Whisky and Words Number 54: Johnnie Walker Blue Label

Don’t step on my blue suede shoes, Johnnie

Johnnie Walker’s Blue Label is a no age statement blended whisky that sells for $200 for a 750 ml. bottle. That’s some coin for a blend! So what makes JW’s Blue so special? According to Johnnie Walker (link above) the Blue is:

an exquisite combination of Scotland’s rarest and most exceptional whiskies. Only one in every ten thousand casks has the elusive quality, character and flavor to deliver the remarkable signature taste.” They also give us some of the constituent whiskies: “Johnnie Walker Blue Label is created using a selection of rare casks from the Speyside and Highland distilleries – including delicate Cardhu and Clynelish, warm, rounded Benrinnes, as well as Islay malts for our signature smokiness.

Hoping good things come in small packages. Note the light straw color.

It’s not hard to figure out which Islay malts are used, as Johnnie Walker is a Diageo brand, and on Islay, Diageo owns Caol Ila and Lagavulin. Caol Ila, with its large output (about 6.5 M liters a year) is known to be a constituent in Johnnie Walker’s blends and we can be quite confident then that it is used in the Blue. (Lagavulin is less likely, being a smaller producer and destined for its well-known single malts.)

None of the mentioned distillers are notable for favoring sherry casking, and you can see from the photo, the spirit is quite light. We can assume all ex-bourbon casks are used for aging.

We don’t learn a whole lot about the Blue from its little taster-size carton. The text on the back states that it is ‘remarkable’ and I would say yes, $16 for 50ml of whisky at retail is remarkable indeed. I spent some time searching for the lowdown on the Blue but Diageo’s industrial security is tight. About all we know is that one in 10,0000 casks is good enough. Is that fluff? We read at whiskeyconsensus.com: “These are piled on the shelves of every Duty Free Store on the planet so there must be MILLIONS of barrels to choose from.” Good point.

The Green Hornet

Johnnie Walker Green Label. All malts, all the time.

I wondered how to assess this little gem. I don’t have any other expensive blends besides a bottle of the JW Green Label, so we’ll try that. Frankly I don’t expect a true contest on the value front. The Green is only one third the price of the Blue (the Green is $60 in Oregon), and the Green, being a blended malt – not a blended whisky – is made from 15-year old malts. There are no grain whiskies in the Green. The Blue, being a blend, contains some grain whisky, and being NAS, you don’t know how old (or young) those “1 in 10000” casks are.

What else do we know of the Green? On JW’s site they tell us the Green “is crafted from a palate of malts matured for at least 15 years in American and European oak casks, to create a blend that is true to the Johnnie Walker style of bold flavor and distinctive smokiness.” (The Blue is also supposed to have the trademark smokiness.) Bottled at 43% ABV,the Green is stronger than the 40% Blue.

Let’s take a look side by side.

Johnnie’s Blue Label (r) and the Green (l) are very close in color

They look about the same. They nose completely differently. The Blue has a fruity (red apple, cantaloupe) and floral (rose) nose, with barely hint of mineral. I don’t get any smoke unless I get really deep into my Glencairn. There’s a suggestion of smoke, and only that. The Green has a bigger, more muscular nose overall, with a hefty mineral note, seashore rankiness, medicinal tang and a fair bit of smoke – the Caol Isla influence really comes through. And, as I mentioned in my Green vs. Black post, the Green does not have the cloying caramel sweetness of the Black. Neither does the Blue for that matter.

On the palate, I tried the more delicate Blue first. Delicate on the palate, too, its sweetness is marshmallow, not the typical caramel, fading to honeysuckle with a hint of Thompson seedless grapes. It does have a wonderfully luxurious mouthfeel. The fruit and floral elements are fairly faint to me, and it has a pretty sturdy cleanup, the tannins being strong on the side of the tongue. The finish is fairly long but faint, just reflections of marshmallow and tannin. I do not get the JW smokiness from the Blue. In contrast the Green is a sturdier dram all around; it’s sweetness is a fulsome golden syrup, it has a nice melony fruitiness and the tannins are more gentle. The finish of the Green does not have as luxurious a mouthfeel as the Blue, but the tannins are more laid back and better balanced.

The Green label is like a gentleman boxer dressed for a formal evening and on best behavior, vs. the Blue being a (very expensive) ballet dancer who is a bit prickly.

Johnnie Walker Blue Label blended Scotch whisky (NAS),  40% ABV

Nose: Light fruit wafts delicately above the glass (red apple, cantaloupe); deeper in you pick up  floral notes (rose). A hint of earthy mineral peat.
Palate: Luxurious mouthfeel. Marshmallow, Thompson grapes, quite forward tannins.
Finish: Faint reflections of marshmallow and tannin.

Bottom Line: Buy only to impress non-whisky drinkers. I was bemused by the hints for cocktails on the JW Blue product page. I mean, who in their right mind adds a mixer to a $200 whisky? I think this is a noticeable tell on where Johnnie Walker is aiming this whisky: at people with a lot of money to burn but who are not serious whisky drinkers. I mean, really, this is so delicate, if my mom or auntie drank alcohol, this is the whisky I’d use to introduce them to the JW line. If you want a really good expression of the Johnnie Walker style, go for the Green Label (which is back in normal production at Johnnie Walker).

A good but pricey intro whisky for delicate palates.

Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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