Blended Scotch is a mix of malt whisky and nonmaltmalt grain whisky. Non-malt grain whisky is easier and less costly to produce, using large, highly efficient continuous distillation in the form of column stills. The resulting spirit is thought to be lighter, less interesting and less full of character and flavor.
Malt whisky, which is made of 100 percent malted barley, is comparatively expensive and slow to produce. It is made in a less-efficient batch-distillation pot still, but is thought to render a more intense and interesting flavor. Blends are generally designed to be consistent and relatively cheaply reproduced, so that a recognizable brand can be produced in vast quantities without fluctuation in taste or quality.
The Johnnie Walker brand of blended Scotch whisky is the world’s most successful, selling more than 130 million bottles every year (over 1.65 million cases in the United States alone).
The brand began in 1820, when the eponymous Walker, aged 15, began a small grocery store in Kilmarnock, Scotland. He specialized in blending tea — a skill that would lead him to blending whiskies. Walker’s son, Alexander, joined the family business in 1856, and it was he and his sons who transformed the grocery into a Scotch whisky empire.
Though the Walker family cashed out in 1925, the brand had already become a colossus and today continues to dominate (under the ownership of Diageo — the world’s largest producer of distilled spirits).
The whisky brand was originally called “Walker’s Kilmarnock Whisky” and then “Walker’s Old Highland Whisky” with “Special” and “Extra Special” variants. In 1909, this was changed to “Johnnie Walker” “White,” “Red” and “Black Label.” The “White Label” disappeared around 1920, and then in 1936, “Johnnie Walker Swing” was introduced. The undulating bottle design was meant to cope with ocean waves, presumably, as felt in the first-class lounges of transatlantic liners. “Blue Label” was introduced in 1992, “Gold” in 1995 and “Green” in 1997.
Then, a couple of years ago, came “Double Black.” Then “Platinum” was introduced in 2013. In various travel retail (“duty free”) markets, there are a few other expensive official variants knocking around as well. And now this new “Johnnie Walker Select Casks” range.
In the case of the new “Johnnie Walker Select Casks, Rye Cask Finish,” Johnnie Walker’s Master Blender Jim Beveridge took a blended Scotch whisky (the Cardhu single malt is the heart of the blend”) that had matured for at least 10 years in first-fill American Oak casks, and then transferred it to ex-American rye whiskey casks. This might not seem startling, but Johnny Walker is one of the most conservative, cautious, brand-protective producers of Scotch whisky. Potentially messing with the iconic Johnny Walker brand image is a very big deal and gutsy too. Thankfully, it is great.
Johnnie Walker Select Cask, Blended Scotch Whisky, Rye Cask Finish (46 percent abv; $45): This is a complex, dynamic and wonderfully drinkable blended Scotch. Surprisingly, the rye whiskey finish really dominates here, introducing unusual notes of dill and hearty rye bread, while the mouth-feel remains rich and creamy. Think of it as a cross between a robust, spicy American rye whiskey with the body of a Speyside Scotch whisky. It offers additional characteristics: brown sugar, a hint of citrus, macaroons, dried walnuts, nutmeg, vanilla, a puff of smoke somewhere in the middle, cinnamon and racy rye notes. The finish is spicy, nicely balanced by some lovely brown sugar. This is elegant, dry, smooth and fabulous. L’chaim!