Monday, April 30, 2012

Review: Johnnie Walker Double Black

Purchasing an unfamiliar brand or a new release scotch whisky from even a familiar brand is much like gambling.

Think about it.  You weigh your bet by reading the lyrical tasting notes on the whisky container or back of the bottle that are invariably attributed to the master blender.   They read like the bad poetry of a lovesick high school nitwit.  Such puffery is about as reliable as the declarations of luv of the aforementioned high school Shakespearean.

Like the scotch nut that you are, consulting other sources is a compulsion.  A must.  Hell! A categorical imperative!  So, you scour the internet for 'tasting notes,' 'reviews' . . . oh hell anything that might give you an insight or reveal a 'tell' as to what the scotch really tastes like.  You even check out a purported 'bible' of scotch reviews.  The tome reads well and seems informative, until you decide to test its reliability by flipping to some bad whisky, only to behold yet another glowing review.

But . . . in the end, doesn't it sometimes just come down to the attractive shape, heft, appearance of the bottle, packaging, and maybe the reputation of the distillery or brand?  So, you just push 'all-in' pre-flop by paying the price and going home, pouring a dram to see if you 'hit' on the flop.

At least that was how it was for me when I first learned that Diageo (the company which owns the iconic Johnnie Walker brand) announced the test launch of a new extension to the Johnnie Walker brand: Johnnie Walker Double Black.  I read everything I could and most of it was the same press release from Diageo, but reworded by the spirits press and whisky websites.

Initially, the 2010 release of Double Black was limited to just six exotic duty free stores of certain international airports around the world: Dubai, Beirut, JFK, Bangkok, Singapore, and Sydney.  Needless to say, I do not go in and out of those airports, so I knew I had to wait.  If sales were good, Diageo would expand distribution to broader markets.  So, two years later, I was able to procure a bottle once it became more widely available in North America.

So, what's it taste like.  Did I go bust by buying this or double up?  Let's see:

Nose (undiluted)
Sophisticated but subtle.  Kinda like Miles Davis using the mute on his trumpet early in his recording career.  Sweet.  Seaweed, iodine and fishing nets drying in the afternoon sun.  Pinewood fires.

Palate (undiluted)
 Smooth Lapsang souchong tea, sweet Ceylon black teas, pine needles and a smoking camp-fire at dusk.

Finish (undiluted)
Unmistakable Islay finish of wood smoke, Atlantic ocean salt, gingery green seaweed, and a subtle sherry warmth spreading across the chest.  A feeling of heat and safety envelopes you.  Great length of flavors on the finish.

Is Double Black Similar to Black Label 12 yrs?
The packaging describes this spirit as "a blended whisky created in the style of Johnnie Walker Black Label but with a rich, more intense, smokier flavour."  Reading that sentence, one would surmise that if they are a Black Label fan, then they will certainly enjoy Double Black.

I am not so sure.

I agree that Double Black is smokier than the standard Black Label.  Moreover, there is a house style common to all Johnnie Walker products and Double Black is no exception.  The similarity is in the languid, rich mouth feel.  The grain whiskies behave well.  Double Black is smooth, no burning or raw alcohol.  But, that is about it for similarities with the standard Black Label.

The reason I am unconvinced that Black Label fans may be enamoured with Double Black stems from the fact that Double Black entirely lacks the spicy caramel, cinnamon, and malty brown sugar that is much of the backbone of this classic blend.  The 12 year old Johnnie Walker Black Label at the mid-palate point, becomes smokier with Talisker.  It wonderfully compliments the caramel, brown sugar and citrus/malt notes.

By contrast, Double Black is just peaty and smoky.

Yes, there is some black tea action going on, coupled with seaweed and maybe a bit pine needles.  But, the smoke and peat dominates those flavors.  As a result, Double Black's smoke and peat has no interplay or call and response with other flavor notes like you experience in the standard bottling where burnt cinnamon toast and caramel have a tug of war with the smoke and peat of Talisker and other Islays.

Accordingly, the standard Black Label is . . . dare I say . . . better?  Yeah, I'll say it.  I like the Black Label better than Double Black.  This is not to say that the Double Black is a poor blended scotch.  Quite the contrary.  Double Black is a luxuriant, smooth blend, but with a heavy emphasis on the Islay region to the exclusion of all other flavors.

Where Black Label seemed to be firmly in Speyside with some smoke from Islay, Double Black packed up its bags and moved out of Speyside and set up a tent in Islay.

Remember the Pepsi Challenge?
Let me put it another way.  Are you familiar with Highland Park 12 If so, compare it to Highland Park 18. In many ways, Highland Park 18 is the 12 on steroids.  Everything in the little brother 12 is found in the 18, but punched up a couple of notches, mind you in the most elegant and brilliant of ways.  The 18 stands on the shoulders of the 12.  You can trace the genealogy of the 18 easily back to the 12 in the tasting.

The same sibling rivalry cannot be said of Johnnie Walker Black 12 yrs and Double Black when they go head to head in a Pepsi challenge or G-d forbid: a whisky death matchThey are not brothers or even distant cousins.
Johnnie Walker Scotch Whisky Global Brand Director, David Gates has been quoted as saying Diageo wants the consumer to perceive Black Label and Double Black as 'brothers.'

"We want consumers to recognize that they are brothers."

 That may be the intent, but this is one rare instance where Diageo has failed in its execution.  Black Label and Double Black have little in common other than being brands owned by the same company.  The former is caramel, citrus, toffee and spices, with some smoke, while the latter has none of the aforementioned flavors (except for smoke), and instead is dominated by the tastes of peat, smoke, black teas and a wee sherry/malt on the finish.  (Note:  Apparently Double Black does not use any sherry casks in the blend, but I am tasting something akin to sherry on the finish anyway.)

I suspect that Diageo positioned Double Black as a 'brother' to Black Label in order to capitalize on the well deserved reputation of the latter.  Do not be fooled by this marketing slight of hand.  Double Black and Black Label are very different scotch whiskies.  Both are good, but different!

Another reason Diageo may have tried to link these two expressions as brothers is due to the strong brand loyalty of blended scotch drinkers.  Consumers who regularly consume blended scotch tend to be loyal to their 'brand' and are less likely to experiment with single malts and other brands.  Such blended scotch drinkers very much identify with a particular brand all their life.  If Diageo can convince some of their blended scotch customers to pay more without an age statement, it could be very lucrative, as has been the case with Blue Label.

Price Point Analysis
Johnnie Walker Double Black is substantially more expensive when compared to Johnnie Walker Black Label.  In Canada, specifically Ontario, Double Black is $69.  A price point that is inhabited by more than a few good Islay single malts.  Bowmore 12 is $10 cheaper.  Talisker 10 is about $6 more.  Go to the United States and you can pick up Black Bottle for 1/3 of the price of Double Black.  Bottom line:  Double Black is very expensive.  Not a value for money play by any means.

So, why the high price?
The high price functions to assure the consumer that he or she is drinking a whisky that takes no chances in offending you.  No bite, raw alcohol or bitterness when you pay full retail on this whisky.  This is exactly what the brand loyal blended scotch whisky consumer expects and is prepared to pay a premium for.  Diageo know their market, and have targeted their blended scotch consumer very well.  They are unconcerned with the opinions of scotch aficionados (like me) because they are not targeting that segment of the marketplace.  One must remember that over 85% of all single malts produced are for blended scotch consumption.  That's the largest segment of the market and where the money is.

A Gift?
If you are reading this post because you are considering purchasing this as a gift (and unconcerned with value for money matters), you will be on pretty safe ground.  Double Black delivers smooth waves of peat and smoke over black tea flavors.  Totally inoffensive and quite pleasant.  No sharp or bitter flavors.

Here's the one significant weakness of this blended scotch.  Given the expensive price, serious scotch whisky consumers will expect to be 'wowed' a little.  Complex flavors that dance on the palate.  Not here.

The first sip is probably the best.  It exhibits some intricacy.  A wee little spice and nuance.  But, the whisky does not stand up to repeated sips.  It becomes too rounded, sweet and gentle to make you sit up and admire any complexity.  There should be more here for the price.

And the winner is . . .

Not me.  (Not that Diageo care because I am not the loyal blended scotch drinker segment of the market they target with Double Black.)

I paid too much for what I got.  I keep thinking that this tastes a lot like Black Bottle.  While Double Black is somewhat better at about three times the price, it's not that much better.

I like it.  I enjoy it, but just not at that price.  I don't mind paying a lot for scotch whisky, but it better be good.

Double Black is the kind of scotch whisky that I will buy only on sale (at a steep discount) at Duty Free or on sale if I am in the greatest whisky land in the world: New Hampshire (due to their low taxes).  So, I guess I hit the flop, but didn't make much of a hand!


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Review: Sailor Jerry Spiced Navy Rum 92 Proof

"Number three gun crew an extra tot of rum!" roared Dirk Struan, Scottish merchant captain of his British Clipper, China Cloud, in the emerald green, wind-swept waters off Hong Kong, as the sailors and their captain prepared for battle with circling pirate ships.  (An historically accurate bit of dialogue taken from the well-researched novel  Tai-Pan by James Clavell.  Captains of ships in the 18th and 19th centuries sometimes chose to give their men an extra 'tot' of rum just prior to battle).  

When I first read the novel, Tai-Pan, many years ago, I couldn't imagine drinking rum straight and hardly thought of it as a reward for the gruelling work of sailors.  But, evidently rum was very much a reward and actually a daily ration or 'tot' as it was called.

The British Navy, as far back as 1655 gave a daily ration of one pint of rum.  Around 1740 it would be reduced to half a pint and sometimes mixed with boiling water and limes and called 'grog' in an effort to manage the drunkenness of sailors.  And guess what?  The British Navy did not stop the practice of the daily rum ration until 1970!

It should be noted that the rum drank in the 17th and 18th century by British Navy sailors was brutal stuff.    Wikipedia cites a document dated 1651 from Barbados which describes rum of that time as "the chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Divil, and this is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor."  You know it's gonna be harsh when a spirit has a nickname that references the supernatural source of all evil like "Kill-Divil" or "Kill-Devil."

Anyway, where was I?  Oh yeah, drinking rum straight was not something I imagined I would ever enjoy.  But, last summer a neighbour of mine, back from Cuba, had a bottle of Havana Club 7 year old rum that he encouraged I and a few others to sip.  I reluctantly did, and it was good!

About a year later, I found myself at a friend's place playing cards.  Everyone had a drink in hand except for me, not that I was susceptible to peer pressure.  In any event, Victor had beer, Jameson Irish Whiskey (no-age-statement) and Sailor Jerry.  I was not in the mood for beer, certainly not Jameson, so that left the Sailor Jerry.  What the hell I thought.  Let's give it a go.

"You want coke or ginger ale with that?" Victor asked.

"I'm ok, I'll just sip it straight," hoping for the success of Havana Club.

And guess what?  It's good too!

Nose (undiluted)
Huge vanilla notes, oak, molasses, leather scent of an old baseball mitt, and egg nog.

Palate (undiluted)
The big vanilla of the nose, comes through mightily on the palate, chased by oak, brown sugar, chewy cedar, and maple sugar.

Finish (undiluted)
Nice long lasting flavors of spiced caramel drying on the palate leaving balsa wood.  The spiciness on the finish is reminiscent of a good measure of nutmeg you taste in egg nog.  The finish is rewarding and amazingly not hot or biting in spite of this rum being 92 proof!

Great price point on this rum.  It is not expensive.  Maybe a couple more dollars than the usual Captain Morgan and the like, but unlike the latter, you will enjoy a smooth rum that is enjoyable neat.  You cannot say that for a lot of rum.  One of my favorites is Mount Gay Eclipse rum, but neat, is another story.  It tastes far too sweet.

What makes scotch whisky special is its complexity of flavors.  There is so much going on in the taste experience that I often liken it to a finely woven tapestry or Persian carpet.

Sailor Jerry is not that.

Sailor Jerry is a very pleasant, chill-out, hang with your friends or stare at the beach and the bikinis littered on it and think of nothing else kind of a beverage.  Very hedonistic with little or no cerebral activity going on.  Activity that I am uniquely qualified to windily pontificate about.

So, complex, it is not.  Given the price point, you are presented with a nice, self-indulgent rum experience, that hints at the greatness awaiting for those daring among you, who will spend more to enjoy truly great rum which should never be mixed with anything, much like good scotch.

Rum and Coke Anyone?
Sailor Jerry, coke, ice and a slice of lime makes for a very nice mixed drink too.  This rum is distinct from others because of the towering taste of spiced vanilla seasoning and the absence of any bite, in spite of the higher than normal ABV.  If you like clipper ship size vanilla flavor in your rum, then you will truly enjoy Sailor Jerry.  The lime is a must too!

Next time you buy rum, try this both as mix or neat/on the rocks as a pleasant diversion from scotch whisky.

And that's it for now.  A whisky blog that sternly refuses to take a bow!


Jason Debly

P.S.  Next week I will be back to more scotch whisky reviews.

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission.  Note:  Photograph of cards is by Flickr member: Robadob.  His photograph is used here with his permission, but he still retains all copyright.  Accordingly, you may not reproduce it without his permission.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Frozen Mojito Recipe!

While on vacation last week, most days kinda went like this:  (a) assume crash position on chaise-lounge; (b) appraise the natural beauty of the beach from behind super dark sunglasses; (c) work on tan; (d) read cheesy, 1970's, long forgotten, best selling novel; (e) sip excellent mixed drink: the frozen Mojito!

You see, in this pensive/soldier of the mind state, I had an insight that was not readily apparent back home in that hurried/harried urban lifestyle. I learned that scotch consumed neat in tropical climes is not very refreshing and is not optimal for enjoying the nuances of that fine spirit.  Accordingly, when in Rome . . . well you know the saying, so when in the tropics, do what the people of the tropics do. Drink refreshing cocktails!

Now, I am a democratic guy.  So, in keeping with the world's best political system, I applied that view to cocktails.  I worked my way through Margaritas, Pina Coladas, Tom Collins and many other constituents of my vacation resort's bar.  But, the one candidate that garnered the most votes was the Mojito, but no ordinary Mojito, I particularly enjoyed the frozen version.  Naturally, upon making this discovery I thought of you and so arranged for a few photo ops and an intensive interview of my Mexican bartender  to learn the recipe.

1 1/2 oz White rum;
10 leaves of fresh mint;
16 ice cubes or about one tray;
One can of frozen limeade from concentrate (you can substitute with one can of frozen lemonade);
Teaspoon of sugar (adjust to taste if you like it sweeter);

(1)  Toss all ingredients in a blender;
(2)  Blend on high until smooth;
(3)  Pour into glass, garnish with lime (as illustrated above)

A thing of beauty!

The traditional mojito is not to my liking.  But, make it frozen, blend those mint leaves to smithereens in a blender full of ice and frozen limeade/lemonade and you impart the delicate taste of mint through out the drink and yeah!  The earth did move!  Just for you!  That's all you need for proof that there is a G-d!


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission.

P.S.:  WTF!  I've got more chins than a Hong Kong telephone book!  And those cheeks!  I look like a character that belongs in an Alvin and the Chipmunks movie.  I gotta drop some weight.  Funny how in our mind's eye we are 22yrs old forever.  I guess there is some truth in that old L.A. adage:  You can never be too rich or too thin!