Saturday, January 12, 2013

Whisky Review: the Many Faces of Johnnie Walker Black Label

Even if you're not a whisky drinker, you know what Johnnie Walker is. The most ubiquitous whisky brand in the world is found just about everywhere people belly up to a bar.

Johnnie Walker is the focus of the spirits behemoth Diageo, who put very nearly every single one of their scotch whisky distilleries to work producing fodder for their blends (Oban is the one exception). Thus they have a broad pallet with which to construct one of their main products, Johnnie Walker Black Label, a 12 year old whisky that is sourced from nearly all of those malt distilleries (primarily Cardhu, Lagavulin, and Talisker), along with a large percentage of grain whisky.

What's especially peculiar about this whisky is that it tasted very different each time I tried it, despite coming from the same miniature.

Johnnie Walker Black Label Type 1

Nose: medium-weight sherry, a little nougat, slightly floral, tiny whiff of peat, distant maltiness, raspberries. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes lighter, creamier, and more vegetal, with a bit of cinnamon.

Taste: sherried sweetness throughout, a bump of pepper and vanilla near the back. After dilution, it becomes maltier, with less sherry, more bitterness at the back, and a prickle of peat.

Finish: bittersweet, sherry, vanilla, oak - but not tannic, cinnamon

This is a very pleasant mode for JWBL. Very sweet and relatively light, emphasizing the sherried component of the whisky. I found this very comparable to Compass Box Oak Cross, but lighter and with less intensity (which is unsurprising given that Oak Cross is a blended malt with no grain whisky in it).

Johnnie Walker Black Label Type 2

Nose: Caol Ila/Lagavulin/Talisker savoriness minus the peat, oloroso/amontillado sherry, toffee, maritime salt, nougat, sweet oak. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes even more savory, with a hint of creamy dry sherry and berries, oak, and some underlying sweetness.

Taste: sherry sweetness and berries up front, something savory (vegetal peat?) mid-pallate, tannic oak and bittersweet chocolate near the back. After dilution, the sweetness become syrupy sucrose, with a tingle of pepper, some sherry and oak near the back.

Finish: bitter oak, vegetal peat, residual sweetness

This is a very different side of JWBL, emphasizing the coastal distilleries in Diageo's portfolio. What's interesting is that while it's much more savory, I didn't pick up much more peat. Caol Ila does make unpeated whisky on a semi-regular basis, so that might be what's going on, but it may just be that there is so little peated spirit going into the blend that it's not really showing itself. Overall I would rate this mode as interesting, but not something that I want to be drinking on a regular basis.

I'm left unsure quite what to think about JWBL. If I could be sure to taste what I got out of it the first time, I'd actually be tempted to buy a whole bottle. It wasn't a complex set of tastes, but it was very, very pleasant. The second tasting really threw me off, as it was rather unexpected and less approachable. I may have to return to this whisky another time to really nail it down. Right now I'm just a little baffled.

For some different perspectives, check out reviews from Diving for Pearls and Scotch Noob.


  1. Very interesting notes. I totally see it. You'd like massive barrel averaging would banish batch variation, but massive vattings are made by humans. Some of the component whiskies are very strongly flavored. It's inconceivable that various vattings wouldn't vary - particularly the prominence of the peaty components. You can tell the blenders of JW love their peaty drams.

    It's a mainstream blend - so they make it lightly flavored and accessible. That being said, you can taste the malt. It's not what I reach for at my home bar - but it's something I can readily turn to at a Bar Mitzva bar or a airline cart and know I'll be able to taste the malt (unlike Red Label or other entry level blended whiskies, where the flavor of malt is MIA).

    1. And in your case, it looks like CB Oak Cross is only a few dollars more than JWBL in NYC, so there's really no reason to go for the blend.

  2. FYI. New reader. My mother-in-law is in a quilting group with your mom. Your mom was amazed at my likker collection, >200 bottles, of which >60 are single malt whiskies.

    Too bad you are in Portland, we should drink together sometime. :)