Blended Whisky Review - Johnnie Walker Black Label
"The best blended scotch in the history of the world, which was also the favorite drink of the Iraqi Ba'ath party, as it is still in the Palestinian authority and the Libyan dictatorship, and large branches of the Saudi Arabian royal family - Johnnie Walker Black. Breakfast of champions." - Christopher Hitchens, noted libation enthusiast, upon being asked his favourite whisky
We've all heard the story of Johnnie Walker; small-town grocer in Kilmarnock, Scotland, who distilled a little hooch on the side for his friends and wound up building a global business empire on the same, so I won't elaborate. Now owned by Diageo, Johnnie Walker Black Label, a blended whisky comprised of around 40 different single malts, can be found on barshelves in Ulaanbataar, Beirut or Mombasa; no other scotch, blended or otherwise, has come even close to the kind of global reach the Johnnie Walker brand enjoys, selling 14.3 million cases of the stuff per annum. This is no craft-presented whisky here; this is the very definition of a branded, corporately flogged Scotch, with E150 caramel positively oozing out of the bottle and the final spirit being filtered on the near-quantum level.
And it's damn good, too.
It's hard to believe that until the 1960s, the standard for Scotch whisky was not single malts, but blends. Distillers sold most, if not all of their stock to large blending companies, who then merged it with a healthy dose of grain alcohol, which typically makes up no less than 70% of any given blend. The idea here was not to create a distinctive, complex spirit, but rather one that was smooth, sweet, and could be easily imbibed in large quantities. The inclusion of grain whiskies, which are produced in column stills for a fraction of the price of pot stills, kept prices low and drinkers drunk, which was plenty enough for most alcoholics at the time; now-maligned blends, such as Justerini & Brooks, were a noted favourite of King Edward VII.
It was only due to the independent bottlers Gordon & MacPhail (which also started as a grocery), who purchased what they could of single malts then casked and bottled it themselves, that kept the dim, flickering flame of single malt worship alive. Finally, in the 1960s, Glenfiddich realized that they could bottle and market their whisky themselves on the same large scale that blends enjoyed, and as it turned out, it was absolutely fucking delicious whisky, and this set the bar for most other Scottish distillers who turned to bottling, casking and selling their own product. Blended whiskies fell out of vogue, and until very recently were viewed as a cheap alternative to good Scotch; whisky you could get drunk on without going bankrupt, and was smooth and sweet enough to be relatively inoffensive - any lingering graininess/alcohol flavour from the grain whisky could be ironed out with an icecube or three anyways. That said - blending whisky is seen as more art than science, and as such, a few gems in the field were unearthed; blends that had the character, intensity and vibrancy of single malts, but with the universal inoffensiveness inherent to blends. Blends like Teacher's Highland Cream, Te Bheag, but especially Johnnie Walker Black. Red label is made for mixing with cola; Green, gold and blue, for advertising one's affluence in the liquor cabinet. But black - Johnnie Walker Black Label emerged as the blend to end all blends, the gold standard upon which all other blends are measured. So let's take a look.
Typically, most blended whiskies (like Grant's Family Reserve or Whyte and Mackay) present with a nose of unadulterated alcohol, tempered by a slight, cloying sweetness. Not so with JWB. Rich vanilla and stone fruits characterize the first go, followed by distant peat and smoke - more than a dab, but less than a trowel's worth. Wow - fantastic, a nose that can rival many 12 year old single malts. Flowers, maybe some bread rising in the oven there? Finally a salty maritime quality - some of the over 40 malts that JWB uses definitely came from the coast! Wow...can't wait to taste this.
Rich and full-bodied. The initial impression on the palate is similar to other blends, namely one of sweetness; vanilla, cinnamon and sweet malt grain all feature here. However, it is in transition to mid-palate that the JWB juggernaut emerges - smoky, peaty notes, which perfectly balance out the initial sweetness. Unbelievable. Most blends (like Ballantine's Finest or Grant's Family Reserve) start off sweet, but are never tempered; as a result, one feels sick after a few drinks from the cloying saccharine nature. One of the marks of single malt whisky is taste definition - namely, each flavour that is presented is identifiable, rather than melding together - and this is exactly the kind of flavour profile JWB presents. It's comparable to a Benromach single malt, one of the most heavily peated Speysiders, and at far less cost. Plus, this whisky has a weight greater than the advertised 40% ABV; you can roll it around the mouth, exploring new flavours for quite a while.
This is due to a providential discovery that the Diageo blenders made; namely, that Talisker and Caol Ila, two rich heavily-peated Islay (and Isle of Skye) bruisers, when blended together in equal measures merge together almost seamlessly. This duo forms the backbone of the entire Johnnie Walker blend series, and provides the peated bridge upon which more mellow Speyside whiskies can be added to round out the flavour profile. Although the exact proportion of each whisky that is used is a closely-guarded secret, to date the following single malts have been identified as playing a part in the JWB blend. They are:
- Cragganmore - complex Speysider used to round off the Islay smokiness.
- Cardhu - a woody, spicier Speysider used to give some oakiness to the final product.
- Glendullan - A light, virtually unknown Speyside whisky renowned in blending circles as being almost an exact midpoint between light and heavy bodied whiskies - used to give balance to blends.
- Mortlach - legendary Speyside whisky which is known to be used in the Johnnie Walker Blue Label blend, and possibly makes an appearance in the Black label as well.
- Linkwood - lighter bodied whisky which mellows the blend.
- Strathmill - obscure single malt which typically serves as filler in Diageo's blends.
Lingering, slowly decaying peat and smoke; a spicy, slightly dry finish that lasts quite a while, shocking for a blend. Once again a touch of salt rears its head. This is a truly accessible blend for everybody - complex enough to engage the single malt connoisseur, yet smooth enough to be palatable to a novice drinker. It's substantial enough to be mixed with ice or water - or it can be enjoyed neat. No matter. As whisky guru Jim Murray states,
"Each day I have some 6,000 whiskies to choose from for a social dram if I want one. And at least once a week I will sample a Black Label. While the single malt revolution continues unabated, it is a shame that whisky lovers do not use this as a yardstick. They will find that very few malts can match this for complexity. This is the Savoy, the Everest of Deluxe Whiskies: there is not a blender who would not give their right arm - or even their left one - for the recipe of this supreme whisky. -Jim Murray's Whisky Bible 2007
With the proliferation of affordable single malts these days, it's easy to relegate blends to the dusty bottom shelves of most liquor stores. But in the case of Johnnie Walker Black, this would be a tragedy. JWB probably forms the pinnacle of blending, as the interplay between flavours is fabulous and the 60+% of it given to grain whiskies is almost unnoticeable. And not only is it delicious, to sit at home sipping Saddam Hussein and Moammar Ghaddafi's drink of choice is something else indeed, an oppotunity to live vicariously, if even for a moment, through some of the world's great strongmen. To think that Ali Hassan Al-Majid might have had this lingering peat on his breath upon ordering the gassing of thousands of Kurds...brings a complex sensation of emotions to mind. That Winston Churchill enjoyed a dram of this while devising Great Britain's response to The Blitz. The history, renown, and sheer quality imbued in this whisky make it a must-try for anyone, whether connoiseur or novice. Get yourself a bottle, and quickly.