If you’ve read enough pieces, opinions, wisdom – and certainly reviews – on Whisky & Wisdom, you’ll have noticed a subconscious, underlying nostalgic tone occasionally. When you’ve been enjoying whisky for over twenty years and observed the very significant changes and growth that has occurred in the industry in that time (even in just the last ten years), it’s hard to look at and comment on current whisky affairs without inadvertently glancing backwards to how things once were.
Such observances even pervade one’s thinking when it comes to Johnnie Walker. Once upon a time, the Johnnie Walker stable was a pretty simple and well-defined house. Just four simple colours: Red, Black, Gold, and Blue. (Yes, there was the occasional sighting of something different (e.g. Swing), and let’s not forget the rumours of the elusive Grey Label that did the rounds back in the mid-2000’s.)
With the explosion and growth of the category, nearly every single malt, brand, bottler, and blend has felt compelled to expand their portfolio. Some of this is driven by stock and inventory requirements or limitations, and some of this (most of this?) is driven by marketing and the perceived need to continually put something new and shiny in front of consumers.
To this end, Johnnie Walker is no different. Green Label came along in the early 2000’s. The Blue Label later expanded to incorporate the King George V expressions. Gold Label (the Centenary Blend) disappeared and was replaced by two products – Platinum, and the Gold Label Reserve. Black expanded to include Double Black. New age statements entered the scene, such as the John Walker XR 21yo. Then came the super-premium expressions such as The John Walker and the John Walker & Sons Odyssey. And, more recently, came the intriguing Select Casks and Blenders’ Batch series. As such, today’s Johnnie Walker stable is now a very full and busy house, with arguably something for everyone.
Too many malt whisky drinkers today make the mistake of dismissing blends. In some cases, this is cutting your nose off to spite your face. And it’s also naïve: You cannot sing the praises of a wonderful Caol Ila or wax lyrical about a spectacular Talisker without realising that the only reason those distilleries exist in the first place is to produce malt for the blends! (And, in the case of the two aforementioned whiskies, specifically for the Johnnie Walker blends).
Whisky & Wisdom makes a point of “staying in touch” with the main blends, and I’d urge genuine whisky appreciators to do likewise. No, you’re not going to get any revelations or amazing flavour experiences down at the $30-a-bottle supermarket end of the spectrum, but the higher tier blends do indeed kick the occasional goal. The newly-badged Johnnie Walker 18yo is one such example.
The new 18yo effectively replaces the Platinum Label – which, in turn, was one of the offshoots that came out of the discontinuation of the old Gold Label Centenary Blend, which was also an 18yo. I’m sure it’s also no coincidence that the packaging for the new 18yo comes in gold-washed hues. The official press release makes no mention of this, however, one well-known and respected whisky resource states categorically that the new 18yo is merely the same Platinum Label blend in new packaging.
Diageo are happy to share that there are up to 18 different whiskies in the blend (a relatively small number compared to the 42 that they used to spruik for Black Label), including malt from distilleries such as Cardhu, Glen Elgin, Auchroisk, and Blair Athol.
Some of Johnnie Walker’s more recent releases are definitely aimed at being used with mixers or in cocktails. (Particularly the Blenders’ Batch series). However, make no mistake: The 18yo is a whisky to be enjoyed neat, and Whisky & Wisdom sat down with a glass to ponder its merits:
Nose: It’s a soft, sweet, and lightly spicy/fruity nose; instantly alluring and tempting. At just 40% ABV, there’s no alcohol prickle, and one gets a sense of lemon meringue pie, forest fruits, herbal teas, and Arnott’s Ginger Nut biscuits.
Palate: We’ll come to the flavours in just a moment, but the first thing that actually struck me was the whisky’s texture: It’s rich, oily, and unctuous. A major criticism often levelled at blends is their thin mouthfeel, but this whisky has great substance and body. The palate is predominantly sweet with confectionery notes like caramel chews and toffee doing the heavy lifting. The spice and balance then comes in the second wave, with Ginger Nut biscuits again chiming in, together with a tart fruitiness (notably citrus crush).
Finish: Again, at 40% ABV, there’s nothing aggressive here, and the finish is medium in length. The tiniest hint of a mild smokiness appears right at the tail end, and there’s also a touch of drying oak to betray the whisky’s older age.
Comments: A very satisfying and tasty dram, it’s certainly complex and has plenty going on for those who like to dissect their whisky and eek out every nuance. For those who are happy to just sip and to simply enjoy a rich and tasty spirit in their glass, this whisky will both delight and fulfil. With such a rich texture and a decent flavour base, the fact that this is a blend becomes irrelevant. It’s simply a good whisky, regardless of its constituent cereals. For those that care about such things, it even comes with a real cork stopper, rather than a screwcap!
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Johnnie Walker 18yo is available now with an RRP of A$125. For more information and for a small insight into the blending process, Johnnie Walker has prepared a nice little YouTube video that outlines how this expression came to be. You can view the video here.