Re-evaluating Johnnie Walker

Since I started buying spirits for K&L I have never devoted much time to the Johnnie Walker whiskies. The retail market for them is competitive, the margins are slim, and my shelf space for booze is even slimmer. I don't have the luxury of buying 10,000 bottles, storing them in a gigantic warehouse, and letting them go for nothing while waiting for the volume game to even out the deal.  When I took over for Susan in Redwood City it was a trial by fire. We were a single malt store. We loved Bruichladdich. We didn't really sell blends. That's all I knew. No one ever taught me anything about Johnnie Walker.  There were no Walker staff training sessions. I was never a Walker drinker in my younger days, so I had little experience with the brand even back when I was primarily consuming the blended stuff. When customers ask me about these whiskies today I avoid the topic, mainly because I know very little about them. 

As a whisky professional, however, this was a major hole in my industry knowledge. How can the buyer for K&L not know anything about Johnnie Walker, the top-selling Scotch whisky brand in the entire world? I can lecture you about the barrel program at Lagavulin. I can show you personal photos of Caol Ila. I can even wax intellectually about the fermentation times at Mortlach. What I cannot tell you, however, is what these whiskies taste like when you blend them together.

I find it amusing that Talisker, Linkwood, and Clynelish are some of the most popular single malts in the world among whisky geeks, yet these same drinkers are entirely uninterested in how they work together in a blend. I'm utterly fascinated by whisky blending.  I think combining flavors is far more interesting than dumping yeast into a washback. Diageo has the most amazing portfolio of distilleries in the world, which are all primarily used for Johnnie Walker rather than single malt brands. One of the Diageo heads is actually on record as saying that if they could actually stop bottling single malts, they would! Their network of about thirty distilleries functions as a palate of colors with which they can paint a variety of different pictures.

So which whiskies are in which Walkers? That information is top secret, but we know a little bit about the ingredients from hearsay and from Diageo directly. Looking at the Black, the Green, and the Gold (perhaps the three most highly-regarded of the portfolio), there are some rather obvious flavors involved in each that can be discerned with a little bit of work.  The Black is obviously peated and one would have to assume there's a heavy dosage of Caol Ila in play. The Green is actually composed of only single malt whiskies, so it's much richer than the Black on the finish. I've heard that Talisker, Cragganmore, Caol Ila, and Linkwood make up a heavy proportion of the cepage. The Gold is Clynelish all the way.  I know this for a fact, but even if I hadn't known there's no doubt about it when you taste it.

After talking to Diageo last week about cost increases, we worked out a deal to help bring some of the Johnnie Walker whiskies back into the store at competitive pricing. However, I wanted to evaluate them first and not just use someone else's tasting notes when promoting them. I needed to understand this portfolio if I was going to keep any of my credibility as a whisky buyer. After spending some time with these guys, here are my conclusions.

First off, a few things to think about:

- Diageo sold almost 16 million cases of Johnnie Walker in 2010. You can find it in over 180 countries around the world. How they can keep it tasting good is mind-boggling with that kind of demand.

- I have been thrashing Diageo on this blog lately. That's what eventually led to us even discussing this very attractive deal. I have no motivation to love these whiskies whatsoever. They will sell themselves whether I like them or not. In fact, as I said earlier, I've never paid much attention to them simply because they're so ubiquitous. Any praise I heap upon them is genuine (and there will be praise).

- The Green and Gold labels are going to be discontined next year in the U.S. and in many other international markets.  The Green will remain in Taiwan, I believe, while the Gold will be replaced with the Platinum, if I remember correctly.

- If I'm going to sell these at K&L, then customers should know my honest opinion of each, which is as follows:

Johnnie Walker Black 12 Year Old Whisky $29.99 - Strikingly soft and easy to move over the palate (some people might call this "smooth"), with a leaner mouthfeel due to the grain. This is a blend of around 37 different whiskies, so there's nothing really standing out in the overall malty sea of flavor. It tastes like Scotch and there are hints of smoke behind the maltiness, but as my friend Marc said, the obvious design of this whisky is to simply taste good.  The whisky definitely tastes good.  However, for $30 there are better options in my opinion.  I think the Bowmore Legend is killing this at $23.99. That being said, Bowmore isn't making millions of cases of Legend to supply to the world's population. Considering how much Walker Black is being pumped out into the market, it's a much more impressive achievement.

Johnnie Walker Green 15 Year Old Blended Malt $55.99 - I really, really like this. According to Diageo, there are 15 single malts in this marriage, all at around 15 years of age. Talisker, Cragganmore, Caol Ila, and Linkwood all lead the way. I would reckon there are probably portions of Dailuaine and Benrinnes as well, simply because of the fruity richness. This whisky was designed to taste good. It's so full of toffee and nougat with delicious butterscotch across the mid-palate. The viscosity is also quite satisfying. While it's nothing wildly different, it's good for the money and I would happily drink this at home. What else can you get in the 15 year range at this price? Talisker 10 costs $50, as does Caol Ila 12. Cragganmore 12 is $44. Why would we not pay $55 to have 15 year old versions of these single malts married together into something so tasty? It's a shame they're getting rid of this because it's amazing considering how much they make of it. This absolutely destroys Macallan 12. I should probably sit on this and jack up the price when it's all gone, right? :)

Johnnie Walker Gold 18 Year Old Whisky $75.99 - I also really like this.  The sweet vanilla on the entry is delicious, that waxy fruit of Clynelish comes out to play on the palate, and the finish is malty and lasting. It's not exciting or new, but who expects that from Johnnie Walker? I'm not going to hold that against it. Again, for the price I can't argue. The grain component of the Gold isn't nearly as noticeable as it is in the Black, perhaps due to the fact that the grain must also be 18 years old (Cambus and Cameronbridge?). There's also a lovely creme brulee element that I think must come from the addition of more Speyside malts. What are the 18 year old options at this price? Oban 18 is now going up to $130 or so. Clynelish 18 wouldn't be that price if it existed (our 21 year cask sells for $125). If you were ever interested in trying a Clynelish 18 this would be the whisky for you. It also tastes expensive, which is important for mass-market sales.  I would have to think that Diageo is getting heavy customer satisfaction with this, however, they're obviously not getting the sales they want. Might have to squirrel one of these away.

- Here's something else to think about: while other producers are getting rid of age statements, Diageo still puts 12, 15, and 18 year labels on these whiskies. They're not gutting their flavor with younger juice while charging you the same price.  At least for now, they're not. That's admirable.

- The prices are competitive. Because every store in the world sells Johnnie Walker, we all have to compete with each other.  That's good for consumers and for prices.

- Considering that Thailand alone counts for 10% of Walker sales, this stuff is being made in gigantic quantities. When they replaced the stills at Caol Ila, they couldn't even take a quick break! They had to get their neighbor Bunnahabhain to loan them their distillery for a few weeks! (that's right - there is some Diageo-made Bunnahabhain out there in barrel at the moment). I have to be impressed by the quality at those levels.

So there it is. Johnnie Walker. Back at K&L. Nothing new or exciting, but good whisky with very good pricing, I think. Even for single malt geeks like me, it's fun to try and taste the components in each particular recipe. That would make for a fun tasting, in my opinion.

We're all friends again.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll