The many colours of Johnnie Walker

I grew up in a scotch drinking household. Single malt scotch to be more precise, was my dad’s favourite. Also for as long as I can remember he kept what he called an “everyday drinking” scotch on hand.  This would always be a moderately priced blended scotch, typically J & B or an equivalent.  The purpose of said scotch was for more general scotch drinking.  For those times when you didn’t have time to sit down and appreciate the nuances of premium single malt.  At the core this example represents some of the fundamental differences in the scotch world.  Single malt is the premium product, aged for long periods in expensive casks, made with the finest malts and by the finest producers.  Blended scotch is mass produced, a blend of many different scotches, and sold at much more reasonable prices.  Typically.

Let’s start with a quick definition of the two:
Single Malt Scotch: a scotch which is distilled in a single distillery, in a pot still, using only malted barley in the production.
Blended Scotch Whisky: a blend of one or more malt scotch whiskies or grain scotch whiskies from different distilleries.  A general “Blended Scotch Whisky” can contain both malt whisky or grain whisky.

Blended scotch whiskies can lack the attention to detail and finesse in production, the care that generally goes into single malt scotch production.  But that is an extreme generalization and in some cases the finest scotches may just happen to be blends.  So with that in mind I thought we would take a quick look into the world’s largest distributer and marketer of blended scotch. A scotch that most people (whisky drinkers or not) know by name.   I present to you the many colours of Johnnie Walker.

Walk into a liquor store in virtually any city in the world, walk over to the whisky section, and you are sure to find Johnnie Walker scotch.  They have been around for nearly 200 years and are currently the world’s largest distributer of scotch whisky.  To get that type of notoriety you need to run a savvy business for sure, but you also need the quality product to back it up and Johnnie Walker certainly has that.  But don’t worry about ages, fancy names or regionality… to understand their line-up you just need to know your colours.

Ordered from lowest to highest quality, as well as (surprise, surprise) lowest to highest price.

Johnnie Walker Red: A blend of about 35 different malt and grain whiskies.  Some light whisky from Scotland’s East Coast and some dark peaty whisky from the West Coast. This is the base of the Johnnie Walker line-up.  Retails for $29.95 at the LCBO.

Johnnie Walker Black: A blend of over 40 selected Whiskies from around Scotland.  The youngest scotch in the blend is aged a minimum of 12 years, allowing them to label the bottle as a 12yr old scotch.  The Black is created to have more depth and character than the Red and it certainly succeeds.  Retails for $50.95 at the LCBO.

Johnnie Walker Double Black: The newest addition to the Johnnie Walker family, this scotch takes the Johnnie Walker Black as a general guideline but adds some additional heavily peated malts, as well as more whisky which has been aged in deepy charred casks.  This add’s darkness to the colour and strength to the flavour.  Retails for $69.90 at the LCBO.

Johnnie Walker Green: A blend using only malts from each of the four corners of Scotland.  In fact the four malts used are from producers many would be familiar with for their success as premium single malts in their own right.  Caol Ila, Talisker, Cragganmore, and Linkwood.  The bottle is labeled a 15 year old, meaning the minimum age of the whiskies making up the blend is 15 years.  Retails for $79.95 at the LCBO… though I believe has been discontinued in this market.

Johnnie Walker Gold: A blend of 15 single malts, the Johnnie Walker Gold is a bit tougher to come by and has only been available outside the company since the 1990’s (according to the Johnnie Walker website itself).  This blend is created for smoothness with sweet notes and rich gold colour.  Retails for $109.45 at the LCBO.

Johnnie Walker Blue: In this blend Johnnie Walker taps into the rarest and most exceptional whiskies from their stock, which happens to be the largest in the world, so they have a lot to choose from.  The whisky is intended to be in an early 19th century style with literally each whisky in the blend being hand selected by their master distiller for its exceptional quality.  It’s easily the smoothest and most complex of the Johnnie Walker family.  Retails for a cool $289.95 at the LCBO thanks to a recent price increase of $60.

*note: they do produce some seasonal product and limited releases which fall outside of the above list, but this is their core line-up.

Don’t like scotch? Well feel free to mix the base line Johnnie Red with water, soda, or even coke.  You likely won’t offend anybody.  However the options above that level are really not meant to be mixed with anything but a dash of water or a little bit of ice.  Certainly above black you don’t mix.  With Green or Gold I would start to think about holding the ice as well.

Now let’s get back to the Blue for a second. For starters do not mix anything in a glass of Johnnie Blue.  Neat is the only way to go.  Plus at $290 a bottle (Ontario) I would hope you would want to taste nothing but the scotch.  The burning question though is… Is it worth it? $290! About $30 a shot in most bars! That’s a lot of money.  Personally I would argue that in this market, at this price point, it’s actually not worth it… but it’s very, very, close.  It’s a smooth scotch with many layers of flavours and complexity.  Rumour has it that some bottles of Johnnie Blue contain portions in the blend which have been aged up to 100 years.  However through countless sources and a fair bit of research I was unable to confirm this.

In fact the differences between all the levels of the Johnnie Walker scotches are quite discernible in colour, complexity, and ultimately taste.  It’s one of the reasons I think folks can appreciate the price gaps at each level.  If you ever want to compare and contrast scotch whisky’s across various price points and various levels, Johnnie Walker will likely provide you the best opportunity to appreciate it.  If you do get that opportunity feel free to pass an invite my way.  I’ll clear my calendar.

– Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman 

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