Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Whiskey Wednesday: Taste the Rainbow -- Johnnie Walker

When it comes to Scotch, I'm a single malt drinker. I love tasting the different distilleries from different regions and of different ages. But something like 90% of the Scotch that's consumed in the world is blended Scotch, composed of a mixture of single malt whiskey from different distilleries and grain whiskey.

While blenders dominate the market, single malts are chipping away at the higher, premium and super-premium ends. In addition, new blenders, like Compass Box, have come on the market with more refined and creative blends. As a result, some of the bigger blenders have begun to release premium, cask strength and other blends intended to appeal to the single malt crowd.

With this new offensive by blended Scotch, I thought it would be a good time for me to try a few blends, and what better place to start than Johnnie Walker.

One of the foremost blended Scotches in the world, Johnnie Walker is ubiquitous and its color code is well known to drinkers of blended Scotch. In ascending order, Walker offers a basic line of Red, Black, Gold and Blue.

Johnnie Walker is produced by liquor giant Diageo. In making its blends, Diageo has at its disposal an amazing profile of 29 active single malt distilleries, including such luminaries as Lagavulin, Talisker, Caol Ila, Dalwhinnie, Oban, Mortlach and Linkwood as well as the legendary closed distilleries of Brora, Rosebank, Dallas Dhu and Port Ellen among others. There is no other company with as impressive an array of single malts at its disposal, so one would expect a lot from its blends, especially from the higher end of the color spectrum.

While I had tried the common JW Red and Black before, this was my first go at the much heralded Gold and the legendary Blue. The prices listed below are approximate for a standard 750ml bottle, though they come in various sizes; you can even get a sample pack with 200 ml bottles of all four expressions for about $100. All of the JW colors are 40% alcohol, and only the Black and Gold include age statements.

JW Red

Red is the lowest end of the spectrum, available at conventions and weddings everywhere. It is the world's best selling Scotch.

Red is light on the nose though it has a pleasant malty aroma. The lightness continues in the flavor, almost to the point of inconsequence on the palate. The first taste is a nice malty flavor, but then it is drown out by an unpleasant finish consisting of soap and straw.

JW Black
, 12 years old ($25)

Black is an affordable but slightly higher end brand than the JW Red. You'll find it in first class instead of coach.

A nice smoky aroma, maybe some of that Caol Ila in this one. Once again, though, the taste doesn't live up to the nose. The complex aroma yields to a lightness and a lack of complexity on the palate.

JW Gold, 18 years old ($60)

Gold is the sleeper of JW. Overshadowed by its Blue brother, it labors in relative obscurity but is praised by critics, many of whom think it is the best of the Walkers. One of the chief components is said to be Clynelish, which is a fabulous, uber-malty single malt.

Gold opens with a beautiful aroma of malt and fruit. Again, however, it's light on the palate. I can taste the Clynelish and there is a bit of oak on it. But rather than impressing me, it really made me yearn for the fuller taste of straight Clynelish in all its woody, Highland maltiness touched by smoke. And the Clynelish 14 year old is some $20 cheaper than JW Gold!

Perhaps it is unfair of me to compare a blend to a single malt. Is it the very lightness I find unappealing that the blended Scotch drinker seeks? Am I the wrong audience because I'm used to the bold and distinct flavors of single malts?

In any case, I can only taste what I taste, but if you are primarily a drinker of blends and have an opinion, please drop me a line or leave a comment.

JW Blue

Few whiskies have developed the mystique that surrounds JW Blue. JW Blue is a Robin Leach whiskey, a whiskey of the rich and famous. It's what you give to the firm's new partner or (in LA speak) the actor your agency has been trying to woo.

While the Blue label means status in some circles, it is routinely trashed among Scotch aficionados as a victory of style over substance and marketing run amok.

When it first came out, Blue claimed to include 60 year old malts, though I haven't seen that claim made recently. Many have noted the inclusion of Cardhu and Royal Lochnagar in the blend as well as the legendary Port Ellen.

Blue has a complex aroma, strong with dried fruit and subtle with malt. The fruit fades in the flavor as the malt takes center stage with some smoke in the distance...silky smooth, balanced to a tee. Nicely done.

Despite the critical acclaim for Gold and disdain for Blue, I have to say, Blue won me over. When I think about Walker, I yearn for the Blue. Mind you, that doesn't mean that Blue (or Gold, for that matter) is worth the big price tag. At $60 I would highly recommend Blue, but at $150, you're paying too much.

The Other Walkers

Aside from the four blends I sampled, JW has several additional expressions. JW Green is a vatted malt, meaning a blend of single malts with no grain whiskey ($50). JW Swing is a blend with a light and sweet flavor profile that differentiates it from the standard Walkers, and it comes in a weeble inspired bottle (it wobbles but it doesn't fall down) ($65).

In addition, there has been an expansion of the Blue label for those who think that the regular Blue is just too darned affordable. The new JW Blue - King George V is allegedly loaded with Port Ellen and goes for over $500 a bottle. The new 200th Anniversary Cask Strength Blue goes for (gasp) $3,000. Needless to say, you won't be seeing any tasting notes here for those whiskies.

Next Wednesday: A Renowned Fowl

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