Monday, December 17, 2012

Review: Slummin' It with Johnnie Walker (Red and Black)

Ever since I discovered single malts in my mid 20's, I've taken a dim view of Johnnie Walker. Turned my nose in the air at the notion of drinking a dirty blended whisky, and indeed, hadn't had a sip of the stuff in over ten years. However, in the spirit of working my way through the world of blends, well, it had to come to this, didn't it? I mean, Johnnie Walker is the most well known, best selling Scotch in the world. But is it the cheap rough swill I "remember," or does it deserve it's status as a worldwide best-seller?

Johnnie Walker Red Label
NAS, 40 % ABV

The Red label first...often branded as a mixer, and probably a decent one, I remember Red label being rough, musty, and hot, "manly" whisky, belted down with a grimace. Even as I began to consider that JWB might in fact not be as bad as I remember, I was sure that the cheaper Red label was going to turn out as swill.

Not long after the Cutty Sark experiment, my brother in law offered me a belt of the Red label, much to my delight...and much to my surprise, it was almost good! A bit rough, quite a bit musty, but also huge notes of malt and a fair bit of sweet fruit. I don't find the Red label a particularly balanced blend, and there's really no peat at all, but it's also not a terribly bad whisky. It's not exciting or dynamic, and like all blends suffers from the inclusion of poorly aged grain whisky, but still, an actually ok dram after all. I suspect this might mix pretty well, though Scotch based cocktails are rarely my thing. Not much finish, and not something I'd frequently knock back...for the price, you could find a better blend in Teacher's, or a pretty decent bourbon. Score: 70 (C-)

Johnnie Walker Black Label
12 year, 40 % ABV

Following my successful taste of the Red label, I went out and bought a half pint of the Black label. My curiosity was now piqued...the Red label had turned out to not be that bad after all, certainly drinkable, and I've so often heard that JWB has a fair bit of peat smoke, rumored to contain Talisker, and known to contain Caol Ila. The nose doesn't suggest much smoke, but a bit of Speyside toffee. On the tongue there is an overwhelming sense of "balance," smoothness for the sake of smoothness, sort of the opposite of the Red in that regard. JWB is aged for 12 years, which shows, especially put next to the Red. There's a bit of oak, a bit of Speyside caramel, and a hint of peat (but only just) afterall. Still a significant proportion of grain whisky here, but surprisingly smooth and full, without the terribly thin body of a lot of blends. I certainly get the sense that this is very much an engineered product, designed to appeal to a mass market. It's a task the JWB does quite well, and really, it's a pretty decent dram...nothing in the league of a good single malt, but probably better than a cheap one. Score: 74 (C)

This was fun, the Johnny Walker ended up being better than I thought it would. I'd like to try the new "Double Black," which supposedly has a bit more smoke and oak, and the Green, a vatted malt blended from only four malts to the 30 + of the Red and Black. Sadly, the Green has been quietly discontinued, and prices for what's still out there have already shot upward of $60 a bottle...just not worth it to me.

Up next, what's Christmas without J&B?


  1. I tried a nip of the Red a few months ago and was surprised at how not-bad it was: definitely a more interesting dram than the Black. The only other color I've tried is Blue (colors? what are these lollipops?) and it was incredibly smooth but otherwise not very exciting to me.

  2. I am amused by our damnation by faint praise: the Red is "almost good," and "not-bad." But it is certainly more interesting than the Black, which is impressive in the fashion that Budweiser is's a mass produced Scotch that is always the same, no matter what the vagaries of the malt whisky market. Sort of a testament to engineering and logistics. Truly, not a bad dram either, just boring. Such a shame about the Green, it sounded interesting, and vatteds are sorely under-represented in the marketplace.

  3. Reading through your reviews, I stumbled on this one and felt compelled to comment. The Green really is great (I would call it my first "love" in the world of whisky; I started about a year and a half ago). Sweet and smoky (think toasted graham crackers) and smooth as can be, it's wonderfully balanced and just peaty enough to have some character. Seeing your recent reviews, you seem to value "bigness," so I dunno how the smoothness would go over, but it's a huge step above the Black. It really is a shame it's going. I bought two bottles at $50 in December, one to drink and one to keep.

    Great blog, by the way. Bookmarked!

  4. Hi Chase, I recently tried the Green and was given a bottle of the Gold as a gift, so a review is forthcoming for both! I agree that the Green is a really nice dram, and it's a shame to see it go.

    Smoothness is not a bad thing per se, but I think Jacob and I are both at the point in our journey where smooth is just less important than "bigness" in flavor and texture. That said, I found the Green to have an agreeable fullness that's sorely lacking in the Black label, as well as the expected smooth character.

    Thanks for the kind words!