Johnnie Walker Black Label (12 year) Blended Scotch

I’ve always (since I began drinking scotch) had a lively lack of respect for the Johnnie Walker line of blended scotch from Diageo. It represents to me the wrong end of the spectrum between artisanal, hand-crafted, small-batch spirits and factory mass-produced, lowest-bidder, penny-squeezing corporate swill. I personally don’t believe that quality and greed can coexist in the same producer, whether that producer is making whisky, wine, cheese, or furniture. Diageo has publicly stated that since most of its significant global revenue comes from blended whisky like Johnnie Walker, it would happily close down its high-cost, low-margin single malt bottlings and focus entirely on dumping vats of malt into vats of grain for blends, if it could. That does not sound (to me) like a company interested in providing a high-quality product to a discerning consumer.

That said, this blog is meant for evaluating the taste (not just the politics) of whisky, so I thought it high time I give a thoughtful look at the quintessential Johnnie Walker whisky: the Black Label. This is a standard blend of some unknown percentage of malt and grain whiskies, all at least 12 years old, and represents something like 130 million liters of annual sales (that’s an old figure from 2005 and includes all Johnnie Walker blends – this info is surprisingly hard to find online). Suffice it to say they make a LOT of the stuff, and it sells at a fantastic rate worldwide. The component malts of Johnnie Walker are (along with 36 other malts and grains, at varying percentages): Cardhu, Talisker, and Lagavulin. Doubtless, a little bit of every Diageo-owned malt (except Oban) is included. It’s a safe bet that the majority of the malt here is Cardhu 12-year, although some marketing material claims that “the heart” is Talisker. After tasting it, I doubt that.

I don’t usually remark on color, but I noticed that JW Black has an unnatural red-gold color. It is most certainly heavily colored with caramel coloring.

Nose: A light Highland peachiness (Dalwhinnie?). Pretty floral. Light and inoffensive. Totally unable to detect any peat. Deeper in, round and mildly buttery. Nary a hint of paint thinner!

Palate: Medium-bodied. Mild tongue burn – I guess that would be called ‘smooth’. Vanilla cake bread crumbs, a slight hint of smouldering match head, and a few seconds later, an acidic wave of vodka-esque off notes.

Finish: Slightly acrid, like a smear of coal tar on top of a buttered scone. Fading out with some almond paste, and only a little bitter woodiness. On the short side.

With Water: Elevated florals, and a hint of peach pit on the nose. Shortbread and crumb cake on the slightly thinner palate. A nice woody marshmallow and some caramel on the finish. This is quite improved by the addition of a splash of water.

Overall: Ok, fine, it’s really not that bad. It has some nice floral elements in the nose, a straightforward flavor, and not too much bitterness on the finish. That said, it has two major downsides: First, it was clearly blended to be bland and uninteresting (the industry euphemism is ‘consistent’). There might be peated malt in here, but it’s so diluted that it just comes across like a fine layer of stale ash. The florals would be interesting if they weren’t overpowered by a wash of cereally grain. Second, the grain component is obvious, and not harmoniously integrated with the malts. It provides some nice heft and body on the palate, and a bit of creaminess, but its relative youth – although 12 isn’t too bad – and lack of quality can be tasted in the vodka notes on the tongue. Frankly, it would be hard for this not to taste mass-produced.

For $30, you could certainly do worse, but I feel that for a little more money, one could enjoy a wide variety of single-malts that shine in their own ways, rather than continuously pour cash into the Diageo blend machine and be satisfied with a muddy, uninteresting jumble of substandard malt barrels and bottom-dollar grain. (That’s hyperbole, the bottom-dollar grain goes in the Red Label). Here’s an idea: buy a bottle of Dalwhinnie 15 or Cardhu 12 for the florals, a bottle of Cragganmore 12 for the malty sweetness, and a bottle of Caol Ila 12 for the punch of smoke, and blend yourself a personalized (and far superior) Black Label blended malt.

Johnnie Walker Black Label (12 year) Blended Scotch
40% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $27-$30
Acquired: (50ml miniature plastic sample bottle)
Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , ,
36 Comments

36 Responses to Johnnie Walker Black Label (12 year) Blended Scotch

  1. Dan says:

    Your suggestion for blending a ‘better Black Label’ is essentially what Green Label – which has been discontinued, although you should be able to find bottles of it until next year – is composed of: Talisker, Linkwood, Caol Ila, and Cragganmore.

  2. EricH says:

    From what I’ve read Oban isn’t used in any blend since the distillery produces so little malt. So Oban has the distinction of being the only single malt in Diageo’s portfolio that is being exclusively sold as a single malt.

    • Eric, now that you mention it, I remember reading the same thing. I’m not sure there’s an official statement from Diageo regarding the principal malts in JW Black – all the info I could find was on past blog posts and forums. I’ll remove Oban from the list above – thanks!

  3. Jordan says:

    Or get a bottle of Isle of Skye, which does have Talisker at its heart without being much more expensive.

    • Ben says:

      Agreed. Better than the JW Black is the Isle of Skye 8-yr old. For the same money, a clearly superior blend and an excellent “go to” Scotch.

  4. martini says:

    At risk of making a fool of myself here where everyone hates JW, I am going to say this regardless: I think JW still holds some value. For all intents and purposes, JW Blue is what got me into scotch and I shifted immediately to single malts. Yes, I’m sure their target audience is hilariously dislosed in company advertising meetings but clearly, by the size of their sales, it is working.

  5. Logan says:

    The Johnnie Walker Double Black is a far superior product compared to the standard black label imho. Price point is right about $35. Worth buying if can find it

  6. Josh Feldman says:

    I agree 100% with everything you say, Noob – but will stand here as a whisky geek & raving snob, and state to the world that I like Johnny Walker Black Label (JWBL) and always keep a bottle on hand (granted it’s usually a 375ml). I use JWBL as a touchstone for value and a flavor calibrator when reviewing blends and inexpensive entry level single malts. I regularly put JWBL up head to head and it often does very well.

    But that’s not the reason I drink JWBL. The reason is that it is ubiquitous and interesting whiskies are not. I find myself, from time to time, at bars (particularly of the airline cart or wedding/bar mitzva variety) that just don’t have interesting whisky on hand. If the choice comes down to Dewars White Label, Passport, Vodka, or JWBL I’ll take the Black Label every time. Each time I’m in that situation I end up having a fairly decent Scotch experience. JWBL is designed to taste like the highly averaged idealized simulacrum of the “Highland Scotch Whisky” flavor profile. To that end Diageo succeeds, much in the manner that Heinz tastes like “ketchup”. It’s not gourmet. It’s mainstream and aims for and nails the very middle. There’s a place for that. If you want to taste how truly decent JWBL really is, taste it head to head against Johnny Walker Red Label! Huge difference!

    • Dan says:

      What was it Christopher Hitchens said about Black Label, and why he only ever drank Black Label? I think it had something to do with its ubiquity and the fact that even ruthless dictators, who had the option of drinking anything they wanted, drank Black Label…

  7. Even though I’ve whined at the Scotch Noob before for calling Black Label “bottom-shelf”, I think this review is basically spot on.

    However, just for context, I would like to remind everyone, like I did last time, that JW Black Label is still around the (perhaps) middle of the quality/price histogram of blended Scotches available… maybe in the 30th percentile or so of Scotches in general? There still exist dozens of cheap Scotches that are dwarved by Black Label’s quality. And so, as Josh said, sometimes I feel fortunate at being able to grab a glass of Black Label at a shitty hotel or wedding bar…

  8. Florin says:

    Nobody tastes the sherry in JW Black? I find it very strong (through the veil of grain whisky), but maybe I just taste the caramel :) As for the brand, I have a lot of admiration for JW, based primarily on JW Green and Gold, which are exceptional whiskies and best mass-produced blended whiskies/malts.

  9. Craig B. says:

    At $50 per 750mL, this isn’t a terrible buy here in Ohio. Our liquor selection is….well…..fairly pathetic compared to other places (and it seems way higher priced).

    But for what it is, and the selection available, I do enjoy JWBL. Is it terrible? Certainly not. Is it the best? Certainly not. Will it always have a place on my shelf? Definite yes!

    For the same price I’d rather have a Macallan 12yo but sometimes that urge for JWBL just cannot be fulfilled. I can’t put my finger on it, but there is something I really enjoy about this scotch.

    • Dan says:

      IMHO, that intangible that you’re describing is jwbl curse and blessing.

      I honestly think the blenders drink far more than us and wind up dumping extra rich premo stuff in one batch and then over compensate in the next. I’ve stopped drinking it and started blending my own. My 2cents

    • Rob Bright says:

      Ask if your local liquor store will order whatever you want – often they will. I’m from SE Ohio and my local store orders whenever I request it.

      I really wanted to try Ardbeg Uigeadail and couldn’t find it locally or in the D.C. and Philly area on a trip. Asked the local store and he had 6 bottles in less than 2 weeks.

  10. Josh says:

    Really interesting review, and I agree with much of what you write. I’m with the other Josh above, though, in the tend-to-keep-a-bottle-in-the-cabinet camp. It’s such a comfortable drink to have on hand when you want to unwind without making too much of an effort.

    On something of a side note, you’re exactly right about up-to-date, comprehensive whisky-related statistics being surprisingly difficult to find online!

  11. Booze Cruiser says:

    I think blends such as jwbl and dewars white label are not made to withstand such criticism. I don’t think your supposed to hold products like these up to a microscope and pick out each and every one of their faults. These products are made (I know this may sound like blasphemy) for consumption with ice and/or soda. I love nothing more than to take a blend (jwbl, dewars, grouse, chivas, etc) throw some ice on top and sit out on my porch and let the world melt away. Just one mans humble opinion.

    • @Booze Cruiser
      You are totally right on two points: Blends like this are NOT intended for drinking straight and analyzing. Also, they are definitely meant for mixing – not blasphemy at all. I have variously stated elsewhere on this blog – although probably not as frequently as I should – that I do not enjoy any kind of whisky mixed, and therefore cannot review blends on that basis. Instead, as some people do drink blends straight, and others are interested in the baseline quality of the products that go into their mixed drinks or over ice, I review them to the same standards (and using the same procedure) as single malts. It may be worth noting that some “mixable” blends are quite good straight, and do stand up to this level of scrutiny: Great King Street Artist’s Blend and Bank Note, for example. While JW etc. are “meant” for covering up with ice or soda or water, some similar products are fundamentally better, and thus get a better review.

      • Robert says:

        I enjoy JW Double Black ($35) neat or with a bit of water, so it rates much higher on my blend scale than most others. Same for JW Swing ($45) and Buchanan’s 18 YO Special Reserve ($55). Very good blends with increasing quality with price. The 18 SR is quite good as a leather armchair/smoking jacket style blend. I’d love a review of these!

  12. TheSnobsSnob says:

    It’s pretty easy to pick out the professional amateur scotch drinkers – they all bash the hell out of the popular blends, single malts and pretty much anything that is modestly priced, and this review of JW Black is proof positive once again.
    To all you new scotch drinkers out there, it’s not rocket science, although to listen to some people they’d have you think so, with all their sniff and snoot and ridiculous descriptions, just pick the glass up and drink, it’s that simple, don’t think about it, just enjoy, it doesn’t matter if it taste like cookie-dough, or has hints of new mowed lavender, just sip and don’t over think it and you’ll way ahead of these scotch snobs.

    • I agree that it’s important for everyone to try everything they can get their hands on, but your words make it sound like nobody should ever try to compare products to see what they like best, or what might be worth their money. Every scotch is not equivalent, some are better than others. Also, peruse my site and you’ll discover plenty of reviews of value-priced whisky that I heartily recommend. This happens to not be one of them.

    • Spirits says:

      I recently tried BL, neat, and it had been well chilled. I liked it. I will say that I am brand new to scotch. Some of my colleagues drink scotch, and at 55 I decided to try and understand the allure. They are primarily single malt drinkers, so that has been my intro to the scotch world. I have tried Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, and most recently Balvenie double wood. I will say that I liked the BL so much that it will be the second bottle of scotch to go in the liquor cabinet, right next to the Balvenie. Actually, the BL will go in the fridge.

    • Jay says:

      You said it SnobsSnob! JWBL is a great scotch!

  13. TheSnobsSnob says:

    My dear friend you are correct in your assumption that I think people should not compare products, why bother ? Just drink them and choose the ones you like and spend you time enjoying instead of comparing and analyzing.
    I see people all the time, they pick up glass and immediately go into this predictable silly routine, all the sniffing and sipping trying figure what it tastes like to impress their counterparts, cookie dough, butternut, toes nails, monkey dung, geez what’s next moon rock moss – It tastes like scotch – just drink it already.
    And true all scotch is not equivalent, but it’s also not nearly as different as some would lead us to beleive. The vast difference in the price of one 12 year as compared to another is 99 percent due to personal taste and marketing – simple as that.
    How many 12 year malts when cheap got trashed by reviewers, a couple years later their price goes up and then the reviewers love them – go figure LOL

    • It's Fun says:

      Because reviewing and comparing is fun. If you don’t like it, why are you bothering with reading this blog and commenting?

  14. Garret says:

    Hey scotchnoob if you get the chance try to grab a bottle of the gold label 18 year old not the gold label reserve and do a review of it i would love to see your opinion of it.

  15. Bloomlax33 says:

    I have just recently started drinking scotch, my first taste was Johnny Walker Blue. I have tried many other brands, both single malt and blends and I have to say, although I loved the Blue Label, it was not worth the money to me. I have recently tried the Green Label replacement, Johnny Walker Platinum Label. This blend is my favorite and is half the cost of Blue Label. I would love to see your review on the Platinum Label and if you find it to be a good scotch. It is much better than the Black Label as well, finishing up my Black Label as we speak to move on to the Platinum purchase.

  16. Joel says:

    Since there is no review of the Green Label up yet, I’ll ask here – is there any reason to buy a bottle or two of Green while it’s still available? ($65 locally)

    I’m not sure that I’m missing much by sticking with a nice selection of Islay and Speyside single malts, but there’s always that fear of missing out on something half decent. :)

    • I’ve never had the green, but I feel pretty confident that it lies between the blue and gold in terms of quality. I considered buying a bottle or two against possible future demand, but decided against it on the grounds that I’d rather drink $130 worth of better single malt now, than own $130 worth of “just OK” blend later. Of course, it could become valuable due to its rarity, but remember that you’re certainly not the only one with the idea, so that could offset its potential value.

      All that said, because of the global whisky boom, whisky in general is becoming more and more watered down and less and less aged, and barrels that used to be sold off on the bulk market are finding themselves dumped into premium blends. Green label at $65 now might represent a better deal than $65 worth of blended scotch in 5 years. If you enjoy Green, that alone might be a reason to stash some. I personally would rather drink Bank Note.

      (Yes, I know Green is all-malt, but I still think Bank Note is formulated using higher-quality ingredients for less than half the price.)

  17. Danny Boy says:

    Well I’m not claiming to be an expert by any stretch of the word. But I’m a fan of JWBL when the mood calls for a mixed drink and I don’t want to pour a bourbon.

    With that being said, no it does not compare to a single malt. The two are apples and oranges.

  18. Mike says:

    I am brand new to scotch. I have been curious about it for quite awhile, but only recently purchased my first bottle, JW Black. I had read that it is a good introduction into scotch. However I am not particularly impressed. I do enjoy the nose (after the initial alcohol smell), but beyond that, I dont find it very good. I know that the consesus is that blends don’t really hold a candle to single malts. I tend to like my beverages with a little sweetness, so I was wondering if anyone has any good suggestions for me. I am taking a trip to Canada in a few months and will be stopping at the duty free store. So I intend to save a little money on my scotch by buying it there.

    • Hi Mike. I don’t know whether the Duty Free stores will save you money or not, as I don’t do much (any) international travel. Also, Duty Free stores often carry “exclusive” bottlings that are only available in duty free, and are usually pricier because of their exclusivity. That said, they probably have the standard bottles as well. You might start here: http://scotchnoob.com/2012/02/23/picking-your-first-single-malt-scotch/ or you could go with one of my favorites: GlenDronach 12 (sherry-aged), Balvenie DoubleWood 12 year (half sherry aged), or Oban 14 (sweet and light). Cheers!

  19. Mike says:

    Thanks for the suggestions. I’ve been eyeing the DoubleWood since I’ve read good reviews. Turns out the duty free store website shows they have it, at $10 less for a 1L bottle than the local liquor store charges for 750ml! So I will definitely be purchasing a bottle. I will be sure to post on that when I try it!

  20. AuldScotchDrinker says:

    Consistency is the principal goal when blending whiskey, whether it is scotch, bourbon, or rye. The more consistent the components are, the more consistent the blend can be. Consistency in distilling is a skill mastered by a distillery as a whole. They are rewarded with higher prices. This is why top shelf blends are more expensive: they are consistent and appealing. However, the only distinction between the 2nd and 3rd shelf, or the 3rd and 4th shelf, is the advertising budget. You will find distinct differences between 2nd and 4th shelves, both in appeal and consistency. So I repeat: consistency is high praise for a blend.
    Now having said that, the emergence of single malts and, for bourbon and rye, single casks, has revealed how radically different the components can be and how varied those components can be from year to year. Not surprisingly, the most favored single malts and casks come from the most consistent distilleries and have the most interesting flavors.
    Make mine a Lagavulin, but if all you have are blends, JWB, please.

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