At the top of the Johnnie Walker range lies the stored Johnnie Walker Blue Label. It’s become an easy shorthand for luxury – just watch an episode of Entourage and see the Chase brothers putting away a bottle of Johnnie Blue at a mega-wealthy family’s private party.
If you’ve started to jump into rarer or more costly single malts, the buy-in for Johnnie Walker is not unfathomable. However, for those who have more down-to-earth budgets, or for those who have not gotten deep into the hobby, the price tag alone makes it unattainable.
Even bars charge ridiculous prices for pours of Johnnie Blue. All this mystique results in a premium-priced whisky being compartmentalized outside of most peoples’ acceptable buy-in.
Beyond Blue lies the King George V edition of Blue, made using whiskies that were available during the reign of King George V (1910-1936). Most notably, this means an inclusion of the storied whisky from Port Ellen, which has been closed for nearly 30 years now. King George is a relatively limited edition – by Johnnie Walker volume – of 60,000 bottles, 7,300 in the US.
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to try these two whiskies and thought this would be good to share, similar to the Macallan 30 review from the launch of this blog.
Johnnie Walker Blue is surprisingly light. It’s sweet and malty on the nose with just a whiff of peat – nothing powerful. There’s not really much more to the nose – very straightforward. It is reminiscent of Clynelish in a way, but a little less assertive. The palate is medium to light – it’s not thin but it’s not mouth-coating. It’s moderately sweet with faint peat. There’s a very gentle bit of heat to it, faintly taking the form of pepper. There’s malty sweetness on the palate as well as a faint saltiness – not at all unlike some of the Islay distilleries. The finish is as smooth as you’d expect it to be; very light and not particularly long lasting. It’s got some slight heat to it though with a little pepper. There’s plenty of malt and after a while, a faint woody mustiness. This is a note I haven’t found a better way to describe – dry and earthy; the closest I could describe it is like the exterior rind of a cantaloupe. I get it commonly on Old Pulteney and it’s not uncommon on the Japanese whiskies I’ve tasted.
All in all, Blue is a very easy-drinking and light whisky. There’s a little dimension to it, but not much. The main turnoff for this standard Blue is the value for the price. There are single malts that do similar things (Clynelish, Old Pulteney, Aberfeldy) at a much better value. The faint heat and smoke give it a little personality, but for such a luxury image, it’s actually a bit of a milquetoast whisky.
With the expectations lowered, it was time to move on to the King George V edition of Blue. I didn’t expect much after the standard Blue.
The nose showed more depth – it still had the gentle malt of Blue, but added in much more. The peat was more assertive with a faintly rubbery tang – hello, Port Ellen – as well as some more bold peppery heat. There’s also some slight butteriness, and some light floral and vanilla notes develop. A slight hint of pineapple provides a little juicy dimension to the nose. Already, the nose showed a much greater nuance.
The palate was again quite light – white pepper and cinnamon with heat out of the gate – with a bit of faintly rubbery peat. The buttery note from the palate carried through, and the malt was evident as more of a grainy note.
The finish competes with the nose in terms of being the best part of this whisky – there’s nice pepper and chili oil, similar to Talisker. There’s malt and hay on the finish, and the whole thing lasts for a reasonable length.
King George V ends up being a reasonably nuanced Johnnie Walker, with a little more happening than standard Blue Label, offering a bit more than you might get from any one single malt. It’s still somewhat light on the palate though. Having a price well in excess of the Blue makes this a tough sell though.
That said, there are deals to be had on King George V. Don’t succumb to the $500-600 retail that many are selling for. Very cursory searching revealed these available at $350. That’s still more than I think this is worth, ultimately, but if you subtracted out the price of the decanter and box, this would be much closer to being a good value.
All said, I don’t think I’m going to be spending lot of time in the future with the Blue Label editions. King George V is certainly nice, but its price is out of step with what it provides. Standard Blue Label is just disappointingly simple.
At a glance:
Johnnie Walker Blue Label – 40% ABV
Nose: Gently malty; sweet. Faint peat but not too powerful.
Palate: Medium-light mouthfeel. Somewhat sweet; faintly peaty. Gentle heat – just a touch of pepper. Malty – a bit of sweetness. Faint saltiness.
Finish: Smooth, light finish. A slight bit of heat on the finish – a little pepper and plenty of malt. After a bit there’s some woody mustiness.
Comment: It’s kind of plainly middle of the road. Not much happening – it is similar to an older malt that’s kind of aged past its prime and lost some fire. The faint heat and smoke gives it some personality but it’s kind of milquetoast. That said, at 40% and sweet and malty, it is pretty solidly drinkable. After all that: It’s a lot to pay for blandness.
Johnnie Walker Blue Label – King George V Edition 43% ABV
Nose: Malty and gentle, with some light-to-medium peat with a faintly rubbery tang. Pepper, light pineapple, and slight butteriness. Light floral notes develop. Vanilla.
Palate: Light in the mouth. White pepper, faint cinnamon. A bit of rubber and malt. Slightly buttery. Slight grain.
Finish: Nice pepper and faint chili oil. Malty and with a bit of grain – hay. Reasonably lasting finish.
Comment: This is much better than the standard blue label with more nuance. It’s still somewhat light for my tastes, but the pepper and peat give it a lot of depth that are missing from the standard blue label. Good in spite of the price tag.