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Monday, 8 April 2013

The Path to Gold: Johnnie Walker Explorers' Club Gold Route

Like that regular visit to the doctor, every year, Scotch whisky gets a bit of a health check from the folks at the SWA: assessing its international performance, growth, uncharacteristic hotspots and areas of concern.

And like a thoroughbred race horse, (but not 'Seabass', judging by my crumpled betting slip from Saturday's Grand National) Scotch appears to be in an even ruder health than it was this time last year.  Exports are up once again with the 2012 figures showing the the Scotch whisky business worth a staggering £4.3 billion, an increase of 87% over the last decade.  New markets such as South America have seen increases as much as 14% since last year's figures and the USA sits at the top of the whisky fountain with imports breaking through the £700 million mark for the first time.

Despite this, the volume of Scotch whisky exports actually declined by 5%, demonstrating that consumers are looking more towards higher end, luxury and premium products amongst their blends and single malts.

Hot off the back of such positivity comes the news from Diageo, that they are investing substantially in building a brand new (as yet un-named) distillery in Teaninich with the capacity to produce up to 13 million litres of spirit, alongside expansion of the existing Teaninich and Mortlach distilleries to practically double capacity. Heady days indeed. This is a clear indication that we are living in an era where Scotch (TM) is as industrious and as bankable a commodity as one is likely to find.

Of course, some people have a hard time with the fact that whisky has been taken out of the hands of the privileged few and pushed outwards to the masses, which is of course an absurd sentiment.  Yes, we're no longer going to find 1970's single cask Ardbegs for the price of KFC Bargain Bucket, but travel virtually anywhere around the globe and you'll find a decent whisky behind the bar.  To be a continued global success, whisky needs to keep looking forward, not reminiscing about the 'good old days', with wizened hands clawing onto a single cask Port Ellen, bottle number 1 of 12.  
As Oliver Klimek recently wrote on his excellent Dramming blog, the whisky business does not exist simply to provide whisky geeks with single cask bottlings. To be frank, without the likes of internationally renowned blends, it would simply cease to exist at all.  

So onto one of those blends.  Johnnie Walker is perhaps the most ubiquitous whisky, if not brand name in the world.  The recent activity in the Walker camp - from the introduction of Platinum, to the extra smoky Double Black, alongside the Director's Blends have demonstrated that the brand continues to walk at a particularly spritely pace.  Now more recently, the Striding Man has decided to take a sojourn abroad with the release of the Explorers' Club Collection; a trio of bottlings launched exclusively into Global Travel Retail, now a lucrative market all of its own right.  We reviewed the inaugural bottling, Spice Road, at Christmas and at a shade under £30 were hugely impressed by its balance of spice, seasoned oak, dried fruit and classic Walker smoke.   So when the next bottling, Gold Route hit the shelves we were intrigued.  Would the thread of Walker excellence remain? The price is approximately twice that of the Spice Route at around £60 or $95, so expectations are high, all things considered. 

Johnnie Walker - Gold Route - 40% - 1 Litre

Nose: Soft fudge, freshly sliced ginger, a lighter sooty note coupled with a touch of medicinal peat,  vanilla sponge cake and fondant icing.  With a little water, a more creamy coconut note emerges, alongside a welcoming gentle woodsmoke and some very subtle orchard fruit notes, tinned pineapple and condensed milk. Very good indeed. 

Palate:  Sooty and a little grainy at first, with some tingling liquorice notes, a malted cereal sweetness a vanilla fudge creaminess, some mint humbugs and zesty lemons.  In fact, the mouthfeel is quite sharp and zesty, the further in you travel.  Some lingering smoke on the death rounds out a feisty palate indeed. With water, the fruitiness starts to come to the fore, with icing sugar-dusted red apple, a touch of  Juicy Fruit chewing gum and an aniseed ball, thrown in for good measure.  

Finish: Lemon zest, a touch of anise and a lingering mintiness nestle alongside something slightly grainy. 

Overall:  Whilst this isn't lacking in stature, in my opinion it perhaps lacks some the more direct notes offered by the Spice Road.  It has some subtle spice of its own, which sits alongside the creaminess and definitely benefits from a few drops of water to really coax the beast of complexity from its cave.   The question is, would one buy a bottle of this, over two bottles of Spice Road?   I'm not sold yet, but one suspects that like life's more challenging constitutionals, there is more to this walk than first meets the eye...