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Why Johnnie Walker Scotch Whisky Doesn’t Deserve Its Bad Rap

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This is Straight Up, a column by whiskey expert and author Heather Greene. Today, Greene explains the ins and outs of Johnnie Walker.

"Johnnie Walker Blue is for douches!" barks a thirtysomething tech startup whisky drinker during one of my seminars. "Right?" He stares at me for a beat and a blink. He's eager that I confirm his outburst, agreeing that Johnnie Walker Blue is a whisky for hedge-fund jackasses who don't know enough about Scotch to order something better. I surprise the room with this complete sentence: "No." Over the next-half hour we get to the heart of what the Johnnie Walker range actually offers. Are they all blends? Yes. Made with barley? Yes and no. Is it really that good? Depends on your palate. What's the difference between the colors? Let's get into that. And so on.

The symbolic act of serving a high-cost liquid means something.

Almost 90 percent of the seminars I conduct land on the topic of Johnnie Walker and stay there. (It's the world's most-distributed brand of whiskey, with its parent company claiming that six bottles of Johnnie Walker are sold throughout the world every second.) I serve it whenever I can, hoping to knock out the new whisky fan's bad habit of dismissing big-brand powerhouses like Johnnie Walker without enough data to make an informed opinion. I leave the possibility open that even a "douche" might have a perfectly educated palate and know exactly what he wants to drink and why.

I like Johnnie Walker Scotch Whisky — especially the Black and the Blue. But my connection to the brand moves beyond mere aromatic and taste discernment and into a grander experience: I'm probably pre-gaming in terminal C at Newark Airport with a friend when I order Black, and the Blue is one I'm drinking because someone kindly bought me the expensive dram to enjoy. Both the Blue buyer and I know that this symbolic act of serving me a high-cost liquid means something. "Research shows that it's hard to separate out the different sensory experiences going on around us when we're engaged with a product. When we evaluate things, we evaluate them holistically," says Andrew Gershoff, associate professor of marketing at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas. "It's in part because of how you perceive the context — people buy things for an experience and to be a part of something, knowing that other people are experiencing it in the same way. And that's kind of pleasant, don't you agree?"

I do. I'll take another.

Photo: Diageo

What Is Johnnie Walker?

The Johnnie Walker range falls under the category of what's called blended Scotch whisky, one of five categories of Scotch. You read that correctly: There are five categories of Scotch whisky. Each one of these five categories is made from malt whisky, grain whisky, or a combination of both. The word "single" in single-malt Scotch does not signify the amount of grain used. Rather, it means that the whisky comes from one single distillery. If a Scotch is bottled from more than one distillery, we'll use the word "blended." The players are:

1. Single malt Scotch
2. Single grain Scotch
3. Blended Scotch
4. Blended malt Scotch
5. Blended grain Scotch

Distillers in Scotland who produce whisky using 100 percent malted barley may call it a malt whisky. Grain whisky in Scotland may include barley, but can involve other cereals such as corn, wheat, or rye. In order to be called a Scotch, the malt or grain-based whiskies (or the combination) must be matured on Scottish soil for a minimum of three years in oak barrels and bottled at a minimum of 40 percent abv (alcohol by volume).

You'll notice that on most bottles of Johnnie Walker Blended Scotch Whisky, the word "malt" is missing. That's your clue that it's not made with 100 percent malted barley. Johnnie Walker is a blend of grain whiskies and a blend of malt whiskies from different distilleries. If you want to go more in-depth with the other styles, I know a book that might help. (I happen to be its author.)

But first, let's get into these bottles, presented here from least to most expensive:

Johnnie Walker Red
This is the range's "entry level" Scotch. It's rough-and-tumble whisky, young, and built for soda — literally. When the Phylloxera disease hit grape vines in France, Johnnie Walker Red was developed to take the place of brandy and soda, a popular drink in Europe. If you don't see any Japanese whisky with which to make your highball, and you also see jalapeño cheese poppers on the menu, a Red highball will do the trick just fine.

Johnnie Walker Black
The Johnnie Walker Black contains 30 to 40 different malts. It's more robust than the Blue, and less refined, too. A larger proportion of Islay whiskies deliver a noticeable level of peat and smoke. Corn and wheat characterize the base grain whisky upon which the malts are added. Those of you who developed a taste for the Black, you're in luck: This 12 year-old whisky sells like hotcakes the world over, and you'll always know what you're getting in terms of taste and aroma. If you're anything like me, you'll peruse a wine list in some mediocre bar and wonder what the hell you're going to get and whether it's gone off already. Worse is trying to evaluate a staff's cocktail-making ability. A reliable, big-brand whisky poured over ice is often my answer to this conundrum.

Johnnie Walker Double Black
Don't be confused: The "double" in this case simply refers to the extra peat and smoke malts used in the blend, and is not used as an industry-wide term. For those who love big bold Islay whiskies and want to try a blended Scotch, this would be a good choice.

Johnnie Walker Green
The Green falls under a different Scotch category. It's a blended malt Scotch whisky, and that means that no grain whisky was used: It's a blend of malts from single-malt distilleries. Green disappeared for a couple of years, selling only in Asia. It's been re-introduced to the U.S. market just this month in tandem with the dramatic government spending cutbacks in China. I think this means we'll be enjoying a bigger variety of Scotch whiskies here in the U.S.A. — Green included. I go to bed at night dreaming of whisky-filled tankers leaving Shanghai and headed for U.S. shores. The last time I tasted the entire range blindly, I chose Green as my favorite: It has a richer mouthfeel and lands more heavily across my palate. For you risk-adverse single malt drinkers, Green is your friend.

Photos: Johnnie Walker/Facebook

Johnnie Walker Gold
Relaunched in 2012, the Gold's heart is centered on a highland distillery called Clynelish. Many years ago, a Johnnie Walker representative recommended that I drink this well-chilled, right out of the refrigerator. Chilled whisky condenses flavor so that certain aromatic molecules are silenced. The Gold went down softly and easily — it's one that can take the place of your usual post-work white wine habit. Just don't drink as much: This is sipping whisky.

Johnnie Walker Platinum
Johnnie Walker's parent company Diageo introduced Platinum just a couple of years back, with a price point that sits right behind the Blue Label. It's an 18-year-old Scotch, which means that all the ingredients in the bottle are aged in Scotland for a minimum of 18 years — some probably longer. This is great for those who want an age statement on their bottle of whisky; the Blue doesn't carry one. It's richer than the Blue, but less robust and smoky than the Black.

Johnnie Walker Blue
Industry sources tell me that Blue's malt-heart comes from a distillery called Royal Lochnagar, which produces unpeated, slightly creamy, and floral single malt Scotch. You'll pay a premium for the privilege of drinking some aged stocks blended in, too. And no, you will never know for sure what the grain-to-malt proportion is nor which malt distilleries are used in the blend. A pinch of smoky Islay whisky augments the base of sweet grain whisky, the Royal Lochnagar, and a dash of vintage malts. Nothing in it will surprise you, but neither will it require any grand thinking about what's going on in your mouth, either. This is a blend that will appeal to many palates.

Discernment Versus Image in Scotch Drinking

I don't need to know the precise herbs or grains used to create my gin, and I don't always need to tease out every grain or malt used in my whisky, either. That said, I spend my working life helping spirit drinkers become better discerners. I encourage them to identify whisky attributes by tapping into and appreciating the largely ignored olfactory system. I preach palate variability and subjectivity because I want students to feel empowered to make their own brand judgments. This takes practice and concentration.

Our emotions act on our preferences and taste.

But we're not always in the mood for that sort of thing. Making things even more complicated is another point that professor Gershoff shared with me: That our emotions act on our preferences and taste. "In fact, since the 1940s, there's a lot of research showing that people can't even tell the difference between different beers or sodas," he says. "Marketing, then, can come in and fill that gap." Johnnie Walker does that well.

Let's pretend that a whisky drinker sitting next to me at the bar gives me the stink-eye for ordering Johnnie Walker Blue. He snickers and lectures me about his esoteric, independent bottling from some little-known distillery. A potential client or business partner rolls in to join me. There are dozens of ultra-premium Scotch brands that I love or even think might taste better. But few express the same immediate and luxurious sentiment that Blue does. I think to myself, Who likes a whisky know-it-all explaining the virtues of smell or esoteric whiskies everywhere she goes? No one. I buy another round of JW Blue for myself and my guest, so that togther we can enjoy and share in the sense of occasion that this whisky brings — and if anyone at the bar thinks that makes us douches, so what?

Heather Greene is a whiskey expert and the author of Whiskey Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life, out now.


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