Since day one, Johnnie Walker has been all about the blend. They don’t actually “make” anything, but they do grab a selection of other distiller’s work and slap their own label on it. If sales are any indication, they’re damn good at it as evidenced by the red label version taking the title of best selling scotch in the world. But do sales alone mean that the Red Label is actually the best one? Or is their Black Label better? Let’s find out.
For those looking for a little more in depth look at the two options here are the full reviews we’ve previously done.
How Do You Define “Best?”
Let’s start with a hard question. When we say “best” what do we actually mean?
For our reviews, we use a number of features to make an overall assessment of the spirit in question. Taking into account things like authenticity, manufacturing process, and how well it works in a variety of situations and not just a single category.
In this case, we have something unique. Because we’re comparing two spirits from the same label we can drop some of those categories. For example, I don’t care about comparing the history of these two products because it’s pretty much the same. Manufacturing process and bottle/label design can also be thrown out for sameness.
In the end, what we’re left considering is how well these two spirits drink. And thankfully, we’ve got a set of criteria that we already use for that purpose.
I’m of the opinion that a good spirit should be good even when taken on its own without any adjustment. In this case there’s really only one winner: the Black.
While the Black is perfectly drinkable and enjoyable on its own, the Red has a fruity and odd flavor that is too bold to really enjoy. It makes perfect sense since the Red is designed to be blended and drinking it neat isn’t probably an intended use case, but if I’m spending money on whisky I’d like to be able to drink it however I want.
The playing field levels out with the addition of ice. With a little water and lower temperature, those strange flavors within the Red start to blend into the background and the base whisky flavors start emerging. But while the Red becomes ‘drinkable’, the Black hits its stride and becomes downright tasty.
This is where the Red is designed to live, in the world of the mixed drink. In our case it’s an Old Fashioned, a good traditional drink using bitters and sugar.
With the Red label, the fruity flavors play into the drink well and create a delicious mixture. That’s something that isn’t included with the flavor profile of the Black label, and in that instance you just get a distinctly peat forward flavor.
Personally, I like them both. I think they both do a fine job of making an Old Fashioned, but then again I might just be preferential to peat-forward spirits.
In this case, the Red label is a runaway winner.
With the Black Label, there’s really nothing that the spirit brings to the table. All I taste is ginger beer, lime, and a bit of peat.
Counter the Red Label — where the addition of the ginger and lime results in a symphony of flavor. It’s honestly amazing, and something I might consider stocking some Red Label just to keep in my back pocket. I can’t say Red Label makes the absolute best mule I’ve ever had, but it solidly ranks in my top five.
Conclusion: Buy Black
There’s really only one situation where the Red stands out, and at that point you really should be reaching for something like a rye whiskey instead. The Black is good on its own, just fine in an Old Fashioned, and not objectionable in a mule. It’s the most versatile of the two bottles and, in my opinion, the better selection.