While the red label may be the best selling scotch whisky in the world, the black label is their “premium” version and actually bears an age statement unlike the red version. But is there enough of a difference that it makes up for the increased price tag?
John Walker sold his family farm in 1819 and bought a grocery store in Kilmarnock, Scotland. Following the 1823 licensing of distilleries in Scotland John, who did not drink, started producing his own brand of blended spirits for sale in his store. He would produce blends to his customer’s requirements since, as a man who did not drink alcohol, he had none of his own.
The brand became somewhat popular, and following John’s death in 1857 his sons took up the family business. With the passage of a new law in 1860 that allowed for a wider variety of blended whisky to be produced John’s sons solidified the company as a producer of blended whiskys by being among the first to innovate with the larger varieties now available. They also introduced the first square bottle in 1860 allowing more bottles to be stored on store shelves, as well as the distinctive tilted label that differentiated the brand and remains a feature to this day.
The Walkers purchased the Cardhu distillery in 1893, which became the primary single malt scotch used in the production of the red and black label whiskys.
In 1909 the descendants of John Walker embarked on a rebranding effort. They hired cartoonist Tom Browne to create a new logo, and he produced the Striding Man that remains the iconic logo of the Johnnie Walker brand.
In 1925 the company joined the Distillers Company, which was acquired by the Irish Guinness in 1986, and subsequently merged with Diageo in 1997.
Despite local backlash Diageo decided to close the original Johnnie Walker distillery in Kilmarnock, the place where it all started, in 2012.
There’s not much to talk about here. Johnnie Walker is a famous blended whisky producer and they don’t share much about where they source their spirit from or what the grain bill is for their source. We can assume that the majority of the spirit comes from the Cardhu distillery but even that is an educated guess.
In terms of what they actually say about the spirit this is the most we get from the company:
Johnnie Walker Black Label is a smooth and beautifully balanced whisky with a distinctive smoky flavour, expertly crafted using an unrivalled selection of Single Malts and Grains each aged for at least 12 years.
As a scotch whisky we can make a couple assumptions, namely that this spirit was aged in oak barrels and that the youngest drop of whisky in this bottle is 12 years old. Beyond that we don’t have much information other than “it’s brown.”
Even in this smaller tasting size bottle the hallmarks of the original 1860’s Johnnie Walker design are present, from the square bottle to the tilted label. The only big change is the addition of the 1909 Striding Man logo below the label.
The bottle is topped with a metal screw top cap, which is better than a plastic cap but not by much.
On the nose there’s the usual suspects — toffee caramel, some vanilla mixed in for good measure, and maybe a bit of cheeky cinnamon hiding in the background. It’s a solid traditional flavor profile that any scotch lover would recognize.
That familiar profile continues throughout the first sip, with the spirit having what I feel is a heavier weight on the tongue than I would expect from a 40% ABV alcohol. There’s a slow build of flavors that peaks just as you swallow and leaves a pleasant aftertaste.
There aren’t a lot of surprises in this tasting, what you smell is what you get. The one notable thing I found isn’t what is present but more what is missing — there’s not a lot of the traditional earthy peat flavor in this scotch whisky. I can almost taste something hiding in the background but that might just be the tannin mimicking the taste.
Add a rock of ice and the vanilla will really start to pop in the nose of this spirit, with the caramel taking a back seat. That said, the flavor when you take a sip doesn’t actually change all that much. The primary flavors are still present with nothing really added or removed. The only difference is that it feels a little lighter, and there might not be as much of the traditional burn.
It’s a fine scotch whisky, but there’s nothing amazing about it. There’s definitely less peat flavor than with other bottles but if that’s the reason you’re picking it then I might suggest a bourbon instead. Really the only reason you would choose this liquor over something less expensive is the branding.
Johnnie Walker Black Label
Owner: Diageo, UK
Classification: Blended scotch whisky
Grain bill: Unknown
Aging: 12 years
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $30.99/ 750ml
Overall Rating: 2/5
Excellent marketing surrounding an acceptable product.