Whiskey Wednesday: Hitting Johnnie Green’s Stride

Johnnie Walker is a striding behemoth, straddling the world as the number one selling Scotch whisky brand. It’s so popular that “What makes Johnnie Walker Blue the best?” is a Google search autocomplete. It’s so popular that due to knockoffs and literal bootlegs there are more bottles of Johnnie Walker Black Label sold in India every year than are actually produced for the entire world.

            With this level of popularity the level of disdain and outright backlash for Johnnie Walker that abounds is almost inevitable. Something so popular could never actually be good. Yet, amongst its vast palette of labels there abides a quality and constancy that’s earned its place on back bars across the globe. It also contains one of my all time favorite colors and bottles: Green.

            Johnnie Walker, the Scotch Whisky, began its long walk in the 1819 when the father of John Walker, the actual Scotsman, died. The family sold their farm and invested in a grocery in Kilmarnock, Scotland in 1820. Grocery stores were a different breed in the 1800’s and many grocers would make their own house blends of whisky. This became much more prominent after the Excise Act of 1823 deregulated many of the laws on the distillation of whisky and more importantly greatly reduced the taxes on distilling and selling. In short order the teetotaling John Walker was selling his own blended malt whisky called Walker’s Kilmarnock Whisky. John passed away in 1857 leaving the company to his son Alexander Walker who would usher in the beginnings of the company’s global dominance.

This rise in popularity began with another act completely outside of Alexander’s control, the Spirit Act of 1860. For the first time it was now legal to blend malt and grain whiskies together, thus creating the blended whisky style that is the core of Johnnie Walker, as well as the vast majority of worldwide Scotch sales.

Alexander also took advantage of the newly arrived railroad to make connections with shipping captains to create a larger distribution network. This expanded shipping reach combined with a more approachable, lighter style of Scotch whisky literally made inroads with new drinkers.

            The increase in global shipping also led to the development of the iconic square bottle in 1860. The square shape allowed more bottles to fit in the standard shipping containers as well as greatly reduced breakage during transit. Alexander was also responsible for tilting the label at its jaunty angle across the bottle allowing for larger print as well as making the bottle more recognizable from a distance.

            It was the Third Generation of Walkers that added the final touch with a rebranding in 1909 that first saw the “Striding Man” added to the labels. They also had the companies three blended whiskies officially renamed to White Label, Red Label, and Black Label. The White Label was dropped during World War I but the Red and Black remain the core of Johnnie Walker to this day.

            With demand for Johnnie Walker Scotch spread across 120 countries the company began purchasing single malt distilleries to ensure  consistent supply and blends.  Beginning with Cardhu in 1893, they followed it up with the Coleburn Distillery, The Clynish Distillery and Talisker, before capping it off with the legendary Mortlach Distillery in 1923. Then in 1925 the company joined Distiller’s Company, which was purchased by Guinness in 1986, which then merged with Grand Metropolitan in 1997 to form Diageo, the largest liquor conglomerate in the world. 1997 is also an important year because it marks the reintroduction of Blended Malt Whisky to the Johnnie line up. Originally called Johnnie Walker Pure Malt my favorite bottle received its chromatic designation as Green Label in 2004.

            In a lot of ways the Green Label is a return to that very first John Walker blend. Being a blended malt it is comprised of completely single malt whiskies, which means none of the grain whisky that Alexander introduced and the helped spread the brand across the globe. Diageo is vague on the specific details, listing it as a blend of malts from the Speyside, Highland, Lowland, and Scottish Isle malts which is essentially saying it’s made up of Scotch from Scotland. But digging deeper you can find the names Cragganmore, Linkwood, Caol Ila and Talisker as the primary malts. It also carries a 15 year age statement, meaning the minimum age of every malt in the blend is at least 15 years old, making it one of the oldest constantly available Johnnie Walker blends.

            In a lot of ways this blend is at the root of Johnnie Walker’s history which is why it’s so surprising to me that it’s always felt like the redheaded stepchild of the family. It was “discontinued” in the Western markets around 2012 with plans to focus the brand in Asia. A massive shift in Chinese regulations brought the brand back globally in 2016. Yet it is still often passed over, ironically, because it isn’t as ubiquitous as the Black and Blue.

            Or maybe it’s a victim of Johnnie’s success. The sun never sets on the empire of Johnnie Walker yet it is an empire built on that addition of grain whisky to its single malt base. It’s a lighter style with more mellow flavor and the Green is rich and almost overly opulent in comparison. Someone who enjoys Black label might not find the Green to be their cup of tea. On the flip side the type of drinker that would truly love an aged-stated, blended malt is probably also the kind to turn up their noses at the mere mention of Johnnie’s name.

            Or maybe it’s that people still don’t truly understand what a blended malt is. It’s a misunderstood style just like Green Label is a misunderstood bottle. But the fact that it is so misunderstood and overlooked just makes it all the more endearing to me. I’ll gladly quaff a dram when I can find it.

NOSE: A light touch of seaside smoke, vanilla, dry oak and baking spices

PALETTE: Decadent and rich. Raisins, dried plums with a touch of that seaside air and a whiff of sherry. Slightly nutty, with a bright mid palette.

FINISH: A relatively quick, clean finish that leaves a lighter impression that the rest of the experience. It ends with lingering oaky sweetness mixed with a hint of smoke.

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