EZdrinking

Searching for the world's best drinks and what makes them extraordinary.

Searching for the world's best drinks and what makes them extraordinary. EZdrinking is a drinks blog by Eric Zandona that focuses on distilled spirits, wine, craft beer and specialty coffee. Here you can find reviews of drinks, drink books, articles about current & historical trends, as well as how to make liqueurs, bitters, and other spirit based drinks at home.

Filtering by Tag: Red Label

Review: 1970s Johnnie Walker Red Label

Owned and blended by The Distillers Company (now Diageo) Johnnie Walker Red Label Blended Scotch Whisky (1970s) was bottled at 40% and 43% ABV.

Price: Unknow historical price however, current price is between $130-$230 per bottle.

In 1867, Alexander Walker created the blended Scotch brand Old Highland Whisky which was rechristened in 1909 as Johnnie Walker Red Label Blended Scotch Whisky. Blended Scotch is a mix of both grain whiskies and malt whiskies that have been distilled and mature in Scotland for at least 3 years. Grain whiskies are spirits are defined by the EU as a mix of grains such as malted barley, corn, rye, or wheat, distilled on a continuous column still, and matured for at least 3 years. Where as malt whiskies are spirits made from 100% malted barley, pot-distilled, and matured for at least 3 years. 

By the 1920s Johnnie Walker was being sold in 120 countries and had been using the same squared bottle and angled label for about 50 years.  In 1925, Johnnie Walker was acquired by The Distillers Company and by the 1970s Johnnie Walker Red Label was the most popular Scotch whisky sold in the world. While it is would great to know what whiskies went into the Red Label Blend in the 1970s as compared to today, sadly Johnnie Walker does not make that information public. Nevertheless, I'm grateful to David T. Smith for providing me a sample.

Tasting Notes

Nose: The nose greeted me with the aroma of fresh baked biscuits and honey with undertones of fruit carried on bright notes of alcohol.

Palate: The palate was smooth, had a medium body that was slightly warm. 70s Red Label tasted nutty like roasted cashews and had a light sweetness that balanced nicely with notes of spice, oak, and smoke with a little briny sea air.

Finish: The finish is long with lasting notes of brine and smoke mixed oak and sweet cherry.

Conclusion: It was surprising to me how fresh and vibrant Red Label tasted after all this time. 70s Red Label was a tasty blended Scotch whisky that demonstrates the skill of the blender to create a lighter whisky that still retains plenty of character. Johnnie Walker has clearly been putting out high quality whiskies for quite some time so there is understandable why they sold over 17 million 9-liter cases in 2016.

How Johnnie Walker Helped me to be Less of a Whisky Snob

In my last post I described a blind vertical tasting I helped put together of 11 different expressions of Johnnie Walker Blended Scotch Whisky. Post tasting I realized that my price bias (less expensive whiskies are not as good at expensive whiskies) was getting in the way of me realizing how good Johnnie Walker Red Label actually is. Now that isn't to say that Red Label is world's best whisky however, it is fantastic for what it is and how it is meant to be consumed.

The first time I drank whisky and fully enjoyed the experience was a glass of Macallan 12 Year Old Single Malt. The few times I tried Johnnie Walker Red or Black Label neat I didn't really enjoyed them as much. I took this to mean that my refined sensibilities (read inexperience) prefered single malts to blended Scotch because they were of higher quality. This belief was confirmed in part by my price bias since many blended Scotches are less expensive than single malts. However, in recent months I have started to rethink these assumptions.

After the blind tasting I began working my way through some of the leftover blended Scotch. I drank it neat, mixed with ginger beer and on the rocks. I realize that it wasn't that I didn't like blended Scotch because I prefered single malt but that I was mostly just drinking blended Scotch in the wrong way. Most blended Scotch is meant to be consumed with some dilution either from ice or with a mixer like water, soda, ginger beer or almost anything else. Lengthening the whisky in this way smooths out any rough edges it might have while retaining its core flavor. In addition to Johnnie Walker, I recently tried J&B Rare, and Dewar's White Label Blended Scotch Whiskies on the rocks. While each varied in flavor, they were refreshing , easy to drink , easy to prepare, and a bottle for your home bar can be found for less than $20! Who says blended Scotch isn't any good?

My change of heart on blended Scotch is similar to how I fell in love with Pabst Blue Ribbon. Years ago I participated in a blind tasting of about two dozen light beers and lagers in which PBR ended up being the clear favorite. While up to that point I usually drank craft ales, the tasting helped me to discover a fantastic American lager that works perfectly on hot days or when you're just not in the mood for a beer with more hops or malt flavor. In a similar way, I now see blended Scotch as an excellent choice for a satisfying and refreshing drink when other whiskey drinks or cocktails may not be as appealing. Or, maybe when you just don't want to think about what you're drinking and instead focus on enjoying your time with others.

There are three great things about being less of a whisky snob: first, it increases my options; two, it's easier on my wallet; and three, it increases my opportunity for drinking enjoyment. David Driscoll of K&L Wines has done a series of blog posts called "Drinking to Drink." Much of Driscoll's writing echoes the idea that the reason we drink should be because we like drinking not what it says about us. This is an easy trap to fall into for anyone but especially for those connected on social media and drinks writers in particular. I like to think about the process of how spirits and other amazing drinks are made and what makes them extraordinary. I also like to have a good drink while talking with friends or watching a baseball game or reading. When you have something special like a rare beer that you can only get directly from a monastery in Europe, the beer becomes the focal point of the evening, but when every drinking experience focuses on drinking the rarest, most exclusive, obscure, or expensive liquid, we lose track somewhat of why we are drinking in the first place. More and more when I'm not working, I turn to a drink I know I don't have to think about much. I want to enjoy the drink but I want to enjoy my experiences and the people I'm spending my time with more.

Blind Vertical Tasting of Johnnie Walker

Last year with the help of David T. Smith (Summer Fruit Cup) and Virginia Miller (The Perfect Spot) we arranged a blind vertical tasting of Johnnie Walker Whisky. A vertical tasting is typically when you drink several vintages  or expressions of the same wine, beer or whiskey. In our case we tasted 11 different bottlings of Johnnie Walker both from their core expressions as well as a couple of their more limited/less common expressions. We had Johnnie Walker Red Label, Red Label Export Blend (45.8% ABV), Explores' Club The Adventure, Black Label, Double Black, Green Label, Gold Label (pre-2013), Blue Label, Select Rye Cask Finish, Swing, and XR 21 Year Old. While Johnnie Walker has not been one of my favorite whiskies in the world I had strong opinions about a couple of them and I was excited to see if those beliefs held up when you strip away knowledge of price, age and bottle design.

The event's festivities were hosted by Virginia and her husband Dan, and while we had a good number of whiskies to taste, there were just five couples in attendance which made the event more intimate and relaxed. Now, while I suggested that we just bag the bottles and give them random markings like I'd done in my two previous blind tastings, David insisted that he would act as the steward for the evening and as usual he did an excellent job. David flighted the whiskies with the lighter character ones coming first and leading up to those with a heavier/smokier character at the end.

David and and my wife Tia brought out one whisky at at time which gave us the opportunity to taste, take notes and give it a score from 1-10. As much as possible, we refrained from talking about the whiskies until everyone marked their score  so as not to unduly influence each other's perception of the spirit in the glass. For the most part I didn't have any idea which whisky was which except for the Select Rye Cask Finish and the Double Black which are so distinct that they stood out from the rest.

After David tallied all of the scores the clear favorite among the whole group was Johnnie Walker XR 21 Blended Scotch Whiskey. According to Diageo (owner of Johnnie Walker) the XR 21 was created to commemorate when Alexander Walker II was knighted by King George V. XR 21 happened to be served fifth in our tasting and when I looked back on my notes I was in the minority only giving it a 5 out of 10. I was also very curious to see how I and the other tasters rated the Blue Label. My opinion of this whisky has changed significantly over the years from ecstatic to meh. Not too surprisingly Blue Label came right around the middle of the pack which matched my score of 6 out of 10. Since I have Blue Label so infrequently I don't know if the quality has declined over the past decade as it's popularity and prestige has grown or that I have consumed a lot more high quality whisky. Blue Label is a nice whisky but for the price, I can't justify a re-purchase. Rounding out the bottom of the tasting were The Adventurer, Red Label Export Blend and Johnnie Walker Swing.

Going into the tasting I thought I would score Green and Gold near the top followed by Black, and Double Black. I also thought that I would score Red Label near the bottom however that wasn't exactly the case which is why I love blind tastings.

Here is how I ranked the 11 expressions of Johnnie Walker:

  1. Select Rye Cask Finish Blended Scotch Whisky Aged 10 Years
    • The whisky picked up a lot of flavor for the Rye Cask and tastes sort of like a blend of American and Scotch Whisky.
  2. Double Black Blended Scotch Whisky (No Age Statement)
    • Extra smokey and has a very full mouthfeel for a blended Scotch plus it's easy on the wallet. 
  3. Red Label Blended Scotch Whisky (NAS)
    • This was big surprise for me, I really like the flavor of Red Label its got a medium body and best of all I can get it at K&L Wines on sale for $14!
  4. Gold Label (pre-2013) 18 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky
    • A nice blended Scotch with a medium body and unfortunately much better than the current Gold Label Reserve being sold.
  5. Blue Label Blended Scotch Whisky (NAS)
    • Lots of character in this blend and significant oak character from the long maturation which is partially why I gave it a lower score and some people love it.
  6. XR 21 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky
    • This blend has well balanced flavors between the fruit, oak, sweet and dry but for me the finish dropped off quickly and didn't leave a lasting impression.
  7. Green Label Blended Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 15 Years
    • Lots of malt and a good balance of smoke and fruitiness though I marked it down for having a thinner mouthfeel and more heat on the palate. Unlike most other expressions of Johnnie Walker, the Green Label is a Blended Malt which means it does not contain any aged grain whiskies.
  8. Explorer's Club Collection - The Adventurer Blended Scotch Whisky (NAS)
    • Main flavors are malt and smoke though this blend is very thin with a short finish.
  9. Black Label 12 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky
    • I didn't find the flavors to be very complex and it had thin mouthfeel and a long hot finish.
  10. Red Label Export Blended Scotch Whisky (NAS)
    • Had an odd menthol note in the nose, mouthfeel was thin and it had a lot of alcohol on the finish.
  11. Swing Blended Scotch Whisky (NAS)
    • My summary for this blend is light, thin and sharp. One of the best features of this whisky is its bottle, which has a rounded bottom which allows it to gently rock back and forth on a boat without tipping over.

Thank you to Virginia and Dan for hosting and supplying the Blue Label. Thanks also goes to David and Sara who supplied the XR 21 and Red Label Export Blend.