A few nights ago, some friends and I gathered for what we hope will become a regular institution: whisky tasting. For our inaugural tasting, we decided on a comparison of Johnnie Walker blended Scotch (Black, Green, Gold and Blue Labels). It was an interesting first choice I think, playing more for safety and for name recognition than for something more exotic. The group, however, was quite diverse including known scotch lovers and haters as well as whisky newbies, and everyone (I think/hope) found something enjoyable.
The format of the tasting was such that we tasted each whisky in (price) order and then returned for a second round in whatever order we wished. The Blue back to Black transition was certainly the most jarring, but after having experienced all the whiskies, opinions were more informed on the second take. We designed and printed elaborate tasting note sheets and lists of aroma and flavor words, but most just drank and talked. Being novices, none of us had palates capable of being all that specific. On a non-whisky note, much props all around for an excellent selection of food including smoked salmon, cheeses, fancy chocolate, fruit, salami and pate.
Black Label, $25
Black Label is a blend of up to 40 single malt and grain whiskies aged for at least 12 years, but the backbone of the blend is the Cardhu Speyside single malt. First blended in 1909, this blend is one of Johnnie Walker’s cornerstones and is generally highly regarded.
On the first tasting, there were little consensus on describing the aroma. Some called it mellow while others listed sharp or even peppery. The predominant flavors were smoky, reminiscent of a campfire, (which we discovered were due to phenols) but a few also picked up a hint of cream or butter. The mouthfeel was generally considered thin, the taste mellow and the finish short.
On the second round (remember we had just come from Blue Label), the opinions fell considerably. One person’s impression of the finish changed to biting and described it as a leaping flame/solar flare. (We were lucky enough to have an English major in our midst to help color the reactions!) Another commented that the whisky had a presence in the mouth (a pejorative) that one simply didn’t experience in the higher quality scotches we tasted. I maintained, however, (with little support) that the Black Label was still a good whisky.
Green Label, $50
Green Label is a 15 year vatted malt (no grain whisky allowed). Included are Talisker (Island), Caol Ila (Islay), Cragganmore (Speyside) and Linkwood (Speyside).
To sum up the opinions of Green Label, most felt that it was much like the Black Label, but more complex. The nose was described as various permutations of prickly, sharp and warming with all agreeing that it was not mellow. (This was, however, a positive for many.) Two members of our group described a stabbing sensation. (This was probably less of a positive.) The mouthfeel was thicker and creamier than Black and in addition to a slight smokiness, there were also hints of esters and caramel.
On the second take, a few diluted with water and found it more pleasing, but as with Black, overall opinions of this whisky fell a bit. While Green was definitely better than Black, many felt the difference in price was too great.
Gold Label, $80
Gold label is an 18 year blend of predominantly Cardhu (Speyside single malt), Clynelish (Highlands single malt) and extra-mature grain whiskies. While it was first blended in 1920, this scotch was an in-house blend only until it became publicly available in 1995.
Everyone in the group found this to be a very pleasing scotch and we granted upon it the compliment of “scotch we would most likely serve at our (hypothetical) high-end parties.” Many agreed that it would be enjoyed by everyone whether they called themselves whisky drinkers or not. The nose was mellow but slightly warming and included floral hints and notes of caramel. The mouthfeel was very pleasing with an earthy flavor lingering on the roof of the mouth for quite some time. Many also commented that the flavors included honey, dried fruit (as distinct from fresh fruit) and even grass. The finish was smooth, long and earthy.
For the second tasting, we chilled the bottle in the freezer, as is suggested by Johnnie Walker itself. Opinions on this were quite mixed. I personally found that chilling the whisky produced a (ironically) greater warming sensation as I swallowed and overall I enjoyed it more. Others however felt that room temperature and neat was best.
Blue Label, $190
John Walker and Sons are very hush-hush about the whiskies which go into this blend. All they will reveal are that the casks are hand-selected and set aside for their exceptional quality, character and flavor. Possibly disreputable sources on the internet point to a backbone of Royal Lochnagar (a Highlands single malt) and possibly whiskies from now defunct distilleries.
The Blue Label seemed to defy normal description. Perhaps this was because we had already drunk 3 other whiskies and we were beginning to feel it, but more likely I think it had to do with the great subtly of the blend. There is a lot going on, but nothing juts out as greater than the rest; I think this is the harmony that a blend is always striving to achieve.
The best description of the aroma’s intensity was diaphanous, which is close to transparent or ethereal. The nose was clean, pure, wet and dewy which led to the very picturesque description that Blue Label was crystalline, like it was taken from a creek running off a whisky glacier into a high mountain meadow. Our English major also added Teutonic/Wagnerian and noted that the flavor was spiced, but not overpowering, most like white pepper. It reminded one of a glittering diamond and of Studio 54. Boy was this blend smooooth. The finish was bold, even more so than the excellent finish of Gold, but less earthy and more cloying.
I thought it was good, but I quite enjoyed Gold and, even if the prices were closer, I think I’d pick that over Blue in most cases. Many in the group though were quite taken by it with one purchasing another glass and more than one offering to buy what was left of the bottle.
Everyone seemed to quite enjoy the tasting and there seems to be excitement for the next one already. We all learned as the night went on, but much training remains before we can even begin to compare our thoughts to those of the professionals. The professed Scotch hater recanted (claiming he must have been served some terrible Scotch before) and those new to whisky asked (a bit surprisingly) for things more exotic. As one person said afterward, (quite poetically I might say), “Noticing subtlety requires identifying mountains first.”
I was able to snag the remainders of the Gold and Black Label bottles and so I’ll probably soon be sitting down for some more quiet contemplation and note-taking. Practice makes perfect, eh?