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Johnnie Walker Pure Malt

Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
Alec Baldwin, May/June 2004

American fans of Johnnie Walker Scotches who have been green with envy of those abroad who could buy the company's Pure Malt 15 year old whisky will now just be in the Green Label, as the spirit with a label of the same color is known. For the first time it's being imported to these shores. The whisky had been available only overseas or at duty-free in the past decade. It represents a style of whisky that is somewhere between single malts and blends. Pure Malt is a marriage of different single malts, but doesn't include any grain whiskies as a blended Scotch would.

Sometimes called a vatted malt, such whisky has not been well known in the United States. Johnnie Walker Pure Malt may change all that. The Green Label jumps out like a single malt, but then takes the palette on a flavor safari that no one malt could travel, commuting back and forth from smoky, peaty Islay to elegant, floral Speyside. Unlike a blend, which typically will steer its components toward subtlety, the Pure Malt always maintains the edge of its pot-stilled parts. This makes an interesting taste exercise as you endeavor to pick out the single malts, which include Talisker from the Isle of Skye, Caol Ila of Islay, and Linkwood and Cragganmore from the Speyside Highlands. The nose is honeyed and perfumed, with cake icing, peat and a bit of cheese. The honey and smoke continue on the palate, joined by licorice as the cheese hint turns to sharp Stilton. The long finish is buttered toast with marmalade.

Johnnie Walker master blender Jim Beveridge says the challenge of Green Label was to have a wide flavor spectrum that didn't clash and a whisky that was "at heart a Walker malt. That doesn't always work. We had to introduce different kinds of wood." The Islay whiskies were aged in American oak to best let the distilleries, character show through, and some Speysides rested in European oaks, he reports. "It's all about making the flavors stand out more and be more vibrant. That allows us to create flavors that aren't possible from one malt alone."

Richard Nichols, senior vice president product group director for Scotch whisky, says the introduction of Green Label is driven by requests for it and it will be rolled out slowly in the first year to the tune of 5,000 cases of the whisky, which sells for $50 a bottle. His hope is that the Pure Malt will turn the heads of those who regard single malts as "the crown jewel" and showcase the talents of master blenders. Beveridge concurs: "How we make it is the servant to how it tastes, not the other way round. The most important thing is the flavor."

Visit www.johnniewalker.com.

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