There are exactly 3 opinions of Johnnie Walker Blue Label:
First you get the investment bankers, advertising executives and tobacco industry lobbyists. They’ll “only drink Blue Label”, mainly as a fashion accessory to help celebrate closing the Anderson account. But they prefer beer.
Next the single malt snobs. For them, Blue Label is the ultimate symbol of the despised blending industry. Every time Johnnie Walker is mentioned one of them reaches out in protest with a trembling, calloused hand for a glass of 1983 Port Ellen, mumbling incoherently about age statements and travel retail. They’ve never tried it.
Finally the online whisky enthusiasts. They secretly enjoy Johnnie Walker, but can’t “come out” and risk their street cred or Reddit upvotes. To save face they have to hedge any favourable opinion by doubling down on how overpriced/overmarketed/overrated Blue Label is. They’ve probably also never tried it.
And to be fair to the critics, on paper Blue Label is tough to love. In 1992 it was the first luxury expression with no age statement to really knock it out of the park, undoubtedly the catalyst for the tsunami of NAS bottlings from every major distillery. It’s coloured, filtered, low strength, shrouded in secrecy, cloaked in bullshit and of course – expensive.
If that wasn’t enough to raise the hackles of the average working whisky enthusiast, Blue Label’s success is due to an insanely well executed marketing campaign styling itself as a lifestyle drink for the rich. The sort to compliment one’s Bentley and manicured poodle, to be sipped aboard a yacht in the Maldives while Jude Law makes sexually suggestive eyebrow motions at you.
The result is that the typical whisky drinker (read: me) finds it tough to crack open a bottle without feeling like a total fucktard.
However, I can’t help but recognise that my one true love – Johnnie Walker Black Label, peace be upon it – is the product of the same masterful blenders. The likely component ingredients (at a minimum, some older Clynelish, Caol Ila, perhaps Talisker, Cardhu and Cragganmore if you’re lucky) are some of my favourite malts. Johnnie Walker has access to amazing whiskies and an incredible knack for blending consistently great stuff.
Perhaps when it comes to appealing to the armchair critics, Johnnie Blue is a victim of its own strategy? It just can’t win – if you drink it you’re either a douchebag, a sucker or a traitor. It’s cool to hate Blue Label.
After receiving many emails to do so (thanks everyone!) I recently had another couple of rounds of Blue Label and chalked up some more notes. So with all that out of the way (whew), here goes!
So fake. So sad 🙁
Right. On first whiff my main criticism (which runs through to the taste and the finish) makes itself known: Blue Label could really do with a little more oomph. While the flavours I suspect are fairly light to begin with, they’re not being helped when you have to struggle to find them.
That being said… wow. Put aside your ego, shove your nose into the glass and prepare for an olfactory feast. Rich, full, creamy. A strong, dusty malt. Toasted oak. Almonds, pecans. Lots of spices, particularly cloves, paprika (hello Black Label!) and a little aniseed. Wax aplenty (howdy Clynelish!) and the richest, buttery pastry, no doubt thanks to some quality grain spirit. Excellent!
Just. Bloody. Lovely.
Blue Label has that same musty, dusty old furniture quality I recently discovered in Compass Box Three Year Old Deluxe. Lightly smoky, antique wood and furniture polish. You’d think that would be awful, but it’s the best. That gentle peat is more like floral incense smoke than a bonfire. Ever so slightly sulphuric.
Floral is also a big keyword here – fruity and flowery. Some toffee apples, jasmine, ginger and glazed orange peels. While incredibly well integrated and delicate, there’s a clear sign of some wine casks, sherry-style red fruit and cherries with the lightest Christmas flavours coming through.
However again there’s that slightly over-diluted quality that makes me feel like there’s something missing. With a sliver of extra alcohol – say, at 46% – this would be unstoppable. Perhaps I’ll have to lay my hands on one of those cask strength versions…
(Side note: I can’t believe they bottle Blue Label at the pitiful 40% the rest of the world is forced to endure. Perhaps that’s why it gets such a bad rap everywhere – for me it’s already borderline at 43%, never mind at sippy-cup levels of alcohol.)
The finish is sweet, chocolatey and warming… but admittedly short.
Don’t leave me Johnnie!
Here’s the thing: it just really doesn’t need or improve with water. It’s gone. Dead.
But it really is worthwhile trying it slightly chilled. Unless you’re using a bigass block of ice and plan on drinking it quickly, try putting your glass in the fridge for 30 minutes before you pour it neat. Cold, but not frosty and diluted. Fantastic!
Alright, here’s where whatever credibility I had goes down the sinkhole!
As easy as it would be to hop aboard the hater train, I really like Johnnie Walker Blue Label.
(Narrowly dodges tomato)
Actually no, fuck it – I love Blue Label. Every time I’ve had it – at different times of day, in different settings, with ice and neat – I’ve been hugely surprised. I picked it as my favourite in a blind tasting without any prior knowledge of what we were drinking, completely stripping marketing, preconceptions and bullshit out of the equation.
Blue Label is the grandpa version of Black Label – less fiery, less capable. A softer, gentler drink. But a lot more complex. One of the few whiskies I find interesting enough to make an introspective slow dram if that’s what you’re looking for, while still so buttery and silky you can slam it with abandon… assuming someone else is paying!
Speaking of which, what about that big, dollar-sign-shaped elephant in the room? Yes, it’s expensive. But compare it against most limited edition style NAS bottlings – The Macallan Editions, Glenmorangie Signet, almost any limited release Compass Box blend – and you’re in the exact same ballpark. The difference, apart from some much needed transparency and maybe a couple of percentage points of ABV, is that Blue Label is available everywhere, anytime.
Johnnie Walker Blue Label is absolutely delicious. Would I buy a bottle? Nope – too rich for my blood. But I might snatch one up on sale, buy one for a special celebration or sneak a cheeky shot at a reasonable bar if nobody was looking. Cheers!