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« Drinking Diageo – Part IV: A Life in Letters | Main | Drinking Diageo – Part II: Tanqueray Malacca »
Thursday
Sep122013

Drinking Diageo – Part III: From Gold into Platinum

I think the first whisky that comes to mind when people think of Johnnie Walker is the Black Label, simply because it's so ubiquitous. Every liquor store has the Black Label, right? (according to Christopher Hitchens, every dictator too). It could be the Blue Label, however, that pops into your head – that lofty, top-shelf bottle that adorns the back bar of every steakhouse from here to Atlantic City. That's what some people immediately think of. Maybe you cut your whisky-drinking teeth on the Red Label, or maybe you even went the "pure malt" route and sought out the Walker Green. Maybe you're one of the few who went further than Black and Blue, and stepped up to the King George. Walker's Gold Label, however, – the color that seems to be forgotten here, yet represents the finest possible achievement in the Olympic games and most other sporting contests – is the crown jewel of Johnnie Walker's colored rainbow, in my opinion. Yet, personally, I only know one other whisky fan besides myself who loves the Johnnie Walker Gold. You never hear anyone talk about it. It's not something we focus on here at K&L because we're not a store that puts much effort into the blended market. We're not the lowest price nationally, which is usually what people look for with Walker products, but we have it in the back room just in case someone wants it. That's as far as we go.

Still, I'm totally obsessed with this whisky (as I wrote yesterday: industry people are often captivated by what it is they're not exposed to). I drink it regularly at home, but I don't push it on K&L customers because I know it's not what they're looking for. Most of our clientele are interested in single malts, single casks, and rare collectables – that type of thing. If I walk out with a bottle of Walker Gold and say, "Try this," they'll look at me like I'm crazy. "I can get that anywhere!" Therefore, I don't often bring it up. But, secretly, in the privacy of my own home, shrouded in camouflage, hiding underneath a blanket in a dark room, this is a bottle of whisky that I really look forward to enjoying most nights. I'm on my second bottle in the past three months because I simply dump this into a glass, hit the couch, and relax after a long day at work. The warm, rich, fruity, vanilla-laden Walker Gold tastes so fucking good. And there's a reason: it's loaded with 18 year old Clynelish – perhaps my favorite whisky in the vast Diageo canon of superstars. I love Clynelish whisky, so it makes sense that I like the Gold too.

Trends tend to go in waves, and the trends of the booze world are no different. First we like to lambaste boring old booze for being run-of-the-mill, stressing the need to improve quality and education, and bring back the serious craft mentality. But eventually we start to get annoyed with the pretension – the fact that people are constantly talking about how we need to appreciate everything to the finest and avoid the mass-produced in favor of the boutique. This cycle happens because there are always those guys (rarely gals) who take these trends to extremes – people who try so hard to epitomize a certain aptitude for the rules that they annoy everyone else around them. "I don't drink vodka." "I hate merlot." "I only drink single malts, not blends." That type of stuff. Eventually this type of behavior becomes so ridiculous that people start doing the opposite, simply not to be lumped in with this crowd – like drinking Pabst out of a can, or wine in a box, just to show that you're not as uptight as these other clowns. And a new trend starts – one focused on not taking things so seriously and having fun (I think that was called the 1980s, which was of course met with the backlash of the 1990s – where everything was so serious and melodramatic we got depressed).

In between the flux of cherry Jello shooters and pre-Prohibition potions, the cheap bottom-shelf blends and esoteric single casks, lies Johnnie Walker – whisky for people who care enough to like good whisky, but not necessarily enough to focus on where it comes from. Yes, there was a time when whisky wasn't taken all that seriously. Yes, there was a time when you didn't have the opportunity to drink the whisky of a single distillery. Yes, today we have more single malt options than ever before, with all kinds of creative cask enhancements and cutting-edge technology. But all of that comes with a price because the more seriously we begin to take our whisky, the more people we create who seek only to understand it, not necessarily enjoy it. The more seriously we begin to take our whisky, the more people we create who decide to follow popular culture's mindset that blends are somehow inferior, and choose not to waste their time with more than a century of tradition.

In reality, people who tell you they don't drink blends as a rule are like people who tell you they only read books and never watch TV. They feel like it's one or the other, like a line needs to be drawn in the sand that distinguishes them from this other type of creature. But you can read books and watch TV! Both are enjoyable. I do both almost every day! You can also drink both blends and single malts (I do both almost every day!). Johnnie Walker Gold is going out of commission this year (being replaced by another delicious blend that I recently got to try – the Platinum) and I couldn't be more upset about it. As my friend told me last year, "Walker Gold is what made me want to try Clynelish, it's what started my love affair with the distillery." What a pity. Unfortunately, 18 year old Clynelish is in high demand right now within the Johnnie Walker empire and there's simply not enough to go around. But then again, no Johnnie Walker expression is ever set in stone – Diageo is always looking to expand on what works and what the public responds to.

I know what you're thinking. It's probably the same thing that I was thinking when I first heard that Diageo was turning their Gold into Platinum: "It's probably an excuse for them to drop the 18 year age statement." But, lo and behold, the Platinum will also carry the 18 year old banner, so that's not the case. Unlike the Macallans of the world, Walker's golden glow will not be muted by a younger platinum sheen. I talked for a while with Steve Beal this morning, Diageo's malt master and brand ambassador, and we shared our views on the semantics of blending. I told him, "It's probably a good thing that Platinum keeps the age statement, simply because of the rather skeptical views out there concerning whisky right now." Beal's response was, "That's true, but we're talking about blended whisky here. While we're keeping a certain credibility, age statements can also handicap us because we're preventing ourselves from using our full arsenal of casks. It's like having a set of encyclopedias, but limiting yourself to only a few volumes."

Sure, when you're getting short on aged whisky – as every producer in the industry is right now – it's easy to start stressing the importance of flavor over maturity. But let me share this with you: when I had to blend our Fuenteseca tequila for K&L, I really wanted to keep all of the juice over 18 years old because I wanted that age statement on the bottle. I tried, and tried, and tried to find a combination of old casks that tasted like a top-quality tequila should – but I couldn't! I needed that four year old tequila, the one that was brimming with butterscotch and fat fruit, to make the Fuenteseca taste the way I wanted it to. The minute I added that younger spirit into the mix, everything came into balance. As Beal told me, "Sometimes adding a bit of young Caol Ila or grain whisky, like Cameronbridge, makes everything perk up, like a wilted flower does after getting a bit of water." While we'll never know for sure whether a producer is simply stating this fact out of truth or out of convenience, rest assured that it is indeed true. When you're blending, you're really limiting yourself by leaving out the younger options.

But, of course, by adding the younger whisky you lose the right to call your whisky "18 years old." So then you have to ask yourself: "What's more important? Age or flavor?" One thing that rather amuses me about the new age of NAS (non-age statement) whiskies is that it forces people to make up their own mind about a spirit – do you like it or not? "Well tell me how old it is!" No! You have to make up your own mind without the comfort of knowing the maturity. God forbid you come out in favor of a young whisky. Anything but that. You'll look like a stupid amateur! While we're going to see more age statements dropping within the whisky industry, as stocks continue to deplete faster than they can be replenished, we won't see it happen with the Platinum. We won't see much of a price increase either, as the cost should be about the same (obviously margins will differ from store to store).

By losing one 18 year old, $80-ish, delicious blended whisky, we're gaining another – perhaps more dominated by Dailuaine and Caol Ila, rather than the lovely Clynelish, but still rich and delicious, nonetheless. When I look at the field of 18 year old whiskies right now – Macallan 18 at $200, Yamazaki 18 at $155, Bunnahabhain 18 at $110 – I can't help but think how much more I enjoy the Walker Gold 18 year old for $75 than any of these other comparable single malts. I don't necessarily think the Gold is a better whisky, just one that I personally enjoy drinking more. That's if we're simply comparing age statements. Using the blend versus single malt argument to justify pricing doesn't work anymore either because even the grain whisky in an age statement blend has to comply. While it's easy to point out that the Walker Gold is loaded with 18 year old Cameronbridge grain whisky as well, my answer to that would be: "Find me a bottle of 18 year old Cameronbridge for less than $80."

While I told Steve that I was planning to buy a few bottles for the bunker, his reply was, "Yes, the Gold Label is going to disappear for a while and the let the Platinum take center stage, but I wouldn't be surprised if it comes out for one final bow later on down the line."

I hope so. It's a fine whisky for a reasonable price.

-David Driscoll