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.

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