Saturday, August 15, 2009

Johnnie Walker Black Label - 12 yr old Blended Scotch Whisky

Johnnie Walker is, without a doubt, the most famous spirits brand in the world.  When people think "scotch" they invariably say "Johnnie Walker."  This is understandable in light of the fact that Johnnie Walker Red Label is the most widely available blended scotch whisky in the world.  It is virtually available in every country with the exception of North Korea and Saudi Arabia.  Well, actually it is reported the Saudi royal family are quite fond of it, but more about that later.

Now the question emerges . . . if it is so readily available, how good is it? Recently, critics had been whining about Johnnie Walker products as being not great or boring. You have to take such comments in perspective. This whining is similar to the complaints in the wine world with respect to Robert Mondavi wines. 

For the past 5-10yrs the wine critics have been beating up on Mondavi wines, but guess what? Mondavi also has monster market share and still produces a great value for money. I think there is a little bit of envy or resentment that a good product is readily available everywhere, and I think critics delight in finding some obscure winery operating in the foothills of Chile with an output of a 1,000 cases and declaring to the world that it is the best in its class. In such an environment it has been "fashionable" for critics to knock Mondavi wines and similarly scotch critics to bash the Johnnie Walker product line.  

The Johnnie Walker brand is produced by Diageo, a multinational company that produces a number of blended scotch whiskies (and at the same time owns a great stable of single malt distilleries).  Anyhow, blenders have closely guarded recipes and naturally the more expensive the single malts and grain whisky used, the higher the price. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Johnnie Walker Red Label, a blend with no age specified with respect to the component scotches used is the least expensive and the least interesting, but still easy going on the palate. The next step up is the Black Label. It is a big step up from the Red Label. This is due in part to a different recipe blend and the component whiskies. 40 different malt and grain whiskies of at least 12 yrs are used. The core of this spirit is the single malt: Talisker.

Black Label has been around a long time. It was first marketed by the son of Johnnie Walker. The son, Alexander Walker started selling it around 1865 under the label "Walkers Old Highland" until 1906 when it changed to "Extra Special Old Highland". That branding remained until 1909 when the "Black Label" title was introduced and has remained ever since.

Suggested Serving
This is a blended scotch that can be drank neat. It is not "rough" or "burning" like some poor quality scotch. 

Tasted neat, it will present the full flavors detailed below. However, if this is your first venture into the scotch world, try a single large ice cube and pour just enough such that 50% of the cube is covered. Let it sit a couple minutes and the melting ice will smooth any remaining edges or gentle bite that you do not enjoy or are unaccustomed to. Lately, I prefer a shot with a teaspoon of water. Just perfectly takes away a slight graininess that is evident when consumed neat. The addition of water makes it more complex! Try it.

If you have added an ice cube to this blended scotch, it will dull the aromas that it would normally offer up had it been poured neat. If ice has been added, it is hard to pick up any scent other than some faint peat notes. Poured neat is another story. Neat: A beautiful nose of vanilla, followed by gentle peat, sea salt air (as if I was standing at a cliff, facing the coast of the Atlantic ocean with its salty waters crashing upon the rocks below), and then finally floral in nature with a hint of fresh orange rinds.

The taste experience commences with smooth, sweet cinnamon, caramel, toasted almonds, brown sugar, malt (think Cheerios breakfast cereal), some spiciness, but not to the point of pepper, which evaporates quickly into clouds of subtle peat and smoke.

Very restrained peat with a flourish of smoke and grains of sea salt round out this scotch tasting experience. The flavor does not linger long though if you have added ice. Where no ice is added, you will enjoy some lingering sea salt, restrained black licorice, peat and smoke enveloping the palate in a silky, luxuriant finish. No burn and only the slightest of heat (in a good way) upon swallowing, as this is very, very smooth!

General Impressions
Johnnie Walker Black provides a very enjoyable scotch drinking experience. The flavor profile is sweet, but balanced by the peat and smoke, such that the sweetness does not dominate, as it does in other blends (ie. Ballantines Finest). Therefore, it is fair to say that this scotch is perfectly balanced. Nothing is out of place. 

It has been said by commentators and repeated on the Johnnie Walker web site that the Black Label is a standard that all other blends are measured against. And this is true to some degree in an informal sense. At least this is the view of serious scotch drinkers. The chief reason why is because it is (as I mentioned previously) virtually available everywhere and very good. So, when drinking other blends it is natural to consider whether or not they measure up to Black Label. Moreover, consider the comments of the scotch authority, Jim Murray:

"Each day I have some 6,000 whiskies to choose from for a social dram if I want one. And at least once a week I will sample a Black Label. While the single malt revolution continues unabated, it is a shame that whisky lovers do not use this as a yardstick. They will find that very few malts can match this for complexity. This is the Savoy, the Everest of Deluxe Whiskies: there is not a blender who would not give their right arm - or even their left one - for the recipe of this supreme whisky. The trouble is, even if they had it, they would then struggle to find the stock. It represents the best value for money of any whisky in the world."

Well worth the money. A deluxe blend that should be a part of any persons scotch collection. Smooth enough to be enjoyed by the novice, yet sophisticated enough not to offend the connoisseur! Indeed there are a few 12 yr old single malts that are not as good. While the price point is a little higher than most 12 year old blends, it is worth it. I am also impressed by the quality control. The consistency of flavor from batch to batch is probably the best in the industry. I highly recommend this as a suitable gift for the person you know enjoys whisky but unsure which one. Finally, the author, William Manchester, in his biography of Winston Churchill reports that this was the old man's favorite, but the ringing endorsement I always get a kick out of was from Christopher Hitchens:

"The best blended Scotch in the history of the world - which was also the favourite drink of the Iraqi Baath Party, as it still is of the Palestinian Authority and the Libyan dictatorship and large branches of the Saudi Arabian royal family - is Johnnie Walker Black. Breakfast of champions, accept no substitute." 


Jason Debly

© Jason Debly, 2009-2014. All rights reserved except for photograph of Johnnie Walker Black Label appearing at the top of this post.  The photograph was taken by James Calvey and it is used here with his permission.  No reproduction of his photograph is permitted without his consent.  Mr. Calvey is the holder of all copyright to said photo.  Check out more of his great work at his Flickr account.


  1. Jim Murray has some 6000 drams to choose from "if he wants one"?

    There are less than 4000 in his bible. What are the other 2000 secrets?

    Thirsty with curiosity,

    1. Oh dear. At The Rum Project we don't review everything we have, nor do we publish every review we have done. Let the man rest in peace, won't you?

  2. Excellent point! It was a direct quote from Murray. Sounds like he was guilty of a bit of exaggeration.

  3. 4000 is the amount of whisky that he managed to once again rate for the bible - it is said that he usually only sniffs and does not actually drink it.

  4. Hey Jason!
    So finally I have room (means I finished an old bottle) in my cabinet for a blend and I picked up this one (JW Black). In my area, MA, this is actually less expensive than most single malt 12 yr olds. I paid US $32 for a 750 ml bottle. I usually pay about $46 - $52 for the single malts I've bought. (OK I know I should splurge up to the next level $70-100 maybe), but I can't just do it yet.
    Anyhow - this (JW Black) is a fantastic quality scotch (just as you said)! It has got a lot of things going for it and happening in the complexity area and not one of them is sour, sharp or grainy - it is has a nice rounded scent and flavor.
    Thanks for the recommendation - this is a really a sipping blend!

  5. Ripley, glad to hear you like the Black Label. It is really nice with a little ice too. Just a classic blended scotch whisky that I never tire of.

  6. Still an excellent Scotch. I'd like to taste it against a much older bottle from the 60's or 70's. I seem to be noticing more Sherry notes than I used to. Either I am much more sensitive (possible, I really don't care for highly sherried drams or many of the "finishes" that are common now) or whether there has really been a change in the blend profile as I believe to be the case. Be very interesting to test it against its older self. Things do change in the world of whisky. I can remember when Red Label was actually drinkable neat.

  7. Hi! Howard,

    I think you are correct in your opinion that the flavor profile has changed over the years. I have noticed that years ago, it seemed to have more Talisker in it, or at least that particular flavor profile was more pronounced. Lately, it has been more sherried and soft. It seems the smoke and peat have been toned down a bit.

    It is possible to obtain bottles of johnnie black from years ago, but there is a price. Check out The Whisky Exchange (link at bottom of this page), they carry older bottles.

    Nevertheless, it is still a fantastic scotch.


  8. Jason,
    I love your site. I am a bourbon drinker getting into the world of Scotch, and really appreciate your candid reviews.

    As I'm trying to explore Scotch without breaking the bank, I started out with Famous Grouse, and per your advice got a bottle of Teacher's next (although, I had to drive to Delaware since Pennsylvania doesn't carry it!). While in Delaware I picked up JW Black for only $26 (!), and opened that up after acclimating my taste buds to Scotch. Wow! It's so smooth. My drink was gone much faster than usual, as I didn't have any of that burn to regulate my sips.

    Along the lines of the comments above, I think it is almost - but not quite - too sweet, but at $26 I will definitely buy again. It's a big step up from Grouse and Teacher's, although those two are certainly drinkable.


  9. Hello Ryan!

    A bourbon drinker moving to scotch! Great, enjoy the adventure. In the meantime, Johnnie Walker Black at $26 a bottle is an absolute steal! Have a few black label, and you will be smitten with scotch like never before.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.


  10. Hello Jason,

    Congratulations on your web-site. I have been visiting it for a while and I really enjoy your comments. I completely agree on the JW Black Label. I have started reviewing whiskys a couple of months ago and I have now tasted around 20 between Single Malts, blends and bourbons. So far , my highest notes are for JW Black. This is what I found:

    Nose: Smoke, The Sea (Must be Islay Malt) Some light Oak, A bit of Sherry and Sweet Fruit like Raisins or Ripe Oranges, Vanilla. Very Nice balance between Smoke and Ripe Fruit/Sherry. It’s like mixing the Bowmore Enigma and the Dalmore 12 Years. I Will try that one Day.

    Taste: Smooth,Warm, Smoke, Sweet Grain, Spicy, Quite Mouth-Filling in the beginning ,Oak, Vanilla

    Finish: Short, Oak, Dry, Somewhat Salty

    Conclusion: A complex and extremely well-balanced blend. Great to drink neat. But it’s also perfectly suited to drink “On the Rocks” and in cocktails and long drinks.

    That's it I guess!

    Keep Up the Good Work

    Saude! (Portuguese for Cheers)


  11. Hello Jan,

    Sao Paulo, what a great city. I was there once a long time ago. Would love to visit it again.

    Great tasting note on Johnnie Walker Black! Glad you like the blog.

  12. Hi Jason,

    recently revisited the 'ol Black label after nearly two years! Too long, I know. Reviewed it on my new blog for giggles and all that. Happy to see it hasn't really been cheapened and is more or less a similar product as it's been for a while. Have you noticed any real difference in bottlings lately?

    1. Black Label is consistently good. Matter of fact, I would say it is the most consistent blend on the market.

      A few years ago I had a bottle that was a bit rough and biting. But since then it has been quite good. I still love it.

      By the way, what is the address of your blog. I must check it out and have a link to it on my blog. Please advise!

    2. Ok dumb question. I just clicked on your name and it linked to your site. I will put a link at the bottom of my blog page.

  13. Had to mention.... To the guys I work with... I'm a single malt and non mixed drink snob.and cop a fair bit of ribbing over it. Now I honestly cannot stand the 'Red', so I tarred all JW's with the same brush. I've recently been giving one of the boys some samples of singles as I bought them. He very much enjoyed and reciprocated with his last bit of Black. I thought ok ... a quick sip then tip it down the sink at home...Big surprise ! This is now a staple in my cupboard. It usually hovers around the $40-$50 here in Aus. which suits me fine. It also saddens me as from what you wrote... The Green Label has now gone to heaven. I assume it was quite worthy Jason. My prejudice prevented me from buying a bottle last year . Might keep an eye out... You never know....
    AL (from OZ)

    1. Al, glad to read that you have discovered the magic of Johnnie Walker Black. As for Green Label, you may be able to find a few bottles still kicking around in Tokyo, South Korea, Singapore and surrounding regions.

      Green Label was a blend of only single malts making it a 'pure malt.' A delectable dram it was. Who knows, search for it and you may find it.

  14. Hhhhmmm.... a bit too far to travel I'm afraid... aahh well. Might see one on a dusty shelf somewhere.

  15. Well, again Jason you are right on with your assessment of JW Black. I'd had it years before and liked it but moved on to single malts. Now years later after revisiting blended scotches and picking up a bottle of the Black Label I can really taste the extra deep complexity of this very fine blended scotch. A best buy in my area. I paid 28.99 this evening, marked down 10 bucks for the holidays.

  16. Oh...btw, Johnny Walker and I are listening to Milt Jackson's "Bags Opus" on it's original stereo vinyl release. Lovely.

  17. love your blog, Jason...
    this is also a correct assesment of the legendary Black Label. Keep up the good work!

  18. Hi Jason! Your reviews are great. I don't understand why Brands like Johnnie Walker sells Black label with 40% ABV on duty free in India and all over the world but we get only 43% abv version in the market in India. Would be great if you could review the 43% version as well.

  19. I'm very new to scotch and have recently found my first love. I'm only 25, and wrote off scotch soon after exploring liquor stores when becoming of age. I had a short fling with Cutty Sark(broke college student) and actually enjoyed it before drifting towards bourbon. Being currently stationed in Okinawa, Japan, Suntory single malt whiskey got me out of my unsatisfying comfort zone. I picked up a nip of Black Label last weekend, threw some water in the glass and was floored after giving it a whiff! I was unfamiliar with the JW ranking system, and it was more of an impulse buy. After a few sips, I honestly regretted adding water. I grabbed a bottle yesterday and let the dram sit for about ten minutes before taking the first sip. So smooth and perfectly balanced! Sweet, spicy, smoky and just enough peat to rock your socks off. I immediately started researching and found your awesome site. I'm already 30 reviews deep after one day on here. I'm hooked! Keep up the great work.


    1. Hi Dave!

      I am delighted to read that you have rediscovered whiskies. Nothing wrong with Cutty Sark for a student on a budget. Welcome to the world of whisky! Enjoy the journey!

  20. Talked me in to buying a bottle.....Just getting in to the whiskeys, bought a botle of Suntory Chita that changed my world, now hunting for something that compares to it, looking forward to your review should you find a bottle :-]

  21. My first... definitely a great value and yardstick. A shame I can't seem to find many single malts that offer the same or a similar profile!