I have long relied on Johnnie Walker’s 12-year old ‘Black Label’ blended whisky (aka JWB) as a standard everyday drinking whisky and a standard of quality against other blends. I’ve compared JWB to Ballantine’s, Johnnie Walker’s Green Label and special releases, various other ‘two Jackson‘ ($40) whiskies, a Compass Box blend, and Dewar’s Ancestor. And today we’re at it again, comparing the Johnnie Walker ‘Double Black’ to the venerable JWB.
So, what’s up with the ‘Double Black’? The back of the carton (photo at bottom) tells us this is created in the style of the Black Label, but richer and smokier. The label on the bottle tells us it’s a “rich, intense smoky blend…matured in deep charred old oak casks.” That’s curious. Alright, they char the cask—everyone does, but this time they went deep, fair enough. I’m curious about the mention of ‘old’ oak casks on the label. Curious and a bit suspicious. On our tour at Balvenie, we were shown staves from casks at various stages of their life: initial char, first fill, second fill (a lot of color gone), third fill (pretty well bleached). If a cask is old, does that mean it’s been filled three or more times, and all the flavors are bleached out of the oak? That’s not good. Or is ‘old’ just a bit of marketing fluff?
Off to the Johnnie Walker web site then, where they declare “Smoke with the volume turned up.” Pretty clear, this is going to be a smokier blend, but given the carton description, presumably with the body of JWB. Below that headline is a blurb on the same page, see if you can catch the disconnect (quotes are theirs and no, they don’t make any sense):
Johnnie Walker Double Black is the rebellious younger sibling of Johnnie Walker Black Label with a deep, brooding intensity.’ to ‘It’s a sibling of Johnnie Walker Black Label, but youthful, spikier and more rebellious.
‘Youth’ is mentioned twice as well as sibling, so they’re going for a younger vibe, which is odd as they tout the ‘old’ casks used on the label. But what does ‘younger’ mean for a whisky? Aimed at younger palates? Maybe to differentiate it from what some younger drinkers may think of as their dad’s whisky. So much for messaging, let’s crack these bad boys.
First off is the Black Label (trying this first as the JWDB is supposed to be more robust and smoky). A blend of 12-year old whiskies (some malt, some column-distilled grain whiskies), it has serious bones and I get a noticeable aroma reaching my nose from pouring it. Getting near the glass rewards with a moderate fruity smell featuring sherry, peaches and pear. Nosing in reveals spicy wood and cinnamon and gentle peat, both mineral peatiness and a light waft of smoke. That’s a fairly complex nose that speaks of good quality casks and careful aging. Not bad for $35!
Opening the Double Black (about $40 locally), and its nose does not have quite the reach of the 12-year. Getting close to the glass reveals a hint of tasty smoke (noticeably more robust than with the JWB), but not enough to chase the faint of heart from the room. Behind the smoke is a solid background of other phenolics: band-aids, seaweed, old leather, as well as mineral notes from the peaty water. There are some nice spicy notes from the wood—vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon. Overall, different from JWB but well balanced.
On the palate, the JWB’s vanilla, peaches, watermelon and moderate golden syrup sweetness transcends to peppery and drier notes on the back of the tongue. The palate cleans up the sweet into the spicy, peppery and ever-so-slightly smoky finish. It’s a fine-tuned and well balanced recipe.
With an initial, very light sip as I always start, the Double Black in comparison is a lighter initial palate: it has a neutral, less unctuous sweetness and fainter spice and fruity midrange than in JWB and frankly, not enough phenol to make up the difference. A bigger swig brings out more vanilla and a hint of orange which cleans up well with a well balanced level of dryness from the oak tannins. The finish is moderate in length, mainly smoke and peppery spice that fades to a balanced note of black liquorice at the end, a nice surprise.
Johnnie Walker Double Black blended Scotch Whisky, 40% ABV
Nose: Modest peat smoke, band-aids, seaweed , old leather, vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon.
Palate: Modest neutral sweetness, vanilla, orange, drying with gentle tannic bitterness.
Finish: Decent length: smoke, peppery spice, black liquorice.
Bottom Line: Overall, the Black Label is a more robust and well-rounded flavor profile than the Double Black, which relies on a decent whiff of peat smoke to grab your attention as it is a bit weaker on the nose and initial palate. I have to believe that this is due to spirits which, though aged in quality oak, did not spend enough time in cask to develop flavors of comparative complexity to the 12-year old JWB. Note, the Double Black has no age statement. By law no Scotch whisky (grain or malt) is less than 3 years in cask but the JWDB is no 12-year whisky. You will have to decide whether the Double Black, at almost 15% higher price than the Black Label, is worth the coin for a simpler, but smokier experience.
That might depend on your level of acclimation to peaty whiskies. Just in case I was being biased, I put the wife to a blind taste test. She preferred the Black Label, finding it was smoother and generally more appealing, but did state the Double Black had more flavor based on the peat being a strong component. I drink a lot more seriously peaty whiskies than she does so I’m less impressed by the intended ‘intensity’ of the smoke in the Double Black, but less accustomed palates are going to find those phenolics attention-grabbing.