Today, I am taking a brief hiatus from single malts to do a comparison review of two whiskies from the best-selling Scotch brand in the world, Johnnie Walker. There is no picture of the bottle in this post because most folks know what Johnnie Walker looks like. When people think of Scotch, they often think of Johnnie Walker first, helped out by common pop culture references (see Joe Namath and George Thorogood). Unlike my reviews so far in Scotchvember, Johnnie Walker is Blended Scotch Whisky, which means that the whisky in the bottle contains a blending of single malts and grain whisky. In Scotch terms, grain whisky is whisky comprised of anything except for 100% malted barley. This usually entails a lot of wheat, which lends to a smoother, less flavorful Scotch. That said there are some very enjoyable Blended Scotches on the market today; they usually just require a bit more age to reach their full potential. Without further ado, let me get into a comparison review that I have had many requests for.
Joe Namath famously said he liked his, “Johnnie Walker red and his women blonde.”
Johnnie Walker Red Label is the entry-level blended Scotch from Johnnie Walker. There is no age statement on the bottle, but most of the whisky in this is around 6 years old on average. The grain whiskies in the Red Label tend to be a little younger (around 4 years), whereas the single malts tend to be a little older (around 8 years), but those are just conjectures. Red Label is bottled at 80 proof (40% abv).
On the nose, Red Label is pleasant and sweet, with notes of honeysuckle, vanilla extract, and malted barley. The palate is sweet and simple, with a nice balance between honey and malt. The finish is medium in length, starting out sweet, and then presenting a little whiff of smoke after a few seconds.
Overall, Red Label is a simple whisky, but not at all unpleasant. It knows what it is, and knows what it is not. Red Label knows it will be drunk with a lot of ice and a fair amount of soda. No worries, you are not wasting a great whisky if you do. However, even though Red Label is a thin whisky, it is not at all poor drinking experience. My grade: C. Price: $15-20/750ml. For the price, Red Label is exactly what I expected, a smooth, simple whisky.
Now, for Johnnie Walker Black Label, which carries an age statement of 12 years, which means that all of the whisky in a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black is at least 12 years old. Judging from the whisky, I do not think Johnnie Walker Black and Red are made up of the same distilleries or the same recipes. They have notably different flavor profiles, which I applaud them for. Black Label is not simply an older version of the Red Label; they are entirely different whiskies. Johnnie Walker Black Label is bottled at 80 proof (40% abv) as well.
The first noticeable difference between the two is that Black Label is a good deal darker in the glass, but that could very easily just be added caramel coloring. On the nose, Black Label is much darker than the Red Label. There are notes of toasted bread, wood smoke, dry sherry, and malted barley. The palate is medium-bodied, with hints of peat, oak, and sherry, all backed up by a strong malt backbone. The finish is medium in length, with some notes of dried fruits (raisins, dates) and peat smoke.
Overall, Johnnie Walker is a more complex whisky, in that there is definitely some sherry influence as well as more peated whiskies in the bottle. However, it is a bit harsher on the palate, lacking some of the smooth, seductive qualities of the Red Label. It is almost as if Johnnie Walker knows Black Label will go on ice, which is the way I see it drunk most often at the bar. My grade: C+. Price: $30-35/750ml. Johnnie Black is a rough, complex Scotch whisky. My issue with it is the price point; for that type of money, I will buy a 12 year-old single malt every day of every week.
Between the two whiskies, I think the Black Label is the better whisky, but Red Label is by far the better value. If you put a gun to my head and told me to go to the store and buy a bottle of Johnnie Walker, I would buy a bottle of Red Label. If I had $35 in my hand, I am going for a single malt whisky over Johnnie Walker Black Label any day. But, with your money, you can do whatever the hell you want, so give Johnnie Walker a whirl, let it ride, and let me know what you think.