The world famous Johnnie Walker blended whisky range has just seen a big change in it's line up. Two new expressions - the Gold Label Reserve and the Platinum Label - have appeared to replace the outgoing Green Label and Gold Label 18 years old respectively. This change follows research in to consumer buying trends, which are seeing more people trade up to premium blended whiskies than ever before. The change has been overseen by Jim Beveridge, the Johnnie Walker Master Blender, who has created the two new whiskies so that there is now more natural progression through the range.
The brand is named after John Walker, a man who owned a small grocery shop in the Ayrshire town of Kilmarnock in Scotland in the 1820s. Back then, nearly all whisky sold commercially was a blend. Johnnie Walker learnt the skills required to create a commercially successful whisky and the rest is history, as they say. Other famous blended whiskies such as Bell's and Teacher's have similar background stories. In the early days his whisky was made for his local clients and was sold in small quantities.
The success of the brand really took off during Victorian times when it was heavily exported around the British Empire. As the Empire expanded, more people enjoyed the range and brand has never looked back. The brand and the famous walking man logo are embedded in world culture and pioneered sports sponsorship in the 1960s by sponsoring a motor racing Grand Prix team and other major events, such as golf. The Johnnie Walker brand is currently owned by multi national drinks company Diageo.
This great video, starring actor Robert Carlyle, shows an entertaining and concise version of the brand's history .... it's especially cool when you consider that it was shot in one take.
This new version of Gold Label pays homage to the old version by maintaining many of the same whiskies within the blend, including the 'signature malt' of Clynelish. The main difference is the range of ages within the whisky, which previously had a minimum age of 18 years. Now there are younger whiskies present and this is reflected in a lower price point of £40 a bottle. It is bottled at 40% ABV.
The colour is golden yellow with a hint of amber and the nose is instantly captivating. There are plenty of sweet aromas - toffee, butterscotch, peach, vanilla and honey especially - and these are tempered by some bittersweet cereals and a healthy whiff of earthy peat smoke. On the palate this feels light, soft and delicate, but with plenty of obvious sweetness again. The vanilla and honey notes are particularly prominent, with further toffee and dried fruit (especially sultana and apple) backing them up. The sweetness is again balanced by a bittersweet barley note. Some background earthy smoke and wood spice (think of cinnamon and nutmeg) finish things off. The finish is delicious and laden with honey, before turning a little drier and spicier towards the end. The soft smoke lasts longest before finally fading.
This whisky represents the first truly new 'colour' in the Johnnie Walker range for a number of years. It is designed to better bridge the big gaps, in terms of age, taste and price, between the new Gold Label Reserve and the iconic Blue Label. It contains whiskies of 18 years and older, including some of Diageo's hidden single malt gems, and is bottled at 40% ABV. A bottle will cost around £70.
The colour is a vibrant golden yellow and the nose has a lovely freshness to it. Uplifting aromas leap from the glass - vanilla, honey, lemon zest, orange oil, malty cereals and a hint of tropical fruit, especially something like mango. These are backed up by some rich wood spices (imagine cinnamon, nutmeg and freshly sawn oak) and a soft background smokiness, which hints at tobacco smoke. On the palate, this feels thick and a bit oily. Again there is plenty going on with a hit of bitter, spiced orange kicking things off. Then come notes of vanilla, honey and sultanas to soften things down. This is accentuated by some lovely soft smokiness, further dried fruits (think of cherry, raisins and pear) and hints of cinnamon and nutmeg. The finish is long and drier than expected. It begins with plenty of the tangy bitter orange notes, before fading slowly to reveal the honey and fruit. The lasting impression is of the smoke.
What's the verdict?
It must have been a slight gamble for Diageo to change the core range of such an iconic product as Johnnie Walker. Especially as they are removing the Green Label, a cult classic to many a whisky drinker, from all but a couple of Asian markets. The Green Label has always been seen as something of 'the black sheep of the family' as it was blended just from single malts, but now they seem to have created the more consistent progression through the expressions that they wanted.
However, the gamble seems to have paid off as they have produced two lovely new whiskies here. The Gold Label Reserve will appeal to the masses as it has plenty of straightforward sweetness and a good feel to it, while the Platinum Label is a little more challenging with extra dryness, spiciness and complexity combining with it sweeter notes. Both are delicious and very welcome additions to the range.