Three recent Johnnie Walker limited editions showcase temporal significance. The renowned blended Scotch brand just released Year of the Ox, a special packaging of Blue Label that honors the Chinese New Year that begins today. The other two—John Walker & Sons Celebratory Blend and The Legendary Eight Blue Label—were designed for the company’s 200th anniversary and evoke whiskies from long ago.
The limited “Ox” bottling could not have been better timed given recent history, and all who have endured 2020 hope the message on the packaging is correct. The huge beast of burden is a symbol of strength in the Chinese 12-year cycle and the wording on the box heralds a year of good fortune, prosperity and growth. The bottle illustration, created by the artist Shirley Gong, is colorful with the rearing ox posed high on a crest among clouds, lanterns, cherry blossoms and what appear to be fireworks.
While the Year of the Ox commemorates the present year, the other two hark to times long ago and point up the changes in Johnnie Walker throughout the distinguished brand’s history.
Because of the fluctuating flavor and availability of single malts, blended whiskies are not mixed to a precise formula. Rather the master blenders—in this case Jim Beveridge and his 12-member team—work with a varying palette of whiskies with the aim to preciously match a target flavor from batch to batch. Typically, the process starts with signature base malts. In the case of Johnnie Walker Blue they include Cardhu and Clyneleish as well as some Islay malts for their traditionally smoky notes. (Johnnie Walker’s parent Diageo owns the Caol Ila and Lagavulin distilleries on that western island.) However, over many, many years (two centuries in the case of Johnnie Walker) taste profiles change, either by design or through the shifting availability of distilleries.
The Celebratory Blend looks back to the 1860s and the Old Highland Whisky that was released at that time throughout the world. The new whiskey was inspired by stock books of the original John Walker of the time and is blended to match the original whisky’s strong body using malts from distilleries that operated in those days.
The Legendary Eight looks clear back to 1820 when John Walker made his first blend. It melds eight whiskies that would have been available to the blender at the time: Blair Athol, Brora, Cambus, Carsebridge, Lagavulin, Oban, Port Dundas, and Teaninich. Four of those malts—Brora, Cambus, Carsebridge and Port Dundas—come from ghost distilleries, meaning they no longer operate. However, Brora is scheduled to reopen.
Whether you ride the ox, celebrate the Highlands or seek out the ghost, these are whiskies destined to please.
JOHNNIE WALKER BLUE LABEL YEAR OF THE OX (92 proof, $230)
- Appearance: Rich copper color, thick legs that hang on before releasing themselves.
- Nose: A nuanced mix of smoke and fruit.
- Palate: Floral and fruity with wheat, honey, caramel, chocolate and hard candy.
- Finish: A very long ending that traipses through the palate notes and adds a reminder of peat smoke.
JOHN WALKER & SONS CELEBRATORY BLEND (101 proof, $75)
- Appearance: Light bronze/corn silk color. Stingy about giving up its teardrop legs.
- Nose: Caramel, toffee, almond and a bit of ginger.
- Palate: Syrupy fruit notes with light toast, graham cracker and tangerine. Assuredly full-bodied with hints of smoke.
- Finish: Christmas pudding with a bit of cocoa and a spicy note.
JOHNNIE WALKER BLUE LABEL LEGENDARY EIGHT (87.6 proof, $350)
- Appearance: Amber color, legs come down like icicles.
- Nose: Caramel, toffee, passion fruit, citrus and a wisp of peat.
- Palate: A big flavor bomb with raisins, tropical fruit, pears, white chocolate, vanilla and caramel. Unrelentingly sweet.
- Finish: This is where the Lagavulin peat comes through, with a bit of a smack of spice. But still you’ll be tasting sweet dessert long afterward.