Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review: Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve & Springbank 10 years



















Whisky Dogs
The whisky tasting club, I and some other guys pulled together about a year ago, is called the Whisky Dogs.  We are mangy scruffs who sniff out the good stuff and bark at the bow-wow bottles.

The Whisky Dogs met this past Friday night at my house.  I set up a blind tasting of four bottles and served in the following order:

(1)  Johnnie Walker Green Label (pure malt)
(2)  Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve (blend)
(3)  Amrut Fusion (single malt)
(4)  Springbank 10yrs (single malt)

The order of serving was from slightest to most robust.

Only I knew what was being poured.  I conducted the experiment to see what the hounds would select as: Best? Second best? Dead last?

I always enjoy hosting blind tastings and noting the reactions of people to the mystery pours.  In my mind, I ranked the best to worst.  I'll let you know what I thought the ranking should be and whether or not the dawgs agreed, at the end of this post.

Johnnie Walker Green Label
We started off with this blend of single malts, and it showed well.  It's very good, but sadly being discontinued.  Enough said.  Tasting notes available: here.  The Dogs panted their approval.

Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve
Diageo, the owner of the Johnnie Walker brand has been tinkering with its product line-up as of late.  Besides Green Label getting the axe, they introduced Double Black and  relaunched Gold Label as "Gold Label Reserve".  Both are without age statements and the speculation is that there is an insufficient supply of aged malts to continue to meet demand.  So, drop the age statement requirement, add in younger malt and grain whiskies, and presto, problem solved.

Of course, for you and I, the consumer, there is a potential problem.  Taste and quality of blended scotch whisky may be at risk.

Johnnie Walker Gold Label, up until last year, had an 18 year old age statement and was one of the very best blended scotch whiskies.  (I reviewed it here.)  An explanation is provided on Whisky.com regarding the reasoning for abandoning the 18 year age statement and moving to the no-age-statement 'Gold Label Reserve':

The existing Johnnie Walker Gold Label 18-year-old and Johnnie Walker Green Label will begin to be phased out in the U.S. market during the summer of next year (the phase-outs will begin this summer in most other global markets). In their place, Diageo will introduce two new labels that have tested successfully in Asia—Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve (selling for around $63 a 750-ml.) and Johnnie Walker Platinum 18-year-old (around $110).

Diageo’s head of whisky outreach Nick Morgan told Shanken News Daily the revamp was meant to spread out the Johnnie Walker portfolio’s pricing in order to better motivate consumers to move up the brand ladder. 


"As we reviewed the brand offering, we found that the range wasn’t meeting consumer needs and providing the best consumer journey through the range as far as taste profiles and price points,” Morgan said. “Another reason for this change is to try and have, as far as is possible, a consistent range of prices and options for consumers wherever they go in the world—which, to be honest, we haven’t had heretofore.” (Emphasis added)

The new Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve is based on the same Clynelish single malt as Gold Label 18-year-old, but it has a less peaty profile and will sell for around $20 less. Removing the age statement from the Gold offering also enables Diageo greater flexibility in crafting the blend. Platinum 18-year-old, meanwhile, has a more intense, peaty Speyside character. The two new variants will sit between Black Label (around $40) and Blue Label (around $210) in the portfolio. “You can see how the ladder then stretches out,” Morgan said."

I do not agree with Mr. Morgan's statement underlined above.  Gold Label 18 years met mine and a lot of consumer's needs.

Let me tell you something about Johnnie Walker Gold Label 18 years.  It had a nose that was among the finest of any whisky.  Yes, any!  Single malts included, regardless of age or distillery.  The nose was incredibly floral in an amazingly realistic fashion.  Close your eyes and it was flowers, roses and peonies.  Fantastically well done.  Diageo must have spent a fortune to get those heavenly scents to rise up in the glass just so.  A lot of time and experimentation must have been spent to achieve such remarkable olfactory perfection.  

The axed Gold Label 18 years did not disappoint on the palate.   Luscious wild honey, English cream, cinnamon, interesting peat & smoke hidden amongst exotic spices just floored me.  This dram was interestingly peated. 

I bought several bottles in the past and they were all consistently excellent.

So, with that memory, I thought I would spring on the Whisky Dogs a real treat that would leave them salivating for more.

Nose (undiluted)
The glorious floral notes of the 18 year old predecessor were nowhere to be found.  In its rightful place was an unremarkable impostor serving up thin, faint tendrils of chopped mint, sea air and what passed for peat but more reminiscent of a pine tree air freshener hanging from the rear view mirror of an airport cab.

Palate (undiluted)
Sweet. Matter of fact. Let there be no confusion. Horribly, sticky Danish sweet. This is like a bag of sugar donuts that your local cop polishes off in his squad car, with a triple cream & sugar coffee, while secretly hoping he does not get trapped in morning rush hour gridlock before getting to the station to do his business. This flavor profile is a travesty that evokes childhood memories of Honeycomb and Corn Pops cereal while watching Saturday morning cartoons.  I am really disappointed.

Finish (undiluted)
Short. Like Danny DeVito short. Somewhat grainy like your satellite TV reception in a snow storm. A little warmth, malty/oakey, a puff of cigarette smoke and a cheap shake of pepper.

General Impressions
Well, I was embarrassed to have included that in the tasting.  None of the dogs raised their paws.  Instead, they rolled over and played dead when I offered to pour more.  Needless to say, they were totally unimpressed.  The best one of them could come up with was that it was smooth.  Hmmm, so is lava as it oozes out of a volcano.  

Price Point/Suggested Alternatives
You know how I feel? Robbed! Robbed I tell you. I paid $79 ($62 in the US) for this bottle of sweet honey, Halloween candied, marmalade glaze concoction. I really am ticked off.  For that price I could have had a bottle of Dalwhinnie 15 that I consider to be in the same flavor style (ie. honey/nutmeg/cinnamon) and most definitely superior.

Diageo claims Clynelish is at the centre of Gold Label Reserve.  I am not tasting it.  What I do recognize is lots of Cardhu, which by the way is never a good thing.

Much cheaper and nearly equivalent renditions of this flavor profile are available. I am thinking Power's Gold for $22 or lets go cheaper to Cutty Sark.

Anyway, next up was a no-age statement single malt of India: Amrut Fusion.

Amrut Fusion Single Malt
Amrut Fusion is a single malt produced in India.  Some of the peated barley is sourced from Scotland and the remainder  is taken from Punjab.  When people learn this, I find they immediately turn up their nose.  

"India?  Single malt?" they say.

I know what they are thinking too.  Jason truly is out to lunch.  The rumours are true.

When I get this narrow-minded reaction, I try to convince them that Amrut Fusion is damn good.  But, it just falls on deaf ears.  I explain that this Indian single malt whisky is made in Bangalore. The distillery takes Punjabi and peated Scottish barley and makes an interesting single malt. Hence, the name: Fusion.  AND!!!!  It is good!  I also point out that single malt can be produced outside of Scotland.  Japan has been doing so successfully for many years.  Remember how 15 or 20 years ago people scoffed at the thought of Japanese single malt?  Well, guess what?  India is the new Japan.  At this point in the conversation, people usually peel away from me with lame excuses that they gotta make a call or it's getting late.

So, up against some single malt snobbery that I suspected had infected my pack of mongrels like a bad case of the fleas, I decided to include this Bangalore number in the blind tasting.

The reaction was wholly positive.  Everyone liked it and were taken aback by its huge flavor profile.  This is a big whisky.  Towering.  Tastes of saddle leather and mahogany.  Real old school.  Powerful horse kick of cedar, cloves, cardamon, spiced dark treacle, coriander. Dark chocolate that has a heavy weighting of cocoa. Some big peat notes reminiscent of Islay are also present.  At 50% ABV it is amazingly enjoyable neat.  Mind you, not for the novice.

When the tasting was done of all the flights, I revealed Amrut, and some were truly incredulous that India could produce such a quality whisky.  Nevertheless, the conversion process had begun.  

Springbank 10 years Single Malt
The last flight of the blind tasting was Springbank 10 years single malt.  

The dogs sniffed suspiciously.  They were unsure what to think of me any more.  I had started them off Green Label that they lapped up, but then did a U-turn and headed the wrong way on a one-way street with Gold Label Reserve, unleashed them in the park with Amrut Fusion, and now, they were going to splash around in the swimming pool.  Hopefully, there would be no Oh Henry! bar sightings in the water . . . .  Let's see how they made out with Springbank.

Nose (undiluted)
Heavy sea air, black smoke, thick peat, lemons.  Beautiful and unique.  Something very different.  Artisanal if you will. 

Palate (undiluted)
Brine, salty, lemon rind, green apple, Brazil nuts, an oily body, and sherry makes an appearance in a cloud of black smoke and sooty peat. 

Finish (undiluted)
Firm, drying oak, plenty of spiced balsa,  black tea.  There is a firm maltiness too on the finish that is very unique.  Enormously complex weaving of flavors.

General Impressions
All the dogs howled in approval at Springbank.  It's like the moon rose high in the night sky and we were going to croon to it all evening.  Wow!  Springbank 10 years is a great malt.  Not good.  Great!  A show stopper that commands your attention from the nose through the finish. Why?  Unique friend.  Very unique!

The magic of Springbank is how it can so deliciously present on the palate both peat smoke and sherry.  Very hard to do I tell you and rarely is it executed so well as here.  While the distillery employs mostly ex-bourbon casks to age this spirit, a few sherry casks are thrown in the mix.  The spirit is not surprisingly light in color, but don't worry, this is a rich, luxurious dram that displays the ying and yang of peat/smoke and a little sherry with great dexterity.  Make no mistake, this is greatness in malt form.  

Price Point
Not cheap.  A 10 year old single malt that costs nearly $100 ($98) to be exact better be good.  It is worth the high price of admission.  I have no regrets.  This is a memorable whisky that I will certainly be thinking about long after the bottle is long gone.  A classic if you will and living proof that age statements are not necessarily indicative of quality.  This 10 year old kicks butt, and beats the hell out of a lot of single malts that are 18 years.  In fact, as much as I like Springbank 15, I truly prefer the 10.

46% alc/vol
The higher than usual 40% or 43% abv doesn't necessarily mean you need to add water.  I like this neat, but some like water.  A matter of taste.  It is also non-chill filtered and no artificial colouring is added. 

Whisky Dog Rankings?
In my mind, I ranked the whiskies in order of greatness (#1 the most) as follows:

(1)  Springbbank 10
(2)  Amrut Fusion
(3)  Johnnie Walker Green
(4)  Johnnie Walker Gold Label

And the Whisky Dogs without my opinion came to the same ranking of quality.  They were quick to point out that Springbank was more complex than the Amrut.  But, they did love the Amrut too.  B-dawg member was really impressed with Amrut, and maybe I succeeded in showing him that great whisky is not geographically limited to Scotland.  He kept staring at the bottle after I unveiled it.

Another bit of wisdom I took away from the tasting was how a group of guys with varying preferences with respect to whisky nonetheless agreed as to the ranking of the whiskies.  This reinforces my belief that the discernment of great whisky and poor ones is not purely a subjective enterprise.  There are absolute truths in this world, and they apply to whisky too.

On the Look-out
I and the other whisky dogs are always on the look-out for other great malts.  We hope to report on many more shortly.  So, keep checking in from time to time!

Cheers!


Jason Debly


Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission. Photograph credits: (1) First photograph is entitled "Hurworth Houngs - going for a walk in the snow" by Amy Fair - Hurworth Photography, who holds all world copyright.  No reproduction is permitted without permission of Amy Fair - Photography.  Used here with photographer's permission.  (2) Various photographs of scotch whiskies and Amrut were taken by Jason Debly.  (3) Final photograph of German Shorthaired Pointer Dog taken by Yourdogtoday's Photostream, who holds all worldwide copyright and reproduction is permitted without obtaining this copyright holder's permission.  Note:  All images appearing in this article are for the purposes of nostalgia, education and entertainment.  Moreover, all images used are considered by the author to be significant in illustrating the subject matter, facilitating artistic/critical commentary, as it provides an immediate relevance to the reader more capably than the textual description.

35 comments:

  1. Long time creeper, first time poster here, Jason.

    I recently purchased a bottle of Johnnie Walker Gold Reserve and am saddened to read it performed so poorly. I hope my taste buds differ from yours because I too spent $79 on the bottle and would be disappointed to have it disappoint.

    Being Punjabi, I should really invest in a bottle of Amrut Fusion and see what the motherland is capable of producing.

    Anyways, I just wanted to pop my cherry so to speak and post on your blog. I really enjoy it. Keep it up.

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    1. Harj! Thanks for the comment. You must be in Ontario as that $79 price point is what LCBO is selling it for there.

      Obviously, I am quite disappointed with the "Gold Label Reserve." Really is quite mediocre. Just a smooth, honey, oat, flavor profile that doesnt go anywhere. Sweet, and remains sweet.

      Black Label is still great fortunately.

      And yes you really need to pick up a bottle of Amrut. It will make you proud!

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  2. Jason, Thanks for the notes. Am curious about how fresh (both how full and how recently opened for the first time) each bottle of the three Scotch whiskies were. I'd have imagined putting the Springbank first in your tasting sequence, as the stylistically elegant (or most moderately intense) malt. It is somewhat variable season-to-season with regard to peat, but stylistically it adheres to fairly light peat and relative palate comlexity compared to these others. JK

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    1. All bottles were opened for the first time at the tasting, except for the Amrut. The Amrut was open 6 months ago.

      Amrut was probably the most robust followed by Springbank. Based on what I tasted, I found Springbank to be more powerful/robust than Green and the Gold.

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  3. It's unfortunate that the Springbank is that much in your neck of the woods. It's about $60 US here in California, and I think it's quite good at that price point.

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    1. Yeah, very unfortunate. Ahh, I am willing to pay the price because it is that good.

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  4. We've found that putting together tasting sequences of Scotch whiskey usually must follow an initial rule. One finds that, to the benefit of all samples under consideration, the order simply must go from lowest-to-highest peat applications. Other intensities are secondary, as peat disturbs without exception the true characteristics of subsequent, lower-peated samples. I would have assumed that one should start with JW Gold, or the Springbank if a very low peat version, which exist. Then JW Green (fairly stiffly peated among these samples). Just my experience. JK

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    1. We found our Springbank was quite peaty in its unique way. Lots of smoke and peat.

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  5. Sounds like a fun and delicious evening (the disappointingly downgraded JWGL not withstanding). It's a shame about Gold. A damned shame actually. But the whisky world is perking up. New expressions are popping out all over. Amrut is a new flame. Taiwan's Kavalan and Texas' Balcones are also doing the magic of high heat rapid maturation and producing delicious whiskies that are super young. Mackmyra is cold maturing young whiskies with a delicate floral and berry acid nature. Penderyn is also doing young whiskies that with interesting flavors in offbeat places. This is obviously just a tiny sampling. Diageo and the big companies are coming out with new distilleries (Roseisle) and new expressions too. The world of malt is in huge flux. Some things are lost and others are gained.

    Anyway... wish I had been there...

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  6. Sounds like a heck of a lot of fun. Wish I could get a group like that going here! I'm glad to hear you all like the Springbank 10 yo as much as I do. My newbie sense of self confidence has taken a big step forward knowing that my favortie malt guru approves so highly of something I loved at first sip!!
    Bob from Vermont

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    1. VTBob, you should not discount your opinions just because you are a little new to the scotch appreciation/obsession the rest of us are a part of. You got good taste! Maybe you are the Rainman of scotch appreciation?

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    2. Well....I AM an "excellent driver!"

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  7. "As we reviewed the brand offering, we found that the range wasn’t meeting shareholder needs and providing the most profitable journey through the range as far as supply costs and price points,” Morgan said.

    Fix't that for him. Too bad about the new Gold.

    Springbank seems pretty pricy where you are/have been. Around $50-60 where I am, which is still a fair deal more expensive than most 10yo malts, but not seriously out of alignment. Still, it's good scotch. I've only tried it at a bar, but a pleasant roughness to it. Not a heavy, ashy peat like an Ardbeg, but enough that you feel it's presence. A really SCOTCH scotch, if that makes any sense.

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    1. Springbank 10 years is probably one of the most expensive 10 year old malts available. But, I contend that it really tastes like a much older malt, say 15 to 18yrs quality, and so in my mind, I can handle the higher price.

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  8. Sounds like a great thing to do. You guys have a good thing going and you do it well too. Keep these great posts coming.

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  9. Fun tasting, Jason! This reminds me to buy a couple JW Gold 18yo while they are still around, I also love it and think it's a crying shame that they are discontinuing it and the Green! I think that back in the day I bought my JW Gold 18yo following your endorsement, and loved every sniff & drop of it!

    I've opened a Springbank 10yo recently and - was disappointed! I found it too sherried in fact, unlike their super delicious Springbank 12yo Cask Strength. But then again, I like sherried and finished whiskies a lot less than you do: I had recently a non-sulphury Glenmorangie Lasanta and a Quinta Ruban, and found them too sweet and simple. There is just so much going on in the Springbank, with its whiffs of coconut, rum, sea salt and truffles, that I find it best exposed at cask strength and unencumbered by sherry. My 10yo was a different recent bottling though, the label was all white on black, no orange, so there may be a batch variation there. Note that it's 46%, not 45%.

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    1. Hello Florin,

      Springbank 10 seems to be a bit unpredictable in terms of the flavor profile. Some years the taste of sherry is there and pronounced while other years are dominated by peat and smoke. The bottle I have exhibits tastes of the latter.

      There is indeed a lot going on in Springbank. Very complex weaving of flavors that are difficult to articulate, but leave you totally blissed out.

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    2. Florin....

      I think we have the same bottling. The white-on-black labels are a limited release to commemorate the switch to Pacific Edge Imports from Preiss in the US by Springbank. I think they picked some great casks for this batch (12/146 - look inside the front label on the bottle for the batch #).

      I think this batch is more heavily peated and less sherried than previous batches I've had. It also tastes as if they threw in a few casks older than 10 years. Bourbon casks IMHO allow Springbank to show its true character best. I find most Springbanks to be buried under excessive (sometimes sulphured) sherry.

      I am so in love with the complexity of this batch that I got a second bottle. It's sometimes a good idea to get more than one if you find that you like a particular batch, whichever it may be - especially given the large amount of variation in Springer bottlings.

      Cheers,
      Robert

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    3. Florin,

      I forgot to add- you mentioned that you dislike sherry. Yet are you aware that all of the 12 year old cask strength Springbanks are 100% sherry matured, whereas the 10 is mostly bourbon with some sherry thrown in?

      -Robert

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  10. Fantastic tasting notes once again.

    Springbank is around £35 or thereabouts here but isn't readily available. Clynelish do rely on rainfall for their water and last year was a dry one for them. I'm thinking that Diageo are realising the value and character of Clynelish (finally), helped no doubt by the presence of Brora across the road. I'm seeing it more now in mainstream stockists, which is great, as its overlooked.

    Good to read the whisky club is going strong!

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  11. Not sure what this means, but after seeing this post of yours, I kid thee not, I had a dream where I was at a bar which was serving drams of Springbank 10 for three dollars. I recall looking up after taking a sip from a glass and everyone is looking at me laughing. It is revealed to me that it was a practical joke and the "Springbank" they were pouring into the tumblers was actually a mix between Johnnie Walker Red and...apple juice. I must have some awful whisky discernment in the dream realm.
    -Yochanan

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    1. Sounds more like a nightmare and what a terrible waste of apple juice!

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  12. Hey everybody,
    Long time listener, first time caller. I grabbed a bottle of SB10 because of this post, mind=blown (it can be had for around $44 tax inc in MN too!). I'm wondering if any of you guys have anything to say about the distillery's other varieties: Longrow, Hazelburn, also Killkerran?? These appear to be a bit more difficult to find around here and I'd love to hear about them from you guys before I start the search...

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    1. Hi Reid! Glad my recommendation on Springbank. I was having it last night and I continue to be astounded at how good and damn unique it is.

      As for Longrow, it enjoys a very good reputation also, though I have never tried it. It is also not available where I live.

      Hopefully other readers may be able to advise about the others.

      Cheers!

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  13. Jason, Our whiskey group sat in on a "mood theme" whiskey tasting event at our pub a couple weeks back. The event was arranged around offering selection of four drams from among twenty offerings, and then determining what personal mood was best satisfied with each one. I selected 'contemplative, reflective" for my portion of Springbank 10y, and "indulgent, celebratory" for Old Rip van Winkle 10y 107 Bourbon. I doubled up on each instead of choosing four. Not sure if I'm more aware of why I like these two, but it codified a little about my process of seeking them out. It was fun. JKD

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    1. I think I would like your club.

      Great theme for a meeting.

      Springbank is definitely for when one is pensive and plumbing the fathoms of the universe.

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  14. Hi Jason - I am disappointed to hear the Gold Label Reserve doesn't live up to the original Gold label. I really enjoyed my bottle of the original a few years ago but have since been bouncing around other distiller's wears.

    There are a few bottle shops near me that seem to have very low turn-over in their Scotch cabinets. I wonder if I might be able find a bottle of the original still on shelf. Seasons greetings from Sydney Australia!

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    1. I would urge you to pick up any bottle of Johnnie Walker Gold Label that has the "18" year old age statement on the label. With that statement you are assured to have the excellent 'old' Gold Label as opposed to its disappointing replacement.

      It is certainly possible that some shops still carry the older version.

      Cheers!

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  15. Jason,

    Interesting read, this. I too have to agree with you about how great the Springbank 10 is. I've tasted just about all of their current expressions except for the 21. I find that I like the Ten year old best, over both the 15 and 18. Dare I say that I even prefer it ever so slightly over Longrow 18, which costs over 3x as much and was slightly disappointing.

    Batch variation is a concern however. I've had some batches of the 10 that were not so great. Here in the US, Springbank recently celebrated having a new importer by releasing a limited edition "white label" 10 year OB. Needless to say, it is fantastic... tons of complexity and old highlands character (think Clynelish/Brora). I like this particular batch (12/146 on inside of the front label) that I picked up 2 bottles. Sorry to hear it's so costly where you are! It's $59 US here. Great price, and definitely tastier than stuff costing twice as much (Glenlivet 21 anyone?)

    -Robert

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    1. Brora . . . what a splendid giant of a single malt! Anything that has some of the complexity of that malt is indeed worth hoarding. Speaking of hoarding, I think when you hit a good batch of Sprigbank 10 you should do some serious hoarding. Forgo eating for a month to pay for it if need be!

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  16. Hey Jason, thanks for the heads up on this. Another indication that you haven't sold out yet, at least to Diageo.

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    1. Sell out? Who's buyin'?

      Nah. I do have a friend that thinks one day a company will come along and cut me a big cheque in exchange for me shutting down this blog and shutting up entirely with any negative reviews.

      Anyhow, fiercely independent here and proud of it.

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  17. Aaargh. I just opened my bottle of Gold Reserve. I had a wee dram left of my Black Label, so I decided to try them off against one another. Saddened that my very unsophisticated palette did not warm to the Gold Label. Now I see that a good number of reviewers agree. At least now I have some information to help me seek out that elusive 18.

    I also understand why both the humans and the replicant androids in "Blade Runner" prefer Black Label... Gold Reserve ain't in it.

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  18. Hi Jason! Been an avid follower of your blog! What's your take on gold reserve label and how does it compare to the old 18 yr aged statement gold reserve?

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    1. Hello

      As you can tell from my review, Gold Label Reserve is a huge disappointment. The discontinued 18yr was a blended Scotch dream. No comparison.

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