...where distraction is the main attraction.

Monday, June 24, 2013

NOT Single Malt Report: The Big-Ass (and Last) Johnnie Walker Black post

So, here was my first Black Label post.

Then, my second post, comparing it to Chivas Regal 12 year.

Then, my third post, comparing it to Isle of Skye 8 year.

But that first post says it all really.  I've always been biased towards Johnnie Walker Black.  I've been drinking it for a while, have always found it versatile, can get it EVERYWHERE, and thus it comes with a sense of familiarity.

But today, I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

Okay, maybe I'll praise Black Caesar a little bit.  But it will be the last time.

In this final JWBL Taste Off, I have an old one (which means I'm old, I guess), a current version, and its new stepbrother.

The costars, in their original shapes:

Now in the shape of Glencairn glasses:

What we've got here is, from left to right:
1.  Johnnie Walker Black Label, bottled in the late 1970s, sold Duty Free in a 1.2 liter bottle at 43.4% ABV
2.  Johnnie Walker Black Label, bottled in 2011, from a 50mL mini, at 40% ABV
3.  Johnnie Walker Double Black, likely bottled in 2012, from a Master of Malt sample, 40% ABV


Johnnie Walker Black Label (bottled late 1970s) - 43.4% ABV

This bottle (with a great neck-fill line) has some history to it, so it received its own post three months ago.  I recommend giving the post a look, especially since it's mostly pictures.  To recap briefly:

As of last Christmas this whisky was the property of Robert and Wilma Perry, my wife's grandparents. It had previously belonged to one of Grandpa Bob's cousins. But for many years it sat in a cold Ohio basement. This past December, Grandpa Bob, who is currently kicking cancer's ass, gave the bottle of whisky to me.

Upon the bottle's opening, the contents inside made a sssssssss-thkkk sound.  Strong notes of library book dust and metal floated up to my nose.  I drank it aniwayyyy and iM stil alivvvvvvvvvvvvvvv

Through trial and error I discovered the whisky needs ten to fifteen minutes of breathing time in the glass before it is to be approached.  I am direly serious about that 10-15 minutes.  Because, dude, some funk resides within.

Color -- Maple syrup with maroon and mahogany highlights (or to be less flowery: dark brown with some dark red in it)

Nose -- Old sherry stank.  Think: old moldy casks of sherry sitting in a warm dunnage for over 100 years.  There's moss and mushrooms and soil.  Enormous fermented prunes.  Damp tobacco.  Lime rind, maple syrup, and molasses.  Digging beneath the sherry, one may find a butterscotch sundae with vanilla ice cream, plums, red & black licorice, and paint fumes.

Palate -- Earthy, salty, tangy, mildly bitter, hot, maybe even a little bit of industrial chemicals in there.  Beyond that: The Big Sherry that's almost metallic.  Prunes, milk chocolate, semi-sweet chocolate, chocolate mints, overripe plums, and the mothballs in my grandma's Brooklyn basement.  A vegetal peat holds court in the background.  The texture is very thick and buttery.

Finish -- That sherry funk sticks to the innards and doesn't leave for some time.  It has those plums and prunes, along with the chocolate mints, some fudge and a pinch of salt.  It gets sweeter and maltier than the palate.

Water doesn't make a damned dent in it.

I'll have some more comments below, but this is a big malty beast.  And, honestly, it's a bit challenging in its intensity.  More on this later...

Johnnie Walker Black Label (bottled in 2011) - 40%

This has been my go-to Scotch at bars since...well, since bars.  I've purchased its minis to take with me on trips or to include in Taste Offs.  I've had two bottles given to me as gifts.  But for all the praise I've lavished on Black Label, I have never purchased a 750mL bottle of it.  And now I never will.  This is the first of the Diageo brands I am discarding.

Color -- Johnnie Walker (seriously, it's probably patented)

Nose -- Honey, apples, a mild cheese, vanilla, and black cherry soda.  Less smoke here than on the palate.  It's a little bready.  Maybe some clay.  After some time the mild sherry shows up with all of its dried fruits in tow.

Palate -- More peated than the last time I drank it.  There's a little sharpness and sourness to the grains. It's mildly sweet, think simple syrup and molasses.  Between the black pepper, peat, and smoke it's almost savory.

Finish -- Black pepper, whipped cream, more peat than smoke.  The bread note returns.  Some drying tannins kick in.

Nose -- Leather notes arise, along with a lot of caramel sauce.  The sherry quiets down.

Palate -- More savory and herbal.  Softer, very morish.  The sharpness and sourness are gone, leaving a pleasant sweetness.  Caramel and peat.  One of the few blends that improves with water.

Finish -- The same as when served neatly, though perhaps a little briefer and not as dry.

It's still my favorite blended scotch, though Bank Note will have no trouble wearing its crown.

Johnnie Walker Double Black (2012?) - 40%

Despite my enjoyment of JW's Black and Green Labels, I have had little to no interest in this new addition to the Johnnie Walker range.  I've even had retailers tell me it's less than exciting.  The official marketing of it spins a story of it being like Black, but with more smoke (likely due to a larger quantity of Caol Ila among the malts) and more barrel char.  Yet, I have a sense memory of Black Label having once been smokier -- or has my palate shifted?  Also, Serge Valentin and Dominic Roskrow have expressed their approval of it.  So maybe this could stand up to the old and new Black Label...

Color -- Johnnie Walker (not doubly black)

Nose -- Candied balloon rubber.  Cotton candy peat.  Brown sugar and cinnamon.  Hint o' mint.  Less of the sherry, in fact not much oak.  Not much malt either?

Palate -- Lighter in texture and tone than JWBL.  Sweetness, sourness, and sharpness are all dialed down to focus on the light peating.  A little BBQ -- think bacon and burnt hay, maybe charred beef.  With time some more ash and sugar cubes seem to appear.  As the texture is thinner than JWBL, it feels like the easiest drinker of these three.

Finish -- The most muted of the three, as it fades quickly.  Some BBQ, some sugar, ash, and echoes of the peat.

Nose -- The barbecued meat finds its way to the nose, along with caramel.

Palate -- Salt and pepper.  Something like dried basil or thyme.  Otherwise pretty similar.

Finish -- More sweetness here, otherwise similar but even quieter.

It offends the least, but in this instance that's not a strength.  Makes me want to drink some Caol Ila instead.

The old Black Label does not resemble either of the two modern blends whatsoever.  This may be due to the following factors:

1.) Paxarette - Until it was banned in the 1980s by the SWA, a dense syrupy grape-must-laden Sherry called Paxarette was secretly (or not so-secretly) added to reused casks in order to spruce them up and add a stronger flavor element to the malt whisky within.  Also since American oak was cheaper and more prevalent than Spanish oak, Pax was added to ex-bourbon casks in order to quickly turn them into Sherry casks.  This may account for some of the complaints that sherry-aged whisky doesn't hold up as well as it used to.  Perhaps the Pax had helped.  But now it's banned while industrial caramel colorant is not.

2.) Old Bottle Effect (OBE), especially the dusty, metallic notes.  Plus all that rich sherry stank (really that's the only word I have for it after three months and one liter consumed) must be influenced by being locked up in a bottle for 30+ years.

3.) Now-defunct distilleries' malts in the mix.  Could Convalmore, Glen Albyn, Glen Mohr, Brora, Banff, Coleburn, Port Ellen, Glenesk, Dallas Dhu, Glenury Royal, Millburn, Glenlochy, North Port, Pittyvaich, St. Magdalene, Coleburn, or Rosebank malt be in there?  Man, even typing that list made me sad.

4.) A very different recipe.  This is so much maltier than any JW label -- save Green (R.I.P.).  And it's much more sherried too.  Old bottle effect aside, this was definitely highly sherried in its original creation.  More folks were drinking sherry back then, thus palates were more familiar with sherry, and sherry casks were more plentiful (also see factor #1).  I'm wondering if some of the grain whisky was casked in ex-sherries too.

[One more thing of note.  Examining the old bottle carefully, one will notice not a single mention of an age statement.  The original Black Label (first called "Old Highland Whisky") came with a guarantee of "Over 12 Years Old".  Sometime in the 1950s that guarantee was removed from the label.  It came back onto labels the 1980s.  I've gone through all of my whisky books and online resources, but I'm not sure if the removal of the age statement was due to the addition of younger whisky (any help here would be appreciated!).  But, if anything, this NAS Black Label has the texture, scent, and palate of something significantly more mature than the current 12 year old Black Label.]

Meanwhile, the two current blends are light and brisk compared to the old one.  The oldie puts up a fight with its metallics and mold.  While the current ones are ready to drink upon pouring as if they were engineered that way.  Like a true product.  The oldie is a roughie, not seeming like it's a conglomerate's carefully controlled property.  It may offend.  Today, most Diageo products are designed not to.

The thing is, even considering the above paragraph, I like the current Black Label product; sort of like how your healthy friends still crave McDonald's fries.  Both are mass marketed consumable goods designed to please.  And it works for me.

Meanwhile, Double Black is decent but there are better blends at better prices.  I can buy both Burn Stewart's Black Bottle (never mind, Black Bottle is hideous) and AD Rattray's Bank Note together for less expense than one bottle of Double Black.  What it does do, as I mentioned above, is make me want some Caol Ila single malt instead.

What strikes me as most odd is the pricing of Double Black higher than Black Label, sometimes at a $15 premium.  I haven't found a reasonable defense for it.  It's not richer, thicker, bolder, or more sophisticated.  There doesn't seem to be more malt, and if there was a higher malt content that would certainly be a marketing point.  It almost certainly has younger malt; if not, then they would be touting an age statement.

I guess Diageo wants it to seem more expensive......by making it more expensive.  And the box does have some more design detail to it.  The bottle IS blacker.  And there's the word "Double" in the name.  But......?

So that's it for Johnnie Walker and I.  Splitsville.  Double Black didn't tempt me.  My feelings about their other two newest labels have been previously posted here.  Red Label can be topped by most blends in its price range (excepting Dewars).  Gold Label went out with a whimper.  Green Label has been silenced.  And I'm not paying $200 for Blue Label when some of the best single malts in the world can be had for less than half that price.

It's been a good fifteen years, Black Label.  Now off with you.  Go steal the heart of yet another dictator in an "emerging market".

Johnnie Walker Black Label (late '70s)

Availability - My whisky cabinet
Pricing - ?
Rating - 87

Johnnie Walker Black Label (current)

Availability - Everywhere!
Pricing - $28-$40
Rating - 88

Johnnie Walker Double Black Label

Availability - Most liquor retailers
Pricing - $40-$50
Rating - 80


  1. Well said. As I commented on your first post, I have a long history with black label. Which pains me even more to see that crap Diageo is pulling.

    Black - I can't and likely won't ever quit you.

    1. BR, you know I can commiserate. It's understandable why Diageo would want to seek out new customers, but they really don't have to abandon their long-time loyal base. Seems like there's a lot of that happening across all of the whisk(e)y industries, but Diageo almost flaunts it. Damn shame.

  2. The one closed distillery I'm sure is in old Johnnie Walker is Brora. Why? Because Brora's peated whisky was needed for Johnnie Walker (and other DCL blends) due to drought conditions on Islay in 1968. I might say no on Pittyvaich since it didn't join the DCL stable until the late '80s (and it was a component malt in Bell's).

    That said I wouldn't be surprised if nearly ALL of those closed distilleries made their way into Johnnie Walker. After all, blends were still more popular than single malts at this time so the distilleries were making product for blending instead of bottling whisky on their own.

    1. The bottle and label design may have stayed consistent, but it certainly seems like the whisky within keeps changing. So the brand isn't the product itself, it's just the image. Marketing is a separate reality.

  3. I wouldn't feel sad about North Port. Talking to Tim Read, it sounds like they were almost universal stinkers.

    But if you want some Millburn, I can get you some Millburn. It's a vanilla bomb.

    Definitely looking forward to giving the old JWBL a try. Thanks for sending me a sample.

    1. From what I've heard of Pittyvaich, (I don't want to judge a distillery by a name but Pittyvaich just sounds depressing) it's another distillery that we won't miss.

    2. Hey Jordan,

      Oh, there will be a North Port / Brechin report here before too long. I've also heard it's hideous. I'm pretty excited. Millburn would be fun! We'll need to discuss this in the near future.

      Re: the ol' JWBL, no prob! It does need some air after being trapped like a genie in a bottle for so long.

    3. Hey Eric,

      Jim Murray's reviews of Pittyvaich are some of my favorites of his. A sample from his review of their official 12 year:

      "What amazes me is not that this is such a bad whisky: we have long known that Pittyvaich can be as grim as it gets. It's the fact they bother bottling it and inflicting it on the public. Vat this with malt from Fettercairn and neighbouring Dufftown and you'll have the perfect dram for masochists. Or those who have entirely lost the will to live. Jesus..."

    4. I had a decent Lochside a few weeks ago. Not good enough for me to spring for a whole bottle, but totally OK.

    5. It is true that some of the defunct distilleries were shuttered for quality reasons too. Some of us (me) forget that from time to time. Still want to try them anyway!

    6. I've heard a few stories about Parkmore, the seventh and most mysterious Dufftown distillery (at this point Convalmore and Parkmore are the only two closed Dufftown distilleries). Supposedly the poor quality of the water meant the whisky tasted, well, pretty bad. So bad that when the place was closed forever in 1931, all the remaining casks of whisky in the warehouses were smashed and disposed of.

    7. You are right. I hadn't looked much into Parkmore until you mentioned it. The buildings still stand and appear to be used for warehousing now. Found a fun site about it: http://whiskylicious.blogspot.com/2013/01/the-secrets-of-silent-parkmore.html

  4. By the way, Michael, I would so recommend Teacher's Highland Cream (which uses Ardmore as the heart of the blend) but the recent bottles haven't been getting the greatest reviews. Another one to splurge on is Black Bull 12 ($49.99 special order from K&L).

    1. I was just talking to someone about Teacher's a couple days ago. Yeah, the newest batches have been said to be below par. If I can find some older bottles I'd definitely get one.

      Tim at Scotch & Ice Cream had a chance to try a sample from their '50s blend. Said it was malty-licious. http://www.scotchandicecream.com/2012/04/27/two-generations-of-teachers-1950s-and-2010s/

  5. "From what I've heard of Pittyvaich, (I don't want to judge a distillery by a name but Pittyvaich just sounds depressing) it's another distillery that we won't miss."

    You never had a nice 70s Pittyvaich in your Glass huh? Man... i would exchange half my whisky cabinet for a bottle of Cadenheads Pittyvaich 1977 in it's famous Dumpy Bottle. This malt is one of the best (and i had a lot of malts since the mid 90s) i ever had.

    1. No Pittyvaichs here in The States, maybe one mid-aged Connoisseurs Choice. We just have to rely on folks (like you) whom have experienced some whisky history. Those old Cadenheads dumpies are gold!

    2. I've seen very positive reviews for old Pittyvaich so I will concede that Pittyvaich probably needs a lot more time in the cask before becoming a great whisky.

  6. Well... they're getting harder and harder to find in Europe as well. You could find the Flora&Fauna Edition from Diageo which is nice, but missing that oomph of CS and a first fill sherry cask.

    For the Cadenhead dumpys... you could find Minis of them from time to time on ebay. If i ever open my last remaining bottle i will send you a sample :)

    1. Thank you! I'm sure opening that bottle is a big "IF". Opening a special bottle that one knows is irreplaceable conjures up feelings of both great joy and great loss. The key is focusing on the joy and the moment, and to dream of the discoveries yet to be made.

  7. Know what... yesterday i just bought a bottle of that exact same JW Black Label from the mid 70s for my upcoming Vintage Blend Tasting :)

    I think this will be a perfect way to show the guys how the quality of blends changed over the last decades.

    1. Awesome! Did you get it from a collector or did you find one sitting on a liquor store shelf? As you either know already or will find out soon, many of the older blends have SO much more character than their current versions. Whether it's due to more malt or direct fired pot stills or different casks or lack of filtration, there's a real difference. I'd love hear what you think of those vintage blends you try.

  8. Well i bought it on Ebay which is still selling booze here in Europe ;)

    I know quite some old Blends and especially love those wonderful White Horses from the 50s up to the mid 60s - no wonder as they contain a great portion of Lagavulin. If i'm lucky enough i will win a 1947 White Horse tomorow at an auction... we will see... cross your fingers for me.

    As soon as i have my final set-up i will let you know :)

    1. As you noted in another post the US does have some odd liquor laws, thus the disappearance of booze bottles from the US eBay site. Good luck on the White Horse!

  9. I've somehow gotten my hands on a '70s bottle (tax stamp and quart measurement) of Passport Blended Whisky (one of the lower Chivas blends that's big in South America) that was found by my father in a garage cabinet. My theory is that the unopened bottle was purchased by my late grandfather and was part of some items my parents claimed after he passed. Now I would love to compare this to a present day bottle EXCEPT BevMo only sells Passport in 1.75 liter PLASTIC jugs... which have a layer of dust on them already.

    Looks like I might as well crack this open in the future without being able to compare it to a more modern bottle.

    1. Score! You can always bottle a few ounces for future study. Keep an eye on corner liquor stores. They always have cheapie blends like Cluny and Duggan's Dew. Or with any luck you might find another dusty of Passport in the process.

    2. You know I just realized this bottle might have been a gift for my grandfather which he just put away since he didn't drink. Both the tax stamp and closure are unbroken and the fill level is right at the shoulder. As far as I can tell Passport is a bestseller in Brazil which might explain why I never see 750 mL glass bottles around here. And based on the scant reviews I've found, current Passport is more or less on par with Red Label (excepting a rave review by Jim Murray).

    3. According to Pernod Ricard's site, it's the second best selling whisky in Brazil: http://pernod-ricard.com/548/brands/see-all-brands/local-brands/passport-scotch. So you're right on that one.

  10. Today i finally received my bottle of JW Black Label ... took some time but it's mine :)

    1. Whoa. It IS the same exact bottle! Hope you enjoy it. If you don't mind, please share your tasting notes after your event...

    2. Hi, yeah... only the color of the Queens Crest differ... yours was black and this one's white. I will definately share my notes for this one :)

    3. Yeah, you're right. It's interesting that duty free bottlings were of that unique volume "1.1/5 Quart" at some point in time. Now they're 700/750mL or 1L.

    4. Maybe they had different restrictions back than... as nowadays they usually sell 1L. bottles as you are allowed to take exactly one litre of spirit with you...
      It's also strange that since the 90s we only have 70cl liquor bottles in Europe whilst wine bottles still have 75cl...

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  12. I have 2 of this limited edition bottles still closed

  13. I have two of the this limited edition bottles still closed