, rather than states, the origins of the underlying ingredients. This is a whisky we would be happy to sip when we want an uncomplicated, relaxed experience.