...where distraction is the main attraction.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Johnnie Walker Blue Label versus Johnnie Walker Oldest

Nearly everything I've been directly told about Johnnie Walker Blue Label has turned out to be horseshit. It was Jack and Bobby Kennedy's drink? Off by three decades. Nixon drank it over the rocks in the Oval Office? Two decades too eager. That its contents are at least 30 years old? I'm closer to 30 than it is.

Via some googling one may read about Brora and Port Ellen being in the Oldest version, or that Oldest and/or Blue was/is an average of 25 or 28 years old. I don't believe a word of it, but I will admit the whisky's packaging has always been very handsome, something necessary for the sort of status symbol bottle one buys for clients, vendors and fathers-in-law.

Here's some history that is probably close to being true. United Distillers designed an ultra-luxury blended whisky from some old low ABV whisky during The Whisky Loch, and released it as Johnnie Walker Oldest in 1987. The notation "Aged 15 to 60 years" conspicuously vanished from the labels after the first couple of batches. Keeping its label and packaging design, it became Johnnie Walker Blue Label in 1992. The standard Blue Label's bottle has gotten a little bluer and more angular with time, while the whisky itself has never been provided with an age statement.

I have had the luxury of drinking Blue Label on more than a dozen occasions thanks to very generous friends. It was always a drinker, never a thinker, with "smooth" being the first word coming to mind. But in 2015, my opinion of it took an abrupt turn. I hosted two separate four-bottle private tastings that included Blue Label as the final, and most expensive, bottle. One tasting was blind, one was not. It was the least liked whisky in both instances, which simultaneously disturbed and delighted the guests. It had one of the thinnest mouthfeels I'd ever experienced, and tasted of nothing but grain, caramel, sugar and smoke. It was like "making love in a canoe" as the saying used to go. It was approaching Coors Light territory. It was kinda shit.

At a Columbus Scotch Night event two years ago (November 2018, in fact), Johnnie Walker Blue was lined up next to a Clynelish and a Glen Ord, and it finished dead last again. The event felt like a public service for the attendees. Many got to try Blue Label for the first time, and not one was motivated to spend $200 on his own bottle afterwards.

I bottled a Blue sample from that tasting. This year I had the pleasure of taking part in a bottle split of Johnnie Walker Oldest. And now's as good a time as any to compare the two.

Johnnie Walker Blue Label, 40%abv
Batch AV1, bottle AV105049

The nose begins with whole wheat bread, nectarines and lychee candy. Some light grassy notes and mint extract gradually sneak in. 30 minutes in, a floral perfume note develops and pushes forward. Toasted nuts, tangy lemons and woody bitterness lead off the palate. Then come the burnt raisins, salt and pencil graphite. It grows bitterer and more burnt with time. A hint of cigarette smoke and lemon juice join the mildly short sweet finish. Though the burnt and bitter notes linger longest, even they don't stick around long.

While the nose is quietly pleasant, the palate starts mediocrely then descends from there. It's "smooth" no longer, just watery, over-filtered and heavily dyed. I don't think a 46%abv strength would help it much more. Had Black Label not taken a recent unfortunate turn, I'd recommend that over this. I'm almost afraid to try the current version of Green Label. As for Blue Label, you can buy it for a loved one, but you'll be better off investing in a vibrator or Cialis. You know, something that lasts.

Availability - Widespread
Priced - $160-$225
Rating - 75

Johnnie Walker Oldest, 43%abv
Batch E, bottle E24152JW
(thanks to YY for making this happen!)

The nose begins with a mix of cask iron skillets, mothballs and musty basements. It opens up after 20 minutes, revealing white chocolate, apples, white peaches and a hint of pipe tobacco. The palate is simple, grainy, grassy. A little herbal and dusty. Small notes of yuzu, almond brittle, bran muffin, black pepper and cigar tobacco float about. It finishes sweet and almond-y, with golden raisins and thyme.

It's......fine, clearly two steps above Blue Label but absent anything memorable. It does have a slight dustiness, but that may be influenced more by 30 years in a bottle as opposed to old dunnages. Minus that element, this whisky doesn't deliver much more than a reasonable 12-year-old blend. Even though I found the rumors of its contents suspect, I expected more.

Availability - Secondary market
Priced - $300-$400
Rating - 82

This tasting confirmed my experience two years ago, the quality of this Blue Label isn't even worth discussing. Meanwhile, the odds there's any Brora, Port Ellen or Rosebank in the Oldest are very very very small. Like Trump-winning-Vermont small. If any old malt is present it's likely from severely underproof casks. I can't believe I'm still surprised by this. One begins to wonder if the entire Blue Label brand is based on an illusion. One naked-ass blue emperor.

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