Is Johnnie Walker Blue Label really more than just great branding?
The heart and soul of the Johnnie Walker brand, in my estimation is Blue. Or ‘Mr. Blue’ as I have heard it called by one fan of the premium libation. Positioned at the premium end of the premium line of whiskies from the esteemed distillery, Johnnie Walker Blue Label not only sells for several multiples more than its Red, Black and Green cousins, it represents much more. Now, truth be told, on a recent trip and in the company of all manner of scotch experts of seemingly every type (specialising in everything from combining aromas and fermentation to blending and much more) I came to realise that my self-confessed limited knowledge of scotch was really far more limited than even I had understood. So before I can answer the question I posed at the beginning of this article let’s review Scotch 101 (see sidebar) to understand the process from malt to liquid magic.
I count myself as privileged to have been educated by Jim Beveridge about both the finer points of making, tasting and enjoying a fine scotch and how this particular brand is crafted. Jim is a Master Blender for Johnnie Walker Blue Label, and of a top blending lineage that dates back to 1820 Scotland. The task and responsibility of blending this particular scotch is reserved for a handful of whisky experts around the world both highly versed in the world of scotch and, even more so, the world of Johnnie Walker. Beveridge is as matter of fact and impressive with his easy recall of the history, process and differences in various whiskies and malts as he is, genuinely, a lovely person. Most novices assume a single malt is better than a blend. The logic, to which I too initially subscribed, being that something that is pure must be better than something that is combined. But through the tutelage of Beveridge and after visiting such fine single malt distilleries as Cardhu, you come to appreciate the art that is blending. In its most base representation you are mixing (blending) different single malt whiskies to create a scotch with a unique quality, character and flavour. Of course, based on the process of creating even a single malt whisky, every batch might have a slightly different taste and character, just as every cask. The art of recreating this process over and over again and to keep a taste profile within a specific range is where ‘mixing’ departs and the art that is ‘blending’ established.
I put the question of substance versus messaging to both Driver and Beveridge “Is Johnnie Walker Blue a case of clever marketing first and product differentiation second?” Showing that I’m far from as clever as I thought (so much for my “gotcha” moment) they proceeded to explain the carefully controlled, painstaking process by which each batch of Blue is crafted. The blending process, to create Johnnie Walker Blue Label is intense. Johnnie Walker Blue Label is typically comprised of nine or more different types of malt and grain whisky. Three batches are created each year with each comprising a mixture of old and young whiskies with each batch taking approximately four months to ‘marry’ together. And how is a cask deemed fit for Johnnie Walker Blue consideration? Not easily. A mere one in 10,000 casks is deemed to be of sufficient character for Johnnie Walker Blue Label. While over 100,000 cases are sold per year, as Jonathan Driver, Global Brand Ambassador explained “each batch is made up of different individual whiskies [so] demand has to be forecast some 12-18 years out in order to manage production.” It is a reflection of the intense and highly skilled process of blending that leads to each bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label being individually numbered. And taste? While recommended neat it again reverts to personal taste. With my newly acquired scotch knowledge I tried it both neat and with a splash of water and found that the water did exactly as promised and that was to ‘open’ the flavour palette – allowing for my taste buds to enjoy the smooth, woody, sweet and mellow character of each sip.
My hands-on training over the period of five days in Scotland included a session with one of the truly most interesting characters I have ever encountered in my life, Dr. George Dodd. Dr. Dodd is fascinating, passionate, garrulous and a touch eccentric. He could potentially wax on for hours (possibly days) explaining the various ‘notes’ and aromas that are contained within a single shot of a particular whisky. He operates “Scotland’s only working perfume studio” and despite his long-bearded nutty professor appearance apparently sports a brand new Jaguar. (In Twitter-speak they might say #dontjudgeabookbyitscover).
Dr. Dodd’s seeming limitless knowledge about aromas and passion of his subject matter, notwithstanding, the cynic in me was left no less convinced that perhaps these various strains of scotch at various price points were truly nothing more than carefully positioned marketing messages. No more ‘clever’ than the way a Toshiba and Panasonic are manufactured in the same plant but the determination of which logo to slap on is a function of which market and which price point, the product fundamentally being the exact same.I absolutely agree with Beveridge that, like cigars and wine, evaluating one scotch over another is invariably more a matter of personal taste, than one scotch being inherently ‘better’ than the other. The experience, however, also left me with a totally different appreciation for the craft, skill and human precision that has been invested and continues at work to create each bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue. I can safely say that when you pay the premium represented by a bottle of Blue you are acquiring many careful and detailed hours of selection and decades of expertise. To know that I am enjoying something that has had such care and precision, talent and dedication invested in its production affords it the lofty distinction as world class.