By Richard Thomas
No offering from Johnnie Walker carries quite the same prestige as its Blue Label. Indeed, few expressions in blended scotch match Blue Label’s fame and cachet, and the scotch’s recognition as a top luxury item and super premium whiskey is arguably unparalleled. As I can testify, there are parts of the world where people have no idea what Pappy Van Winkle is, but they know Johnnie Walker Blue.
That fame allows Johnnie Walker Blue to get away with sins that usually send whiskey snobs into a tizzy. To cite one example, Blue Label is a No Aging Statement (NAS) scotch whisky, and if the firestorm kicked up by The Macallan’s move to NAS expressions is anything to go by, a lot of scotch-lovers simply can’t abide the idea of “NAS” and “super premium whiskey” sharing the same thought bubble.
Yet I’ve always felt that Johnnie Walker’s sparkle had more to do with marketing and unparalleled reach than what was actually in the bottle. Sometimes Mr. Walker’s scotch is quite good, but its stardom has more to do with the fact that it is the most widely distributed whiskey in the world, available in almost every country, than anything else.
One of the infrequently spoken of facts about Johnnie Walker Blue is that it has quietly changed over the years. Launched in 1992, the expression started with a 43% abv, but now is reduced to 40% abv (from 86 to 80 proof). That is another example of the sort of thing that should have sent the scotch-drinking community into paroxysms of rage, but didn’t.
The coloring of the modern version of Blue Label is a rich, malty gold. The nose is certainly very impressive, and more than a little subtle. Traces of oak and cedar mix with a current of floral citrus, dotted with notes of spice and aniseed, toffee, and ash. The myriad aspects gel together well, and the scent has a buttery texture that gives it a good body.
After that nose, I thought the flavor was a bit of a letdown, but only just a bit. The malt and toffee center are enhanced by wispy clouds of smoke, and a spicy note of ginger and aniseed. The body is solid, yet with a silky texture that gives the drinker good cause to turn the fluid over on the tongue.
The finish emphasizes the subtle, complex side of Blue Label more than its body. It goes down lightly, leaving a moderate afterglow of spice and honeyed sweetness.
So far so good, but the price tag is where I think Johnnie Walker offerings run into trouble, and Blue Label is a classic example. I’ve seen it listed for £145 and $200 in the U.S. This is very good scotch, and I’d never turn it away were it offered to me, but for that kind of money I can easily get better.