Saturday, August 15, 2009

Review: Johnnie Walker Red Label

Let me start by . . .
saying: "I like Johnnie Walker Red Label!"
The critics and snooty self-appointed scotch connosieurs are no doubt aghast at such a declaration, but I say a "pox on them and all their kind!" to borrow the dialogue of the great novel by James Clavell, "Tai-Pan."

Johnnie Walker Red Label is probably the single most famous Scotch whisky in the world. I know in a previous review of Black Label, I made a similar statement, well, now I am clarifying it. Mention Scotch and people will think Red Label or at least the name of the producer, Johnnie Walker.  Moreover, it is the best selling blended Scotch in the world.

Unfortunately, you may not be doing yourself any favors by saying you like scotch if this is the dram people identify with you. On the other hand, this may work for you if you are trying to ward off the opposite sex the morning after that wild and regretable night before. Just have a half full bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label in the end table next to your bed, reach for it in the morning, and say "I like Scotch, want some?" and you will probably be able to shake that mistake of a date from the night before. He or she will shake their head nervously, make an excuse that they gotta go to work, church, whatever (he or she is probably thinking "now where is the public health clinic?"), and with that look of disappointment on your face (that could win an academy award) you tell them to feel free to let themselves out, and you can roll over, breathe a sigh of relief, and say that prayer to God . . . you know the one: "I will never drink again."

Now why would ol' Johnnie Walker Red have such a bad reputation? I think it can be traced back to the critics, the spirits reviewers, who diss anything that is incredibly popular with the hard liquor consuming public. While your local town drunk may clutch this stuff like a teddy on the park bench at night, that doesn't mean it is bad. There's a reason it is one of the top selling blended scotches in the world.

Suggested Serving
Johnnie Walker Red Label is typically enjoyed as a key ingredient in mixed drinks and it works well in such a setting. I enjoy it neat too. Without the addition of ice or water, the scotch presents a sweet, peat and smoke tasting experience with plenty of heat on the finish, but most pleasant.

If you don't like the heat or the slight burn, then you need to add a bit of water (a 1/4 teaspoon) or ice to transform that burn or heat to a most pleasing warmth.

Heavy alcohol wafts up to the nose, mixed with some pine needles. Distillers of scotch whisky spend a tremendous amount of money trying to develop a beautiful nose. Red Label doesn't seem to have had a large research budget for the scents it offers up.

Sweet, candied like those gum balls you buy your child or niece at the local mall from those coin operated machines with the glass jar standing on stainless steel legs. Following the sweetness, it is chased by some peat and ginger that is very pleasant, but then comes some heat and burn (but with ice it is softened considerably).

Some peat and more sugar. If only the peat was stronger. The last sensation is a drying of the palate as the scotch is swallowed.

General Impressions
Toffee sweet, some peat, and a drying finish.

I was surprised that it was not as bad as I expected. I must admit, prior to sampling it, I had been swayed by all the negative comments I read on other websites about this spirit, as well as reviews by the so-called experts.

Johnnie Walker Red Label is an excellent entry level scoth for the novice who is experimenting in this wonderful world. It's a nice change from another worthy competitor: Teachers Highland Cream.

If you are totally new to buying scotch, it is worth a try as I suspect a novice will enjoy it more because of the sweet taste. You may enjoy it initially but will soon grow to appreciate others. On that basis it is worth buying. It is without a doubt a blended scotch targeting the market that uses scotch as mix in drinks and also for those scotch drinkers who are new to the spirit. It's sweetness will appeal to newcomers and the peat flavors will endear it to them also.

This blend is very popular in hot climates and I could see why. The sweet peat flavor profile with ice would be refreshing.


PS:  Here is an updated review of Johnnie Walker Red I did in 2015:

© Jason Debly, 2009-2015. All rights reserved.


  1. Hey Jason!

    I know you reviewed this some time ago, but I recently was poured some while out to eat at dinner with my girlfriend last Valentine's Day...(it was either Red label or J+B on the economy end, and I didn't feel like spending a million dollars that day...)

    When I first sipped from Red Label awhile back, I was fairly impressed, given what it was, and particularly enjoyed it with coke to my surprise (cutting scotch with soda? I assure you, Red Label is next to the only scotch I'd consider doing that to..)

    I tried it again earlier in the month, at said dinner, and found it to be okay, but pretty boring. The sweeter peat profile was intrigueing and I was enjoying myself, but I was begging to get something more out of it. I actually had never tried J+B, but your review alone kind of put a bad taste in my mouth, and I knew Johnnie Red was at least tolerable. Cheers!

  2. Scotch and coke? It's done all the time in Spain. I believe J&B is the number one selling scotch in Spain because it works so well with coke, which is the preference of the Spanish public when enjoying scotch. I am sure J&B with coke would make for an interesting, refreshing drink in a warm climate, but to drink it neat is a mistake that I don't care to repeat.

    The ol' Johnnie Walker Red sure does attract a lot of criticism and snubs from the public, but that sweet, peaty taste is amusing nonetheless, provided you only have it every once in a while. I would imagine I would tire of it mighty quick if I had it a lot.

    The trouble with J&B, well one of the major flaws is that it's so sweet. Add some mix and well it becomes a sweet mixed drink. In fact, if you go to their website you will note that the phrase "Start a Party" and the "Ultimate Party Whisky" appears everywhere on the site. No coincidence. Young people like smooth, easy going, sweet mixed drinks and J&B are targeting that demographic rather successfully. You will note the website describes J&B as "specially blended to make it ideal for mixing." Anything ideal for mixing is not ideal to enjoy neat, and J&B is no exception to that rule.

    Anyway, have a good one and thanks for taking time to post!

  3. I think these spirits get beat up too much on. I enjoy expensive drams, can taste fine flavors, but much in the way I will have a glass of wine or a bud light depending on the situation I can really enjoy a red label and soda water or a J&B and coke. I am not one to open a 18yr at a tailgate. Just everything has its place and I enjoy them both. Tho I agree with the majority, at the end if the day I would rather be in a nice chair with a real drink to taste all the way through.

    1. Hullo folks,
      I'm writing while enjoying my William Lawson 13 YO.
      I'm sorry, I just can't tolerate Red Label. Mind you, in 1967 I was its staunchest fan and could pick its bouquet from across the room. A gradual shift started in 1995. That was possibly the effect of the withdrawal of Coleburn and Royal Lochnagar single malts. Cardhu and Caol Ila seemed thinned out; its grain content became painfully obvious. They had done their job perfectly till then, but increasing young grain to 65% or thereabouts was definitely going to hurt. And hurt it did. There are dozens of NAS blends of that age group which are markedly superior. Even 100 Pipers, bottled in India, and Glensurge, bottled in France, are so much better with soda or over a couple of cubes of ice.
      Black Label has also dropped a bit, possibly for similar reasons, but is still fairly pleasant neat or with a teaspoonful of cold water, thanks to Cardhu, Clynelish, Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie, Glenkinchie, Talisker and Caol Ila.
      If I may add a word of caution: Cardhu has become the leading SM in Spain and bottles are becoming fewer by the day. Also, The Glenlivet 12 is doing NAS. Read into it what you will.

    2. I think all the no age statement blends are in transition and not necessarily for the better.

      Teacher's Highland Cream is a prime example. For years, the two core malts were Glendronach and Ardmore. Made it a unique and tasty dram that punched much above its weight. But with a change in ownership suddenly Glendronach was no longer mentioned. I hear no longer in the mashbill. The result was disappointing.

      Sometimes the change is on purpose like Black Bottle transformed by owners from an Islay heavy blend to Speyside. What a terrible result.

      Anyhow, Cheers!!!

  4. Hi Jason,

    Nice review as always, I appreciate that you stand up for the good flavors in here. Red Label is interesting because it is quite smooth and delicious... until you swallow. What you call the "drying finish" is quite unpleasant in my opinion. But, I can let that sip sit in my mouth all night and it's delicious! I just dread swallowing it because I don't want to get hit with that peppery dryness. Probably is better with ice - I may try that next time.


  5. Ryan, add the ice and you will enjoy it more!

  6. Good afternoon;

    Love you reviews and use them to gauge my next purchase.

    With respects to JW Black...I love it as an everyday whisky. When an ice cube is added (for my palette anyway) I taste a 'bolt' of cherry that cuts through the smoke/grain. Does anyone else get that cherry flavour?


  7. John, I decided to pour a dram of Johnnie Walker Black and add an ice cube. I think I do taste "cherry" and smoke, so how about cherry pipe tobacco?

    I enjoy most blended and single malt scotch neat, but when it comes to JW Black, I like it also with ice.


  8. John, I strongly urge you to give JW Black a go without ice. There is so much more to this scotch that is lost when chilled by ice.

    Just take a tiny sip, like a 1/4 of a teaspoon. Loads of cinammon, smoke and caramel. A staple in any liquor cabinet.

  9. Jason have you considered tracking an old Red down if you need a young walker from time to time. there pretty cheap. maybe a small one. i can tell you my self if you ant seen Ralfy red review that the nose is beautiful sherry. it's very good. it the same thing. upfront, intense youth, fruity, peaty dry at end and has that masculine scotch smell. Just quality is better and the sherry is good.

    10y ago this stuff was lethal poison bad. oh it ok now.

  10. I do recall that 10yrs this was terrible, but has gotten better in the last 4yrs. I have read that in the mid-1970's Johnnie Red could be quite good. I just may have to pick up an older bottle. Thanks for the suggestion!

  11. Hi Jason, between Red Label and The Famous Grouse, which one would you pick for sipping neat or perhaps with one cube?

    1. Famous Grouse is gentler and more grainy. Many people prefer it over Johnnie Walker Red.

      Me? I would take Red Label over Famous Grouse.

      Another economy blend that knocks the socks off both is Teacher's Highland Cream. I would strongly urge you to give it a go.


  12. Guys...
    forgive me please... but I tried the Red (Chrissy present). tipped down the sink. Tried it with coke... down the sink ! Gave it away. Just me I suppose. Couldn't stomach it.
    Allan (from OZ).

  13. I am really coming around on JW Red. No other entry blend is as complex. It has sweetness, peat, and a spicy character that only JW Red possesses. When I first tasted it, I thought it was awful, but I have come around on the musky, sugary and oddly peppery stuff.

    Far more interesting than it's peers.


    1. As I mentioned in another reply to a comment, I suspect that Johnnie Red is a lot better today than it was in the past.

      I have been thinking about picking up a bottle to review once more. I really like that peat and pepper you mention.

      Great to hear from you!

    2. Nope it is entry level and thus best avoided

  14. Personally I can't appreciate the present Red Label at all. Apart from the possibility of an (instant) headache, not related to the amount consumed, the burn really does it for me.

    There is a reason the words for hot (sahara) and hot (chili) are the same, and being brought up with Asian cuisine, I can tell you that a sufficient amount of either will easily have you mistake one for the other. This is what happens with a neat Talisker, ever so slightly rushed: it's pepperiness might sting a bit more than it should. In my experience though it is the other way around with Red Label. You might value the burn as a peppery taste, but it really is just a burn. Next to a not-the-slightest-bit-rushed Talisker, the difference becomes obvious, the Talisker's overall higher complexity aside.

    That said, it probably also just isn't my taste. I do in fact not like Talisker either, at least not as much as others do, not for that price. I'm no big fan of the pepperiness and I find it -I was gonna say too watery, but that's not what I mean- too thin. I'd rather have a Coal Ila or a Bowmore.

    Back on topic: I guess I could forgive Red Label it's flaw(s) considering the purpose/market it is intended for. However, the fact is, here in Holland it is not at the bottom shelves, and if it is at the top of the bottom shelve. Vat 69 is on average a good 30% cheaper, and there are enough other, equally enjoyable bottom shelvers available at the same mark.

    I remember the older style labeling of Red Label from Ralfy's 50's bottle and I guess up to the 70's-early 90's that's also when Red Label build up most of its credits with many Asian communities. They way I see it, Red Label is still selling on that name. Maybe in Asia the drop in quality is also less noticeable since common soda water still does wonders to the drink's drinkability.

  15. I interested when you write "Sweet, candied like those gum balls you buy your child" that really sweet?? I mean, if that's really sweet like a sugar then i am gonna try to taste it

    1. I poured some a few weeks ago and i still remember the sweetness. It really makes its presence felt... And as reviewed, the heat. Thats something to remember too.

  16. In my opinion.. just forget Johnnie Walker ordinary like red, black, double black, green was nice, platinum is great, blue is over rated and thus too pricey, cask edition I have not tasted... but try the really limited editions.. they are really something to try in this life time

  17. Hi Jason have come across your website having discovered Devil's Cut in a Polish supermarket and wanted to know what it was all about. I really enjoy your site and you have credibility with me for your endorsement of Johnnie Walker Red. You obviously enjoy good whisky and are not some pretentious snob. My mother, of scots ancestry from Northumberland UK drank Johnnie Walker Red and she knew her alcohol bless her.

  18. I have to agree: JW Red is a good drink. I have never associated it with homeless drunks. I grew up in the 60s and the very name, Johnnie Walker, even on Red Label, was viewed as pretty sophisticated back then ( I only recall there being Red and Black Labels in those days). Yes, I do find Black Label significantly better, but I have absolutely no problem ordering Red at a bar or enjoying it before a casual meal at home.