Johnnie Walker Blue Label, Ghost and Rare

The Johnnie Walker Blue Label has always been something of a luxury item, a bit of a ‘status whisky’ if you will, especially to the casual whisky drinker. It’s the bottle I’ve seen appear at many-a-wedding. The hero bottle on the back-bar at plenty of restaurants and the bottle mates will bust out at a party when they want to impress. Simply mention ‘blue label’ in front of even the most casual of whisky whisky drinkers and they’ll know exactly what you’re referring to. They know it’s expensive and they know it carries a certain mystique. So it makes perfect sense that when Diageo decided to blend together some of their rarest stocks, it would be done so as an extension of the Blue Label range.

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What’s in a name?

The new Blue Label Ghost and Rare gets its name from the eight malt and grain components it’s comprised of. Six of them are malt whiskies, two are grain whiskies and three of the eight come from ‘ghost distilleries’, ie distilleries that are no longer in production. I could probably whip up some cool little pie charts with those numbers, but hopefully you can follow along alright.

The Ghost and Rare features whisky from the active distilleries of Clynelish, Royal Brackla, Genlossie, Glenkinchie and Cameronbridge (Grain). The three ‘ghost’ distilleries featured in this release are Cambus (Grain) and Pittyvaich (both of which were closed in 1993), along with Brora, which was closed in 1983 and is arguably the hero component of this blend. If we pause for a brief moment there, there are two things buried in that info that I find rather interesting:

  1. No Islay whisky is present in the Ghost and Rare, which is interesting to me as Caol Ila brings the zingy peat-show to the standard Blue Label release.
  2. Working off those closure dates, we know that there’s some well-aged whisky in this blend as well (at least 24 years old for Cambus and Pittyvaich, and at least 34 years old for Brora)

When I saw all of the PR releases come out for the Ghost and Rare, I was initially a little bit apprehensive, thinking to myself ‘Is this just a clever marketing move, riding on the coat-tails of the closed distillery hype? And will it actually taste any different to the standard Blue Label?’ Only one way to find out…

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Tasting the Blue Label Ghost and Rare

The nose is quite rich and dense, and I get notes of pineapple, citrus, dark chocolate, hazelnuts, golden syrup and the faintest soft earthy smoke. Smoke probably isn’t the right term, it’s more like coal dust, or the burnt out, day-old embers left behind in a fireplace. There’s an interesting coastal note as well, not something I’ve picked up in a Johnnie Walker blend before. A saline mineral tang if you will.

The palate starts off creamy and oily, there’s an up front sweetness, but also notes of citrus, orange segments, tinned fruit and a herbal, earthy-yet-salty peat on the finish. Going back for a second and third sip, some darker fruits emerge, more of that coastal tang and some kelp, before fading to a savoury finish.

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So, clever marketing move? Sure. But more than that, it’s actually bloody good whisky, and yes, some of the contents in the bottle are indeed very rare. Any different to the standard Blue Label? My word it is. For starters it’s bottled at 46% and is non chill-filtered, so it carries a richness and weight that you don’t get in the the standard Blue Label, which noses and tastes lighter, fresher and crisper than this stately dram. The Ghost and Rare is very cleverly constructed, has a great story behind it and there’s a lot to like about what’s going on in the glass.

Just 270 bottles of the Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost and Rare will be made available in Australia at a recommended retail price of $480 through Dan Murphy’s, and other specialty retailers.

A special thanks to Diageo Australia for the special preview-tasting of this new release.

Johnnie Walker Blender’s Batch Red Rye Finish

Tasting & Review

I think it’s fair to say that Johnnie Walker are best known for their mainstay blended whiskies, the kind you’re likely to find on pretty much every back-bar across the globe. They’re not one to put their feet up and stop experimenting though. Their quest to continue focusing on developing and understanding alternative flavour profiles has led them to the launch of the new sub-range known as the Blender’s Batch series.

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Johnnie Walker’s master blender, Dr Jim Beveridge, tells us that “At any one time, there are hundreds of experiments into flavour being carried out by our blenders which involve making adjustments to atmospheric conditions, the types of wood and grain used, cask finishes and other elements of whisky-making in the pursuit of exceptional new flavours.”

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The first release in the series is the Johnnie Walker 
Blenders’ Batch Red Rye Finish, which is the result of experiments that have been conducted into the influence of bourbon and rye whiskey flavours, on Scotch. For the non Bourbon and Rye drinkers in the room, American whiskeys can often be characterised by their particularly sweet nature, something that comes from their use of alternate grains like corn and wheat and also from the fact that they’re matured in heavily charred, virgin American oak barrels. Rye whiskey (where the grainbill is predominantly rye) often carries notes of fresh mint, spearmint or dill and has a general spicy character that sets it apart from a low-rye whiskey. So even before tasting this new expression, I suppose I had those notes in mind when I spotted that it had a ‘rye finish’
 
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Tasting notes

On the nose I got some sweet vanilla grain notes, runny caramel sauce and a hint of soft spice. Digging deeper, a touch of fresh pineapple, grilled peaches and maybe the faintest suggestion of mint. If I had to characterise the nose, I’d probably refer to it as round and creamy.
 
It’s fairly thin on the palate (to be expected given the low ABV), but it carries that creamy sweet grain profile nicely. A touch of spice (baking/ mixed spice), vanilla and some orchard fruits present themselves in what is a fairly balanced delivery.

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What’s in the bottle

As for what’s in the bottle? I’m not entirely sure to be honest! But we’re told it contains a decent amount of malt whisky from Cardhu (the backbone of most Johnnie Walker expressions), along with grain whisky distilled at the now-closed Port Dundas distillery. For those of you playing at home, Port Dundas closed in 2010 so the grain component would have to be at least 5 – 6 years old. The remaining malt and grain components could come from any number of Diageo’s other distilleries, but any guess on my part would be purely that. The components were all matured in first-fill American Oak casks, before being finished for up to six months in ex-rye whiskey casks.

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You’ve probably already guessed it from the photos, but I was recently invited along to the Australian launch held at the brand new Bouche on Bridge Street, Sydney. Sean Baxter, a man who’s equally enamoured with the idea of developing magical flavour profiles – as Jim Beveridge and his team – treated us to an evening of decadent food and cocktail pairings with some help from the Bouchon on Bridge team.

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Sean made no secret of the fact that the Red Rye Finish can be used as a perfect mixing whisky and we got to see this first hand in a series of pretty smashing cocktails, such as the;

Rye-talian: Johnnie Walker Red Rye Finish, Cascara Campari, blood orange and potato maple
Rye and Dry: Johnnie Walker Red Rye Finish, Capi ginger ale and basil
New Yorker: Johnnie Walker Red Rye Finish, lemon and grenadine
Red Rye Manhattan: Johnnie Walker Red Rye Finish, Dolin rouge, bitters
Whisky cocktails can be hit and miss in my opinion and rarely do I have a ‘wow moment’ when drinking them, but these were all executed to perfection in my opinion. Big props to Sean and Matt Linklater (pictured above) for brining us these seriously tasty treats.

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The new Johnnie Walker Blender’s Batch Red Rye Finish is already available in good bars and has started to hit shelves at a retail price of around AU$50 a bottle. For more cocktail inspiration using the Johnnie Walker Blender’s Batch Red Rye Finish, check out this link.
As always, a sincere thanks goes out to the team from Diageo and Leo Burnett for the generous invite to an enjoyably decadent evening.

World Whisky Day

This Saturday, May 21st is World Whisky Day. I tried to write my own description of what World Whisky Day means to me, but the people behind the official site have said it so eloquently that I’ll let them do the explaining.

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“World Whisky Day is all about making whisky fun and enjoyable. It’s not about being exclusive or prescriptive. You can drink it however you enjoy it (ice, water, mixer – whatever works for you). We want to be all inclusive and that means any kind of whisky/whiskey from anywhere in the world.”

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Ain’t that the truth! So this Saturday, do yourself, your friends and your family a favour, pour a dram of the water of life and share in the fun of whisky!

The good people at Diageo are big supporters of World Whisky Day and kindly sorted me out with a few goodies to help me and my closest celebrate in style! So if you – like me – are on social media and find yourself enjoying a dram on Saturday the 21st, tag your photos with #WorldWhiskyDay and #LoveScotch and share in the fun.

Slainte!

Johnnie Walker – The Gold Route

No age statement, Travel Retail exclusive, released 2013, 40% ABV, American Oak

Late last year my father was given this handsomely presented Johnnie Walker for his birthday (along with two other JW’s – people, get a bit more creative with your whisky selections!)

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I didn’t know a single thing about it, so I hit the ole’ interwebz to do a bit of research and reading to get a better understanding of what I was about to taste.

Launched around March 2013, The Gold Route is the second release in the Johnnie Walker Explorers’ Club Collection – Trade Route Series (what a mouthful). It followed on from 2012’s The Spice Road and preceded the final release in the series, The Royal Silk Route which came out in October last year.

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A series of three duty free/travel retail exclusives, the Trade Route Series pays homage to the travelling heritage of the John Walker & Sons agents who journeyed the world, bringing the Johnnie Walker brand to over 120 countries by the 1920s.

It’s a well-presented whisky, that’s for sure, and it’s not hard to see why someone travelling through an airport would be attracted to it.

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This particular expression pays tribute to The Gold Route (or The Route of Gold), which runs through Central America, the Andean mountains and along the coast of the Pacific Ocean. The gold to come out of this region was used in some of Europe’s most well known churches and palaces and also provided some of the wealth on which cities like Rio and Lisbon were built.

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Not surprisingly, Johnnie Walker’s owners, Diageo, were able to put together a pretty impressive marketing campaign for this release (and indeed the whole Explorers’ Club Collection).

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There was a full photographic series featuring evocative images (such as the one above), elaborate store displays in airports around the world and a youtube video for each expression in the series

Although it was likely dreamt up by a clever marketing department, the whole celebration of travel and trade theme ties in rather nicely with the fact that it was only available in travel retail. I sometimes wonder how many purchasers would actually make that connection for themselves, but in any case, I noticed it and thought it was a nice touch.

What Master Blender, Jim Beveridge, says

“On the nose, there is an immediate wave of an exotic mix of bananas, mango and pitaya, complemented by a hint of vanilla sweetness. On first sip, the palate embarks on a journey that is as distinct and magnificent as the vistas of Latin America: tantalising flavours, a perfect blend of fruitiness with hints of pineapples, guava, passion fruit and raisins, all balanced perfectly by deep charred peaty notes, in keeping with the signature bold and smoky JOHNNIE WALKER flavour”

Here’s what I think

Nose

Sweet peat, a few meaty sherry notes, quite sooty and malty with hints of vanilla and some light coastal notes in there. A few months later, much softer and sweeter, really faint underlying smoke (almost completely gone), more of a zesty lemon tang kind of note, a touch of honey and some papaya hidden in there somewhere.

Despite the comments above, I would still call this a light-weight nose. Not overly heavy or deep (if that makes any sense).

Palate

First impression is that it’s thin and has a really soft entry. A decent amount of medicinal peat, tart orange marmalade, very little heat and very little spice. A few months later, quite a bit sweeter than I remember, hints of raisin, very little-to-no peat on the palate and a bit grainy.

Initially it was much peatier and smokier than any JW expression I’ve tried before, but that seems to have faded dramatically.

Finish

Initially quite mild, with very mild mouth warmth and some residual peat. Little-to-no spice or oak. After a few months, still a very mild finish in terms of length and warmth, but much more drying spice and some earthy/woody notes. Pencil shavings? (no, I’ve never eaten pencil shavings, but I imagine this is what they’d taste like!)

Comments

I must admit, I was somewhat surprised with this release (in a pleasant kind of way). I’ve never been overly thrilled with the Johnnie Walker’s I’ve tried to date. Not because of the whole ‘blend stigma’, but because I’ve always just found them a bit flat for my liking and lacking in any kind of complexity.

This on the other hand does actually have some degree of complexity to it. It’s got a rather interesting nose and the palate leaves you curious as to its make-up.

I do have to say though, the nose and palate on this changed dramatically between the time the bottle was first opened and month or two later. I’m not sure which nose I prefer, but the bottle has lost almost all of the smoky-peat notes on both the nose and palate and is generally a bit sweeter.

Overall, it’s still too thin, young and grainy for my liking, but it’s a pretty solid offering. I know big one litre bottles are a travel retail thing, but for someone who enjoys their whisky neat, I would rather have seen this in a 700ml bottle, bottled at 43% ABV, instead of one litre at 40% ABV. I think that would have gone some way to helping the thin mouth-feel and short finish.

The Gold Route retails for around AU $90 in Sydney, which isn’t too bad and I’m sure it’ll sell quite well.