Johnnie Walker Black Label

Johnnie Walker Black LabelJohnnie Walker Black Label, which was Christopher Hitchens’ favourite whisky, is one of the most famous spirits in the world; among Scotch whiskies its name-recognition is probably surpassed only by its younger sibling, the Red Label (which is nobody’s favourite whisky). And at 12 years old it proclaims an age that more and more single malts cannot. Most blends are made for drinking with ice and/or water/soda but I’ve always enjoyed the Black Label straight and so I am going to review it as I would any other whisky.

Johnnie Walker Black Label (43%; from my own bottle)

Nose: Prickly, minerally peat, some orange, raisins and brine. Not a lot of grainy notes—not at first anyway. And frankly not at second either. After a while there’s a bit of burnt toast and a very faint rubberiness. Not much change after that. Okay, let’s add water: the sweetness expands and there’s some toffee too now.

Palate: Sweet, raisiny entrance with a nice hit of briny and ashy smoke behind the sweetness; a bit more wood than on the nose. Mild citrus as well. And the texture is quite nice too. Gets a little more sour/astringent with time (is that the grain or the fact that this bottle has been open for a very long time?). Water makes it more peppery.

Finish: Medium. No real change. As on the palate, the finish gets much more peppery with water.

Comments: I agreed less and less with Hitchens in his last years but this is really rather good. It shouldn’t be the basis for making over-large claims for blends—most of which fall far short of this—but give it blind to a malt-only person and see what they say*. Not much development/complexity though—it is what it is on arrival and stays that way; but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s clearly a fair bit of sherried whisky and a fair bit of peated whisky in this—but it’s not phenolic, which would suggest Talisker as the source of the peat, I guess.

Rating: 85 points.

*After writing the rest of this review this a few days ago I noted on Twitter that in my opinion, “…far more malt geeks than believe would be the case would pick this as a single malt blind and rate it well.” As it happened, our local group’s August tasting was on Friday. I could not resist putting the Black Label in the lineup. It went up against an Exclusive Malts Bowmore 11 for K&L, a heavily peated Signatory Jura 23, 1989 (also for K&L) and a Douglas Laing OMC Laphroaig 14, 2000. And it handily outscored all of those to be the top whisky of the night. Everyone but me drinks blind during these tastings and four of the nine others present had it as their top whisky of the night; two others had it in second place and none had it in last place.

Now, it’s true that this wasn’t the stiffest competition (the Jura was quite nice but the Laphroaig turned out to be a sulphury mess); but the relevant bit is not that it was the top whisky of the night but that the score it garnered would have put it in the top (or top two) in a large number of our tastings, including some that featured some heavy hitters. There was much surprise when its identity was revealed at the end of the night. No one had thought it was a blend. One or two people seemed like they might be trying to explain away their score but a number of others were ready to go out and get a bottle.

12 thoughts on “Johnnie Walker Black Label

  1. Nice review, I’ll pick up a bottle next time it goes on sale …

    From my (limited) experience, the older the blend, the less likely it is that in a blind tasting I would be able to call it a blend. That leads me to the conclusion that grain whisky improves with age relatively more than malt whisky, and/or, better casks of aged grain are chosen for age stated blends (12 years and up). Either way, aged stated blends tend to be miles ahead of their NAS bretheren in terms of quality, something that isn’t always true for single malts.

    While I see a lot of single malts bottled at young ages it is rare to see NAS single grains. Most single grains I see have significant age on them. I don’t know whether this is due to low demand for grain whisky in general or whether wood has a greater impact on grain whisky over longer periods of time.

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  2. In my opinion, this is a solid option when I don’t mind something less flavorful or less complex (or over ice). I also recommend it to all people newer to scotch. Have you had the chance to compare it to any older versions? I haven’t been buying it long enough to have had any old bottles.

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    • I don’t know if anyone’s seen it, but it’s worth posting Ralfy’s review of a Red Label from the 1960s and comparing it to a modern release. Apparently it used to be quite nice.

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  3. Before I ever started drinking single malts, which would be the early 90’s, I found that I really liked black label and hated red label. I haven’t had any for years. I think you may have just induced me to head out and get a bottle to try again. Hopefully you’ve sent me to see an old friend.

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  4. I’m sure it’s changed since the late 80s/early 90s. I’ll be interested to hear what you make of it. I see I didn’t note this in my review—I think it came up on Twitter—but this review is not of a recent store-bought bottle in the US; it’s of a 1 liter travel-retail bottle purchased some years ago (it’s at 43%).

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