Here it is, the most popular scotch whisky in the world. But is it any good?
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 Red Label is a powerful mix of up to 30 malts and grains. It’s a combination of light whiskies from Scotland’s East Coast and more peaty whiskies from the West, expertly balanced to create an extraordinary depth of flavour.
As a scotch whisky we can make a couple assumptions, namely that this spirit was aged in oak barrels for three years and produced in Scotland. Beyond that, we have no information beyond “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.
There’s a surprising level of fruitiness in this scotch, almost more like a cognac than a scotch whiskey. I can definitely detect a bit of the earthy peat forward aromas, but they are getting some heavy competition from whatever this fruit is. Some say that it’s close to a sour apple smell and I can see where they’re coming from, but for me I’m thinking something closer to a blackberry with some vanilla under notes.
As expected with a 40% ABV spirit the liquid feels a touch lighter than others. The flavors are slow to build, rising to a peak as you swallow and lingering for a bit of an aftertaste. It’s not harsh or unpleasant, but there is some spice to the flavoring that leaves a sensation on the tongue.
While the fruit is the most prominent smell, what I get in the taste is mainly the traditional flavors of a scotch whiskey. There’s a toffee caramel, some vanilla, and a bit of earthy peat thrown in for good measure. It’s a formula that works well.
With the ice the fruity aromas take a back seat the the more hearty flavors infused from the aging process, namely the toffee caramel and vanilla. The spirit is smoother, with a more immediate flavor coming out instead of needing to wait for it to build in your mouth.
While the fruitiness and relatively strange flavor of the liquor might be a little too weird when neat, add in some bitters and ice and the spirit really comes into its own. The fruit balances well with the orange bitters and even the peat forward flavor of the scotch works in this format.
Honestly this is the first time I would consider this spirit drinkable, which makes sense given that this particular blend is designed to be added and mixed into cocktails rather than taken neat. In this case the bold and odd flavors start to make perfect sense.
I hate to admit it, but I actually like this.
The fruity and bold flavor of the scotch comes through the ginger beer and makes for a well rounded, balanced, and delicious drink. The peat is an odd note for what is usually a Kentucky Mule but it does in fact work.
Personally I’m not a fan of the more fruity scotch whiskeys. I like the Glemorangie approach where it’s more neatly blended into the flavor profile, but here it’s like being slapped in the face with a sour apple and it reminds me of Halloween candy binges on sour apple Jolly Ranchers gone horribly wrong. Definitely not a scotch that I would voluntarily select, but drinkable with an ice cube.
I get what they are trying to do, making something that can be mixed and enjoyed in a cocktail, but all of the flavors they are trying to impart can be added through other means. In my opinion a spirit that isn’t even drinkable on its own isn’t a very good spirit.
Johnnie Walker Red Scotch Whiskey
Owner: Diageo, UK
Classification: Blended scotch whisky
Grain bill: Unknown
Aging: Minimum 3 years
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $23.99/ 750ml
Overall Rating: 2/5