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Wednesday 16 May 2012

As Good As Gold?

Recently news reached us concerning a new Johnnie Walker expression darting out of the starting blocks very soon, coupled with the launch of a newly formulated Johnnie Walker Gold Label. Question is, were we excited?  The answer was of course a resounding yes.

No matter what people may have to say about this universally available brand, it has changed the landscape of blended whisky forever and in new emerging markets JW is currently blazing a trail as an upwardly mobile drink for new palates to enjoy. Johnnie Walker Gold Label (the 18yo) has pretty much been my house blend since I chanced upon a bottle about six years ago and despite its age, is a superbly versatile whisky, which works in a variety of ways - from sipping neat from a nosing glass to  enjoying with a block of ice in front of the TV.

 Johnnie Walker's growing ambitions

When I heard that the 18yo edition of Gold Label was being phased out, my heart skipped a beat. Surely some mistake I thought, but the writing was on the wall for this undoubtedly premium blend and I was hugely disappointed at its loss.

However, the good news is that it hasn't gone completely, just had a facelift - and grown a twin brother made out of an even more precious metal - Platinum.

JW Master Blender Jim Beveridge has reformulated Gold Label, removing the age statement in the process - dropping its price down to around £40. Good news indeed. But what's wrong with it being 18 years old, I hear you say? Well, in Jim's own words: "age statements can be quite constraining - with a no age statement whisky it gives me a much wider scope to work with."

The newly formulated Gold Label Reserve has, according to Jim, around 20-25 different malts and 2-3 grain whiskies in its creation and took about 4 months to develop. The 'Reserve' aspect apparently refers to a proportion of casks earmarked for greatness, held in Diageo's vast warehousing complexes.

The question is whether the new Gold Label will maintain the original's zeal- and appeal.  Or, will it take it to somewhere altogether different?

Johnnie Walker - Gold Label Reserve - Blended Whisky - 40%

Nose: Fudge notes, drying sherry, dried prunes, vanilla and heather honey. Water brings notes of classic light Walker smoke and candied fruit. So far, so good.

Palate: Initially very light, with vanilla and waxy honey (the influence of Clynelish is still really apparent.) Given time, the blend really begins to open up with a distinct smokiness and a slightly thin grainy note. With water, the grains show themselves a little more, followed by sliced apple and more of the Clynelish waxiness.

Finish: Lingering smokiness and a touch of dried fruit.

Overall: Ok, let's get this straight: it isn't the same blend as the 18 year old Centenary Edition. Part of me feels like this is less of a whisky, but then again, I feel i'd drink this version of Gold Label in a different way. It screams out for slamming a bottle in the freezer, making high-balls, mixing with ginger wine and everything in between. It won't happen overnight, but i'm going to re-visit this as a whisky to crack out at parties, rather than just hoarding for my greedy ol' self.  

Next up- Johnnie Walker Platinum 18 years old. I have been wanting to try this since discovering Diageo were developing it some months back. Looking at the pricing structure of the JW blends, there always seemed to be a bit of a hole in the range, especially given the fact that Gold Label was approximately a third of the price of Blue Label. I had assumed that this would be priced accordingly, at around the £80 mark, but was surprised to hear it will come in at £69. The cynic would say that it has taken the place of old Gold label 18yo, with an additional £15 price tag, but as we have seen with the Gold Label Reserve, appearances can be deceiving. 

Johnnie Walker - Platinum - Blended Whisky - 18 years old - 40% 

Nose: Streuth. This is really good, straight off the bat. Rich spiced notes, mix with plum pudding, stewed rhubarb, cherry compote and aromatic cedar wood smoke. Superbly balanced. The vanillas start to creep in on the fruit given a little time in the glass and notes of orange oil grab your attention.  

Palate: Very oily and thick on the palate. heavily fragranced, with baked oranges, subtle notes of caramel shortcake, orange sherbet and gentle smoke. With water, cereal notes develop, with cherry jam and fudge. 

Finish: More stewed fruit, with a lingering note of the the wonderfully aromatic smoke. 

Overall:  There's no flannel here -  this really is a masterpiece of blending. The balance between rich malts (apparently 30-odd), plus several differently aged grains is exquisite. This doesn't really need water as such, but a small splash helps lift the aromas to new heights.  

Despite feeling like I'll really miss the 18yo Gold Label, with the Platinum becoming available I won't feel too upset for long. Yes, it's more expensive, but like the new Gold (which is considerably cheaper), it's a totally different - but in many ways, a far superior blend. The Gold Reserve is now a more affordable 'upsell' (god, I hate that phrase) to Black Label and will work wonderfully in convivial situations - but if you are a fan of the 18yo version- don't expect this to be the same whisky- it isn't. Stock up now before it disappears from the shelves. Then when it's run out, you have a choice to make -  thankfully, there is likely to be a happy ending whatever you decide to buy next.