Whisky and Words Number 43: Dewar’s White vs. Johnnie Walker Red

In the previous post, I mentioned Dewar’s old full-page magazine ads, with the Scots Guard soldier or some other Scottish kitsch. I also mentioned the ubiquity of White Label, the fifth largest selling blended Scotch in the world and top selling Scotch in the U.S.


Dewar’s web site claims the White label is “The World’s Most Awarded Blended Scotch Whisky.” This post is going to answer the question, is it any good for sipping? And to give it some spice, we’re setting the White up against a competitor, the Red, from Johnnie Walker.

The Dewar’s packaging, like the ’12’, is in a classic style, again heavy on the heritage with “True Scotch” announced just below the “White Label”, rendered in some old-timey font. Boy howdy, glad to see we don’t have a fake scotch on our hands. I have a warm feeling inside (and I haven’t even tried any), like when I get the Domino’s box with ‘Real cheese’ emblazoned on the side. Lower down we see the ‘Gold and Prize 500 medals’ claimed. I guess they are including silver, bronze, even iron medals? Who knows.

A little of the Red.

The Johnnie packaging is more sophisticated and laid back, with the minimalist slash label characteristic of the brand, with the Red Label underscored by ‘Blended Scotch Whisky.’ Johnnie Walker doesn’t feel the need to claim it’s ‘true’ because, frankly, the laws of Scotland ensure that for us.

Let’s get to the lowdown. First off, we’re just above a Jackson in price – $23 for the Dewar’s, $22 for the JWR locally. So a small premium over the sub-Jackson whiskies I reviewed here. That was 2015, but those are still in the sub-$20 category.

So what do you get for a bit more than $20? On the Dewar’s side, a decently smooth malty nose, not too much sting if you breathe deep. Not a hint of smoke or peat, but traces of hazelnut, prune and highland spice from the ex-bourbon casks. Oddly a little smoke comes over the palate, which is a bit sweet (think Turkish toffee) but not overwhelmingly so; there is just enough spice from the oak to keep it from being a dessert whisky. For $23 you don’t get much finish. It’s sweet, a bit of spice lingers at the side of the tongue, and a bit harsh on the back of the throat.

The JWR does have noticeable smoke on the palate, as one would expect from its constituents, and that is one thing I appreciate in the Johnnie Walker products. It’s nose does not have the depth of the Dewar’s with respect to malt, and I wonder if there is more grain alcohol in JWR. There are a few more notes on the palate, though the smoke is muted, and we get a quick, unremarkable — but smooth — finish.

Dewar’s ‘White Label’ Blended, 40% ABV

Nose: Mild but pleasing malt, hazelnut, prune, fresh oak spice.
Palate: Spice and treacle with the treacle winning out, touch of strawberries and the faintest whiff of smoke.
Finish: Short. Sweet, tannins, a harsh end-note.

Johnnie Walker ‘Red Label’ Blended, 40% ABV

Nose: A hint of smoke, a little malt and oak, not much else.
Palate: Mildly sweet, Lyle’s syrup but diluted, red apple, just a touch of tannins to balance.
Finish: Short. More diluted Lyle’s, tannins, a light hint of peat smoke.

Bottom Line: The Dewar’s beats by a nose — literally. It has a tad more nose, and delivers a bit more in the palate as well, with it’s almost aromatherapy-level of smoke showing up. The heavy sweetness may put off some, of course, and Johnnie is overall a more refreshing, neutral sip with a smoother finish. Neither one is going to make you go out and buy some for sipping straight of course, but if you’re on a plane, there’s always Dewar’s White Label, and it’s alright over ice. Especially if you are stuck in the middle seat.

Smooth yet unremarkable

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Whisky and Words Number 42: Dewar’s Blended 12 ‘The Ancestor’

A classic, fine looking bottle.

If you were of my generation, you’ll remember Dewar’s ads from magazines–often full-page ads, typically with a Scots Guard soldier in full regalia and some marketing flack typical for its day. These days I don’t notice many advertisements for Dewar’s. When I encounter the brand I’m on a commercial flight and I’ve asked what they have for scotch; it’ll be their White Label. In the marketing wars the brand appears to be outshone by the massive Johnnie Walker complex, but they still have a strong presence in bars in the U.S. They claim to be the fifth largest selling blended Scotch in the world and top selling Scotch in the U.S. Maybe Johnnie just advertises more?

Notably, Dewar’s web site claims the White label is “The World’s Most Awarded Blended Scotch Whisky.” Maybe they just entered more competitions, I don’t know. I tried finding a list of their awards. Still looking.

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Whisky and Words Number 41: Iwai Tradition Mars

A tall dark stranger to our shores

I’m finally getting my holiday post up, a bit tardy I must say. This one is a real departure for this blog, which thus far has all been Scotch whiskies. The Mars Shinshu Iwai is, as you would guess, from Japan. The style is different from what I’ve been reviewing here, as it is an American ‘whiskey’ style — corn mash, shorter maturation (but one would assume at higher temperatures than Scotch, as typical for American whiskies). Oddly the Iwai folks spell it ‘whisky’ on the bottle like the Scotch.

The importer’s website tells us that the moniker Iwai comes from Kiichiro Iwai, a ‘silent pioneer’ of Japanese whisky-making. With a little digging (thanks to gourmantic.com) we find that Iwai-san ran the Mars distillery years ago. The timeline they give is confusing, as the Mars distiller was licensed in 1949, commenced producing in 1960, but according to Gourmantic, Iwai-san had sent a junior member to Scotland to investigate their whiskies in 1919. At any rate, the distillery is in the Japanese highlands — 800m above sea level, a decent highland for sure.

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Book review: Hitler, Ascent by Volker Ullrich

I admit, I bought this book in part to help me understand how close to authoritarianism we (in the U.S.) are lurching under Trump. I may write more about that aspect in another post. But this entry is about the book. It is a long entry, as it’s a long book: 758 pages of content with a stunning 187 pages of notes. I only read some of the notes, mea culpa.

So, why undertake such a behemoth? I always wondered, when reading about the rise of Hitler in general history texts, when they said “he seized power” — how did he do that, exactly? Well, Ullrich tells us how, with a very detailed forensic investigation, using personal diaries and other primary sources which unearth precisely both the motivations and means of the Nazis. And in doing so, he does an excellent job of unearthing the methods and frailties of a man who still remains an enigma. We know very little of Hitler’s personal thoughts, as he had papers about his early life confiscated (p.17) and all his personal papers were burned at his death. Very few examples of his personal writing remain, and his outward facing persona was just that — a persona. As for that, he put all of his outward-facing concepts into Mein Kampf. So while Hitler’s thoughts may remain obscured, the man’s actions are not. Ullrich applies a magnifying glass to Hitler from his very beginnings. It turns out to be a very consistent view. Hitler did not vacillate, at least not strategically.

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Whisky and Words Number 40: Caol Ila Moch

This is my wife’s ‘so good I had to bring it home’ whisky from our trip to Islay. It was an offering of our post-tour tasting. Being a big Caol Ila fan, my wife really took to it. Maybe because (besides Caol Ila 12) she tends to prefer more civilized stuff like Glenmorangie, and the Moch is presumably a dialed-back Caol Ila. But is it? Let’s find out…

A sunny day, a light straw color and cookies. Not a bad combination.

This expression is another NAS whisky – no age statement. Since my last screed on NAS whiskies, I have reviewed a couple more and liked them. NAS whiskies can be good and bad, and all over the map as far as price. I do not remember what we paid for the Moch, but on Master of Malt it’s about $55, a pretty moderate price for a special expression.

I like to start with what the company says about its product. The box proclaims this spirit is “Soft, smooth clean and fresh…the dawn of a new day.” An odd way of introducing a whisky, sounds like the ad for a bar of soap. For this whisky in particular I find the marketing understated (for a change). This is a spirit that makes its presence known immediately on the bottle being opened. It won’t clear a room like Laphroaig but the peat and seaweed produce a lively bouquet. A better image might be ‘a breath of sea air’ but they called it Moch (‘dawn’ in Gaelic) so we get the ‘dawn’ thing.

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Whisky and Words Number 39: Talisker 18

Talisker 18, looking pretty.

This bottle of Talisker 18 was a gift from my wife who knows I am a huge fan of Talisker’s 10-year-old, and knows I was blown away by the Talisker 25 I had in a New York restaurant. (That was Aureole, a great combination of superb food and service without pretension. A Michelin starred restaurant, and there were folks eating there in jeans and t-shirts…) But I digress. When I woke up Christmas morning and found this bottle stuffed in my stocking I broke out in a broad grin. Santa sure knows my taste.

This is a whisky with a serious price (about $165 around here) so I’m going to give it a detailed analysis. I’ll be comparing it to the Talisker 10 of course and the Caol Isla 18, which is comparable in some ways (age, Island flavor profile) though the Caol Isla is unpeated. (I have to find a peated Caol 18!)

The 10 (l) and 18 (r) in glass

From the photo above you can see the understated carton and classic design of the Talisker bottle. The label looks like one you could find going 50 years into the past: classic fonts on a cream-colored background. A map of the island (Skye) and their roaring mer-lion fading into the background. Pretty typical Diageo. The color of the spirit is ‘russet muscat‘ and exactly the same as the 10 (see second photo). That they match so well makes me suspect a little bit of alchemy at the bottling. You would think an extra 8 years would render a darker whisky.

A deep and refined dram

The first thing you notice when pouring a Talisker is the aroma. This is not a shy whisky that waits for you to stuff your nose in the glass…it comes and gets you. The air within a few feet of your Glencairn glass will carry that unique combination of seaweed, peat, and a solid midrange of malt and fruit. Since both the 10 and the 18 are bottled at Talisker’s odd 45.8% strength, we can do a solid head to head comparison on aroma. The 18 is very similar to the 10, though smoother. Whereas the 10 can sting a little in a deep draught and has noticeable aromas of drying grass and grapefruit, the 18 is smoother on the nose and less grassy; the 18 is more citrus peel than citrus, carrying as well heavier notes of prune, fig, and worn leather — hence Diageo listing it on the ‘rich‘ side of their tasting chart, versus the 10 being on the ‘light‘ side. Both have a solid background of peat – reminding me of the peated barley we sampled at one of our tours (Caol Isla IIRC). The peat is not overpowering by any means, which is why I love Talisker so much—it’s not heavily phenolic like a Laphroaig (in fact the Diageo folks rate this on the ‘lighter’ side of their tasting chart), but it is complex, balanced, and a treat for the palate.

On the palate, the 10 has a wonderful foretaste of caramel, followed by citrus and peat, a little peppery on the tide of the tongue and the citrus lingers into the aftertaste, where the oak really comes forward—not too bitter but definitely a strong note.

In the 18-year, the citrus and medicinal nature of the dram give way to a refined mid-palate. The peat is more laid back, but the caramel is tempered, like toffee—more caramelized (though not burnt) than in the 10-year and less a factor overall. The more laid back sweetness allows the subtlety of vanilla to come through. A softer oak finish riding on soft billows of peat and seaweed completes an overall smoother, less lively (although more complex) dram. Note there is not a lot of fruitiness in a Talisker. You are getting mostly ex-bourbon casking, just a small percentage of sherry butts (for great detail on the technical side of Talisker, read Difford’s guide.)

About the Caol Isla 18: it is a different beast entirely. I had to add a little water, it being almost 60% ABV. The Caol Isla 18 has a lighter aroma and palate, with toffee (but not as carmelized), grassy notes more like the Talisker 10, and of course no peat. The sweetness is lighter, and the finish smooth and not as interesting as either Talisker. Not as much punch. I would consider the Talisker altogether a more interesting dram, even outside the peatiness. Color me surprised. The Caol Isla single casks we tried at our tasting, and the Moch NAS that the wife brought back, have a magic I think is missing from the unpeated variety.

Talisker 18, Island (Skye) single malt 45.8% ABV

Nose: Gentle, but aromatic! Seaweed and saltwater, peat smoke, malt, citrus peel, figs.
Palate: Toffee, honeysuckle, vanilla, peat smoke and burnt seaweed, a bit of that ‘old spirit’ leathery/meaty magic, less so citrus peel and a touch of peppery/listerine medicinal liveliness around the edges for balance. None of these dominates or is abrupt.
Finish: Lengthy. Toffee, vanilla, oak tannins gently fading in to balance the sweet side, but not a trace of harshness. The peat rides on as well! A little of the listerine-medicinal/citrus peel from the palate.

Bottom Line: The great 10-year expression is a tough competitor. While the Talisker 18 comes in with refinement and improved mid-palate richness, is it enough? Or is it too laid back? The price is not outrageous for an 18-year-old, in fact it’s about even with the Highland Park 18 (coming soon to this blog BTW). But it is not cheap and I think about the 25-year I had in New York which blew my mind and wonder if this is a spirit that reaches its pinnacle with just a few years more. Where the 18 shines is in the aroma and finish. I find it enjoyable just having a glass poured somewhere in the room, and the finish lingers on for paragraphs.

The Talisker 18 and a few oddities

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Distillery Tour: Caol Isla Cask Experience

In my previous post I covered the technical part of the Caol Isla tour. For the cask Experience, it was only my wife, myself and our witty and vivacious guide, Hazel. Oh, and four casks, from sprightly and newish to seriously grungy and old. The star of the show was the whisky of course but I have to preface this entry to say our host made the day. Hazel is a genuine Islay girl (her dad works at Bunnahabhain, so her Scotch chops are genuine) and unlike the charming Kirstin at Glenfarclas, Hazel actually likes Scotch. We shared the drams with her and had a rollicking time.

We sat in a large, bright room (the sun does come out on Islay) lined on one side with stools along a workbench, while on another wall were a series of bins for barrel staves with a sign admonishing to ‘wear gloves’ just above. The casks were in the center, beyond which two picnic tables had been covered with black cloth. A cherry sideboard and various posters gave that side of the room a warmer feel. Overall, unpretentious and casual—a nice break from some of the more marketing-heavy locales.

We settled in with Hazel and a set of glasses while she chatted about each cask, valinched out a quantity and poured. We had water handy as these were some powerful spirits..

L-R: 1988 ‘forgotten’ Sherry, 1996 Sherry, 2006 Bourbon, 2012 Bourbon. Click for hi res.

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