God Bless Blending Johnnie Walker

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - June 27, 2007
| Del.icio.us | podcast Podcast | WineAndDineHawaii.com

There are those who say that without the blending skills of John Walker, a Scotsman who lived in the early 1800s, whisky might never have caught on as an internationally loved spirit. I can hardly bear to think of it! But I do understand why.

Whisky was not always the sophisticated, smooth, complex spirit it is (for the most part) today. The blends produced in Scotland in those early days (1494 is the first written record of whisky), were oily, potent concoctions not for the faint of heart. Walker had a skill for blending tea - he’d make batches in his grocery store to suit customers’ tastes - and applied the same skills to whisky, blending malt and grain whiskies together to achieve a more balanced, lighter result. The Walker family were salesmen, marketers and traveling businessmen who took their whisky everywhere they went. Without their considerable devotion to expanding their empire, Scotch whisky may have remained a drink for the Scots with nary a drop to be had in Hawaii. Instead, the Johnnie Walker brand is one of the most recognized in the world, with contracted distilleries throughout Scotland.

I visited the Johnnie Walker headquarters in Kilmarnock - the original home to the Walker brands - a couple of years ago, and was impressed with not just the vastness of the Walker empire, but with the local roots that this world renown brand maintains. And, surprisingly, some of the world’s greatest single malts lie at the heart of these incredible blends.

Talisker, for example, is the only distillery on the Isle of Skye. It’s stark climate and unforgiving weather produces a whisky that is both pungent and sweet, with more than a hint of salt and peat. This is one of the central single malts blended to make Johnnie Walker Black label, along with Lagavulin from the whisky-producing island of Islay. Across the island from Lagavulin, the Caol Ila distillery produces a malt that’s part of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, and Cardhu, a less well-known but equally impressive distillery, is at the heart of the gorgeous Johnnie Walker Gold.

Which all goes to show that expertly blended whiskies contain some of the greatest single malts in the world - and are always worth a taste. Some of them, however, most of us may only hope to sniff from someone else’s glass. The highly coveted Blue Label, for example, which sells for roughly $375 a shot. The reason for the steep price tag? The rarity of the blended whiskies. About 17 different whiskies make up the blend, ranging in age from 29 to 75 years old - several of them from distilleries that have been closed for 30 years or more.

Master of Scotch Steve Beale says that he often meets people who simply can’t believe the quality of the single malts that go into blends. “I often have people who say to me ‘But that’s my favorite single malt, I can’t believe it’s in a blend,’ ” he says.

If you want to add a little history to your collection, then go for any of the Johnnie Walker blends. Without them, we might not have the whisky industry we do today, and some of our beloved single malts may not even have been born.


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