Johnnie Walker is like the charming banker at a dinner party (that’s banker with a “b”). All he talks about is money, and he’s annoyingly well dressed with his fancy suit and stupid designer haircut and stupid witty charm. Douchebag. And yet, when you get to know him you reluctantly have to admit that he’s a nice guy. That doesn’t stop you from bad-mouthing him to your friends, though.
The whisky community loves to complain about Johnnie Walker and (more often) parent company Diageo. And rightly so: at face value the world’s best selling whisky brand has become less about whisky and more about marketing. Huge celebrity driven ad-campaigns push the luxury status of their products, fuelling the bitter outrage that enthusiasts feel over Diageo’s business decisions (the demise of the Green and original Gold Labels come to mind).
While these criticisms may be valid, don’t let the wailing of the whisky snobs put you off. The Johnnie Walker labels are excellent blends, incredibly consistent and (at the lower end) great value. And the 12-year-old Black Label is something particularly special. For me (and many others, I imagine) Johnnie Black was the one that started it all.
Light peat. Wood smoke. Smoked paprika. A slightly sour orange-and-apricot tang. Leather, like the inside of an antique shop (a tasty antique shop). Brown sugar, leaning slightly towards caramel, but not sickly sweet. Faint floral and vanilla notes if you dig deep enough.
A perfect balance of spicy and smoky. Paprika, nutmeg on the front of the tongue. Neither too sweet nor too bitter. Malt, oak, pepper, bread and butter. Mild vanilla, as well as a light peaty/clinical taste. The finish is short, but pleasant – smoke, citrus zest and slightly bitter.
Unfortunately, JWB drowns pretty quickly. A single block of ice starts an invisible countdown that renders it a watery-vanilla mess before 5 minutes are up, if you’re lucky. Likewise for any appreciable quantity of water. Adding a single teaspoon does open it up somewhat, but (as is typical for me) this highlights the tastes I don’t like – floral, clinical – and diminishes those I do – smoke, citrus, spice. Even at a South African standard 43% ABV, I prefer my beloved JWB neat.
What to say? Johnnie Black is brilliant. An everyday whisky to get the creative juices flowing, a late night partner in quiet contemplation, and an eager contributor to Sunday hangovers. In terms of value, it’s pretty damn great (sometimes as low as R270!) It’s the blend by which I compare all other whisky. True love.