Friday, September 18, 2015

Whisky Review: Johnnie Walker Blue Label

Johnnie Walker Blue Label is, almost without a doubt, the greatest triumph of marketing within the scotch whisky world. Based purely on trust, as the bottle contains absolutely no age statements or firm expressions of provenance, Diageo has been able to build an almost impenetrable mystique around it and charge accordingly.

Nominally Blue Label is built from Diageo's 'rarest whiskies' of 'particular qualities' 'fine enough' for the expression. Which tells you exactly nothing. I've seen it suggested that Royal Lochnagar makes up a large percentage of the malt component, but what the other components are and how much of them are in the final mix is completely unknown. Diageo also drops hints that they include casks from closed distilleries, which would make them both old and rare at this point, but we have no way of knowing that and even if they are ingredients, they could very well be teaspooned in and contribute next to nothing to the flavor.

So, in essence, Blue Label is good because we have been told that it is good and many drinkers continue to believe that it is. With that said, it is constructed to appeal to people for whom that will be a self-reinforcing belief. Blue Label is the definition of smoothness, which, if you ask most spirits drinkers, is exactly what they are looking for. It tastes old, without having any well-defined characteristics that stand out from the experience as a whole. There is peat and sherry, but neither is a defining characteristic of the blend unless you're looking for them. It is almost an anti-geek whisky, but when Oregon put 200 mL bottles on sale for $30 I grabbed one because I was never going to have another opportunity to try it for a reasonable price.

So what is definite? The whisky is currently bottled at 40% ABV and is almost certainly colored and chill filtered.

Johnnie Walker Blue Label Bottled TA2 04000

Nose: balanced malt and grain, a hint of sherry, gentle old Caol Ila peat, mild toasted oak, slightly herbal, some floral notes tucked inside. After adding a few drops of water, the sherry and oak perk up a bit, the peat and herbal notes come together, the malt fades a bit in favor of the grain, and a bit of burned cinnamon peeks out.

Taste: smooth, smooth, smooth - opens with mild grain and malt sweetness, sliding through an overlay of sherry with a puff of peat and oak near the back. After dilution, almost everything becomes more muddled and indistinct, except the grain becoming stronger at the back,

Finish: light sherry over grain and malt, a little peat and oak

The components of Blue Label are like river rocks polished by time. Everything flows cleanly from one element to the next without a bump. There's absolutely nothing objectionable about this whisky, other than the fact that you can probably get almost exactly the same experience for a fraction of the price. Heck, Johnnie Walker Green Label has a lot of the same characteristics, at higher proof and one third the price. But the appeal of Blue Label will continue to be not its price, but the perception of quality. So I have no doubt that people will continue to buy it. I just won't be included within their ranks - while I enjoyed this, I also see no reason to spend money on it again.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Whisky Review: Johnnie Walker Green Label

Johnnie Walker Green Label is an oddity within the brand: a blended whisky composed entirely of malt among a seas of blended whiskies that contain grain. It was almost entirely withdrawn from the market a few years back as the lineup was reformulated, much to the consternation of whisky geeks. However, this was a completely understandable move from the perspective of Diageo, which has always been focused on its blends. The teenage malt components of Green Label could much more profitably spread across their blended whiskies or held in reserve for higher margin single malts, especially those like Talisker where they were having trouble keeping up with demand.

In a sign that the whisky market may be turning a corner, Green Label was reintroduced (albeit officially only temporarily) to the American market within the last year, even more surprisingly with the age statement intact and at roughly the same price point. Reviews suggest that the latest releases are basically the same in terms of flavor as well.

This sample is the previous version, bottled in 2006. It's at 43%, almost certainly with coloring and chill filtration. Thanks for Michael for the sample.

Johnnie Walker Green Label

Nose: lovely blend of Talisker and Caol Ila peat, a touch of wood smoke, pine resin, citrus peel, significant but not overpowering oak, something savory (yeast extract?), lightly burnt wildflowers, fudge-y, honey, breakfast cereal, underlying malt. After adding a few drops of water, the oak comes to the fore and pulls out more malt and floral notes, with the peat slipping back a bit.

Taste: lots of wood and malt sweetness throughout, berries and floral notes in the background, oak, sherry, and peat rise briefly near the back, then fade into herbal caramel. After dilution, the sweetness become smoother, with the floral notes becoming stronger at the back, and the oak waits until later to emerge.

Finish: caramel, light oak, pineapple, berry, sherry, and floral residue

As Curt of All Things Whisky noted, this blended whisky is not so much the components coming together to form a harmonious whole, but closer to a display of each in turn. While that's not a knock on its quality, the seams are clearly visible. The main elements are Linkwood and Cragganmore, two unpeated Speysiders, and Talisker and Caol Ila, two peated island whiskies. Each brings its own character to the mix and there's good evolution in the aromas and flavors. Even if those elements aren't necessarily integrated, they are balanced. Kind of like Highland Park, this ticks the 'a little bit of everything' box that makes it an enjoyable drink that doesn't require a lot of attention. It's easily worth the upgrade from Black Label as the all-malt construction gives it a lot more depth. So while there are comparably priced single malts that I would pick over Green Label, it's well worth having in your cabinet for less meditative evenings.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Whisky Review: Johnnie Walker Black Label - 1970s vs. Today

Johnnie Walker is one of the oldest and obviously most well-established brands of blended whisky in Scotland. The vast array of malt and grain distilleries owned by Diageo give it the scope to maintain almost unparalleled consistency through the magic of cask averaging. But with that said, changes must have occurred over the decades as production methods change, distilleries are opened and closed, and stock levels rise and fall.

I was lucky enough to get to try a bit of Johnnie Walker Black Label bottled in the 1970s care of Micahel Kravitz. You can read about the history of the bottle here and here. Suffice it to say that this is a piece of history.

There are both similarities and differences on the surface. Both are composed of grain and malt whiskies, but the proportions and distilleries those components were sourced from may have changed radically in the intervening years. Both are likely colored and chill-filtered. The bottle from the 70s is at a rather precise 43.4% while the new mini is at 43%. The old bottle didn't carry an explicit age statement while the new one does.

Johnnie Walker Black Label Duty Free - 1970s

Nose: odd sherry character with a metallic lavender edge, raisins, savory/yeasty, herbal, maple syrup, peanut brittle, grain (corn/wheat), a little sulfur, a whiff of peat and incense. After adding a few more drops of water, it gets drier and more savory, the sherry integrates a bit and shifts towards a more modern style, dry vanilla emerges, there's more American oak/bourbon character.

Taste: sherry hangs over the entire palate, opens with sweet malt that slowly transforms into grain with rising oak tannins, berry esters and gentle floral notes in the middle, bittersweet at the back. After dilution, the sherry becomes more integrated with the malt and grain, the savory character is ramped up, some vanilla comes out, and it gets more American oak/bourbon character.

Finish: metallic, savory, malt/grain, sherry residue, light but long lasting peat

It's hard for me to judge this, simply because it's so clearly constructed for a very different era in taste. It is far less immediately approachable than modern blends, which seek to round off all of the rough edges of the spirit. The flavors here are much more bold and less integrated, with the sherry speaking very loudly and with very different character than any modern sherry cask whisky I've tried.  One suspects that this might be due to the use of paxarete casks before the 1980s, as that would generate an entirely different profile from modern sherry casks that emulate more closely the transport casks of the 19th century.

Beyond the sherry, the cask influence was not readily apparent at full strength. But the use of refill casks could explain the lack of tannins or much vanilla. Instead this is a very spirit-driven whisky. Some of the differences might reflect the more widespread use of maize for making grain whisky during the middle of the 20th century, while there was generally a shift to wheat in the 1980s. But more likely this due to differences in the way malt whisky was produced. The intense savoriness of this whisky, especially on the nose, is really different than modern blends. The decreasing protein content of modern barley strains as well as increased copper contact as distilleries shifted from worm tub condensers could both account for these differences.

Ultimately, I would be pretty happy drinking a whole bottle of this blend. It's challenging, but ultimately an enjoyable experience. If you're in Europe, these do pop up at auction semi-regularly, so it's worth keeping an eye out. They don't seem to go for absurd amounts of money, so it's worth trying some history.

Johnnie Walker Black Label - Modern

Nose: grain-forward, malt behind, a touch of soft sherry, hints of Caol Ila peat, maple syrup, orange peel, vanilla. After adding a few drops of water, the grain becomes even stronger, oak and savory notes finally emerge, the peat becomes more mossy, and the orange peel starts to resemble Starbursts.

Taste: caramel/grain/malt sweetness up front, shifting a bit towards bittersweet around the back, some sherry and soft oak come out around the middle. After dilution, it becomes sweeter, but grainier and more bland, with the sherry integrating and bolstering the caramel.

Finish: soft sherry, oak, grain, a touch of malt, a whiff of peat

Modern Black Label does exactly what it's supposed to do - provide an inoffensive but not completely boring experience. I've covered it a couple of times, in both 40% and 43% incarnations. In either guise, the most readily apparently difference with the 1970s version is the lack of sherry. What is there lacks the deep funkiness of the 70s bottling, again keeping the experience in a firmly unchallenging mode. Whether this is better or worse is going to depend on your taste, but it's clear that the scope of flavors allowed into the blend has narrowed and the malt content has dropped significantly. I still feel comfortable recommending modern Black Label, especially as a platform for further blending, but it's nothing like what it used to be.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Whisky Review: C&S Dram Collection Braes of Glenlivet 19 Year 1994/2014

After the Càrn Mòr, I was mostly hoping for something more. As an additional upside, I had two samples, which meant more chances to get to know it.

This whisky was distilled in 1994, aged in ex-bourbon barrel #159158, then bottled at 54.4% in 2014 without coloring or chill filtration. Samples are sold out at the WhiskyBase shop, but you can still grab a full bottle if you feel so inclined.

C&S Dram Collection Braes of Glenlivet 19 Year 1994/2014

Nose: dominated by the bourbon barrel - rather woody with a bit of char, caramel, creamy vanilla, savory/soy sauce, green malt, rolled oats, sweet cinnamon, orange peel, bubblegum, grape/brandy, peach/apricot, raspberry, and a little plastic. After adding a drop of water, the oak becomes more charred and polished, plus the malt becomes grainier and almost like corn, giving it a more overt bourbon character.

Taste: lots of honey and wood sweetness starting at the beginning, big berry, apple, and white fruit notes around the middle, then becoming more tannic and bittersweet with a bit of greenness near the back. After dilution, the oak integrates with the sweetness, the malt becomes more prominent and gains some corn character, raisins are added to the berries, and the fruit notes become stronger in general.

Finish: moderate oak and tannins, lingering malt and fruit, bittersweet, alcohol heat

This whisky is without a doubt heavily influenced by the barrel. The first go around it seemed like too much, but on the second more balance was achieved, letting the fruit flavors create a counterpoint to the oak. Being bottled at cask strength definitely helps, as the flavors are bold. In some respects I feel like this might be a good gateway malt for bourbon drinkers as the oak influence provides something of a bridge between the two styles, while the malt offers something different from a typical bourbon. It's not cheap, but given its age and the quality of the spirit, I'm fairly inclined to grab a full bottle.