I want that one
Posted 15 September 2021 by Matt / In Group Tastings
Most examinations of Johnnie Walker Blue Label invariably end up exploring the association/disparity (delete as appropriate) between the liquid contents of the bottle and the price of said bottle. And that’s entirely fair enough. The notion of a product review can, and indeed often is, boiled down to an individualised assessment of quality vs. cost. However, there are many pitfalls in taking such a reductive approach – especially without a keen understanding of the prevalent costs that exist within a market at any particular time. And in the case of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, I’d suggest that any analysis which draws an entirely linear comparison between perceived quality and price is something of a swing and miss. The price of Blue Label has little to do with the cost of its constituents or packaging, or even the hefty marketing spend behind it. Its price point has been carefully designed to maintain its position as an aspirational whisky.
I’d challenge any of you who suggest that there’s been no point on your whisky journey where you haven’t possessed an urge to sample or purchase Blue Label. You have – and you’ve likely already tasted it. Granted this probably would have been earlier on in your explorations – but nevertheless, you’d have to have been living under a rock (or locked away in your house for a long period of time) to have missed seeing Johnnie Walker’s ‘flagship’ release given pride of place in many a swanky bar or hotel. And this was even more so the case back in the early 90s when Blue Label was launched, and spirit choices in general were far narrower.
Through placement within film and TV and adoption by those wishing to be considered as upwardly mobile (more on that shortly) Blue Label has maintained its eminence for almost three decades. And during this time, it has undoubtedly spearheaded ‘high-end’ blended whisky whilst remaining as the most popular example within the category that it helped to establish.
Let’s be clear, an aspirational product is not one which is simply nosebleed expensive. There is a world of difference between something which is for all intents and purposes unobtanium and a product which simply commands ultra-premium pricing. Think of it as the difference between a Mercedes C-Class (from £28,035) and a Mercedes Maybach S-Class (with prices starting from £162,390) – realistically we might, in time, be able to afford the former, but the likelihood of the average consumer purchasing the latter can be directly related to the numbers of it that have been produced – a mere 3000+ over 12 years.
An aspirational product has its price set at a level where a large number of individuals wish to own it, but day-to-day they cannot/will not normally be able to afford it. As such, whilst it is ‘expensive’ it is not outside of the realms of imagination or endeavour that at some point the aspirational audience can become the consumption audience – I.E. that those who really want it will eventually buy it. But, in order for an aspirational product to succeed, it needs to possess more than just an aspirational price. It requires the product to be perceived as an enhancement of self-worth at an emotional level. And we’re 100% seeing that with whisky – increasingly. Ever wondered why there are so many photos of closed bottles wedged up trees? Yeah, me too.
Johnnie Walker Blue Label has been positioned and eagerly adopted by the mainstream as a by-word for luxury – the type of luxury that makes us feel better about our largely dull lives. “I want what they’re having”. And in doing so it offers a very different proposition to other brands who also play into the luxury category. Macallan is often foisted into this grouping – and indeed one can note plenty of Veblen good-type effects there. However, once you get outside of the commonly available Macallan expressions, you’re moving swiftly outside of the ideals of aspirational products –even as a diehard whisky geek, the 25 year old at a cool £1,800ish falls outside of my day-to-day aspirations. However, Johnnie Walker Blue Label has remained at a price point which some might consider as reassuringly expensive. And as such, its conception, creation and positioning should not really be viewed in the same way as that of marque single malt whiskies. Otherwise, outside of the juice itself you’re comparing apples with oranges.
The audience for Blue Label extends far beyond what one might consider to be whisky enthusiasts – indeed, its status within those circles is completely different to the wider world of the great unwashed. And it is within these arguably less educated audiences where the notions of the perceived prestige and quality of the product hold court. Where a bottle of Blue Label is viewed not for what it is, but for the perception that owning it and drinking it provides - emotionally. In those terms, it should come as no real surprise that Blue Label, when examined by long-time whisky fans is regularly considered to not offer the liquid experience that the price tag might suggest – “I can buy a far better single malt for the same cost”. Well, yes you can boyo – but you’ve missed the point of what Blue Label is and who it has been (very carefully) designed for.
Whilst you as an enthusiast may well know that the dusty bottle of Brora at the back of the bar is something timeless and truly special – the average Joe has never even heard of the distillery let alone sampled anything from it. But they’ve heard of and seen Blue Label. And as such they are far more likely to aspire to it.
So, is aspirational whisky such as Blue Label only about perceived prestige? Do flavour and quality play any part?
Here we need to draw some distinctions. There is an undoubted concept of aspiration which has grown steadily within the whisky collection corner of the market. But the ideals of owning all bottles from a series, year, distillery etc are psychologically underpinned in very different ways to products which might be perceived as ‘lifestyle’. Of course, there is a huge crossover – there are countless bottles being designed and produced without any intentions of even being actually opened. But whilst those are certainly aspirational – their appeals are a niche within a niche. Blue Label’s proposition is far broader than that of whisky geeks, collectors and whisky geek collectors - and as such, in those walks of life, there is far more of an expectation that bottles will actually be opened and enjoyed. Indeed, the cachet of Blue Label largely stems, not from it gathering dust in a cupboard, but from being *seen* to be drinking it.
As such, Blue Label is very much a ‘designed’ whisky with a profile which has been tuned over the decades to directly tie to its proposition. Given the wide audience for the product (which does include folks who otherwise don’t really drink whisky in other circumstances) this necessitates a profile which will have the broadest possible appeal. And that doesn’t mean cask strength, or anything approaching it I’m afraid. However, it does mean that the actual contents of the bottle, and their perceived quality – for the target market! – are most certainly required to embody the brand values and identity on which Blue Label trades. Words such as “smooth” <shudded>, “elegant” and “refined” are associations which I’ve most certainly heard from non-whisky drinking whisky drinkers. And those are largely on the money for where Blue Label is positioned. However, regardless of whether you’re a noob or a seasoned veteran, I would find it surprisingly if anyone suggested that Blue Label’s juice was outright “bad”.
It is not just the ideals of an aspirational whisky that allow it to maintain its market share – its profile and charism must also feel in-step in order for its pre-eminence to be preserved - particularly over longer periods of time. And regardless of any reviews which compare quality to price and conclude a disparity between the two, when it comes to Blue Label you will still repeatedly hear customers intone “I want that one”.
Bottle Name: Johnnie Walker Blue Label Highest Awards
The history of Blue Label can be drawn back further than its official release in 1992. Johnnie Walker’s Oldest pays more than a passing resemblance to what would go on to become one of the world’s most famous whiskies. And indeed, the makeup of this forerunner expression, noted as containing whiskies aged up to 60 years, and rumoured to included liquids from DCL’s (the forerunner to Diageo) distilleries Port Ellen and Brora have led to persistent rumours about the actual composition of Blue Label decades later– most of which increasingly don’t stand up to scrutiny.
The development of Blue Label is alleged to have stemmed from Alexander Walker’s (son of Johnnie Walker) “Old Highland Whisky” created in 1867 whose composition contained whiskies from “the four corners of Scotland”. A romantic notion for a product released over 100 years later, but still holding some water given the diversity of Diageo’s distillery portfolio and its geographic disparity.
You’ll already have noted that this Blue Label – named “Highest Awards” due to the text listing a selection of competition wins (the expression wasn’t always quite so well known) – is bottled at 43% ABV. This is not a one-off aberration similar to some of the ‘Casks Editions’ of Blue Label that are also offered at a higher (considerably) ABV. No – back in the day, Johnnie Walker Blue Label was simply bottled at this slightly higher alcoholic strength – likely as a market differential to the other JW bottles within the range.
The release is hard to precisely date, but likely comes from sometime around 1993-1994 – so shortly after the initial release of Blue Label in 1992. You’ll still see older bottlings at auction – and indeed you might well be able to pick them up at comparable prices to modern day Blue Label – which is just what I did.
Nose: White grapes and green apple slices sit alongside crunchy toffee. Developing in the glass, dry earthiness, tobacco leaf and rose petals present together with sunflower oil and touch of dried mango.
Taste: Holds its stated ABV well with a selection of waxes and oils, all of which provide body and structure. Antique orange liqueurs and cinnamon spiced toffee are joined by old style sherry, sour pineapple chunks and sponge. The mid and back palate brings additional oakiness together with a citric pang and shaving of stem ginger.
Finish: Medium in length with a selection of syrupy tinned fruits and drying, somewhat tannic wood.
Compared to its present-day manifestation, this 90s Blue Label feels less refined and polished. But what is lacks in elegance, it more than makes up with in character. Vibrancy, structure and cohesion are offered alongside occasional welcome asides into either the distillate base or cask constituents. And whilst none of this feels particularly intricate it still manages to offer a uniqueness that has been either lost or deliberately discarded from this bottling over the decades. The additional 3% ABV doesn’t feel significantly more generous in the mouth than the current day Blue Label – however the malt base most certainly includes weightier elements which really ground the expression in terms of its ‘feel’ – never anything less than “smooth”, but with plenty of presence throughout.
Bottle Name: Johnnie Walker Blue Label
The constituent malts and grains contained in the current day Johnnie Walker Blue Label will not be the same as those from bottlings created decades earlier. Whilst nowhere near as prolific an expression as some of the other releases in the JW stable – Blue Label’s conception and profile draws from a very limited number of casks from across Diageo’s portfolio of distilleries. Whilst older bottlers are noted as potentially containing small parcels from the likes of Port Ellen and Brora, I very much doubt that the current incarnation of the release digs quite so deeply into Diageo’s inventory.
However, the skill of the blender is not only in crafting for consistency, but also in crafting for profile – and with 28 distilleries Diageo’s blenders have ample depth of casks with which to select from. The marketing behind Blue Label notes that only 1 in 10,000 casks is deemed of high enough quality to go into the blend. However, whilst I’m not one to argue with those figures, when you consider the output of the 28 distilleries combined, this ratio shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise.
The cost of Blue Label varies considerably depending on where you shop and indeed where you drink (and how particular bars and venues foist the expression into the stratosphere of price). Costco here in the UK regularly sells the release for far less than you’ll find elsewhere, but assuming you’re not into buying pallets of toilet rolls (at least not until winter returns), you can find a bottle over at The Whisky Exchange for £145.
Nose: Iced buns and freshly baked brioche are livened with honey drizzled apricots, red and green apples and a scattering of assorted berry fruits. A light, but integrated smoke runs throughout – wispy and ethereal. Touch of lamp oil and lanolin are joined by burnt bracken and fern leaves.
Taste: The arrival offers decent attack for 40% ABV – but nevertheless you’re never under the impression it’s anything higher. All the honey. All the time. Tea cakes with soft and gooey toffee alongside vanilla buttercream. Toasted oak is punctuated by bites of chilli pepper whilst cinnamon and pecans sit alongside orange candyfloss and tobacco pouches.
Finish: Short and presenting spiced honey, ginger and touches of residue grassiness.
The modern incarnation of Johnnie Walker Blue Label is the epitome of an easy going whisky. Excellent blending has produced a honed product, sheened to such a level that the result feels highly unlikely to offend anyone. But that’s a double-edged sword, as the poise that Blue Label shows comes at the expense of distinctive character. Blue Label is simply whisky. Very well produced whisky – but at all times just whisky, nevertheless. With all of its edges smoothed and its spikes tamped down, there’s nowhere for this expression left to go – and therefore whilst Blue Label is an aspirational whisky for some, it’s not a particularly inspirational one.
Review sample taken from the 20 Whiskies that Changed the World - provided by The Whisky Exchange