Johnnie Walker Green Label 15 Year Old Scotch Whisky Advent Calendar 21 December 2018
Johnnie Walker is a brand of Scotch whisky now owned by Diageo that originated in the Scottish town of Kilmarnock, East Ayrshire. The brand was first established by grocer John Walker. It is the most widely distributed brand of blended Scotch whisky in the world, sold in almost every country, with annual sales of the equivalent of over 223.7 million 700 ml bottles in 2016 (156.6 million liters).
When John Walker, born on 25 July 1805, lost his farmer father in 1819, the family sold the farm and their trustees invested the proceeds, £417, in an Italian warehouse, grocery, and wine and spirits shop on the High Street in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, Scotland. Walker managed the grocery, wine and spirits segment as a teenager in 1820. The Excise Act of 1823 relaxed strict laws on distillation of whisky and reduced, by a considerable amount, the extremely heavy taxes on the distillation and sale of whisky. By 1825, Walker, was selling spirits, including rum, brandy, gin and whisky.
In short order, he switched to dealing mainly in whisky. Since blending of grain and malt whiskies was still banned, he was selling both blended malt whiskies and grain whiskies. They were sold as made-to-order whiskies, blended to meet specific customer requirements, because he did not have any brand of his own. He began using his name on labels years later, selling a blended malt as Walker’s Kilmarnock Whisky. John Walker died in 1857.
Alexander Walker, son of John Walker, inherited the business following his father’s death.
The brand became popular, but after Walker’s death it was his son Alexander ‘Alec’ Walker and grandson Alexander Walker II who were largely responsible for establishing the whisky as a favored brand. The Spirits Act of 1860 legalized the blending of grain whiskies with malt whiskies and ushered in the modern era of blended Scotch whisky. Andrew Usher of Edinburgh, Scotland, was the first to capitalize on blended Scotch whisky, a more accessible whisky that was lighter and sweeter in character, making it much more marketable to a wider audience, followed by the Walkers in due course.
Alexander Walker had introduced the brand’s signature square bottle in 1860. This meant more bottles fitting the same space and fewer broken bottles. The other identifying characteristic of the Johnnie Walker bottle was the label, which, since that year, is applied at an angle of 24 degrees upwards left to right and allows text to be made larger and more visible. This also allowed consumers to identify it at a distance. One major factor in his favor was the arrival of a railway in Kilmarnock, carrying goods to merchant ships travelling the world. Thanks to Alec’s business acumen, sales of Walker’s Kilmarnock reached 100,000 gallons (450,000 liters) per year by 1862.
In 1865, Alec created Johnnie Walker’s first commercial blend and called it Old Highland Whisky, before registering it as such in 1867.
Under John Walker, whisky sales represented eight percent of the firm’s income; by the time Alexander was ready to pass on the company to his own sons, that figure had increased to between 90 and 95 percent.
In 1893, Cardhu distillery was purchased by the Walkers to reinforce the stocks of one of the Johnnie Walker blends’ key malt whiskies. This move took the Cardhu single malt out of the market and made it the exclusive preserve of the Walkers. Cardhu’s output was to become the heart of the Old Highland Whisky and, subsequent to the rebranding of 1909, the prime single malt in Johnnie Walker Red and Black Labels.
From 1906 to 1909, John’s grandsons George and Alexander II expanded the line and had three blended whiskies in the market, Old Highland at 5 years old, Special Old Highland at 9 years old, and Extra Special Old Highland at 12 years old. These three brands had the standard Johnnie Walker labels, the only difference being their color, White, Red and Black respectively; they were commonly being referred to in public by the color of their labels. In 1909, as part of a rebranding that saw the introduction of the Striding Man, a mascot used to the present day that was created by cartoonist Tom Browne, the company re-branded their blends to match the common color names. The Old Highland was renamed Johnnie Walker White Label, and made a 6 year old, the Special Old Highland became Johnnie Walker Red Label at 10 years old, and Extra Special Old Highland was renamed Johnnie Walker Black Label remaining 12 years old.
Sensing an opportunity for their brands in terms of expansion of scale and variety, The Walker company became a shareholder in Coleburn Distillery in 1915, quickly followed by Clynelish Distillery Co. and Dailuaine-Talisker Co. in 1916. This ensured a steady supply of the output from the Cardhu, Coleburn, Clynelish, Talisker and Dailuaine distilleries. In 1923, John Walker & Sons bought Mortlach distillery, in furtherance of their strategy. Most of their output was used in Johnnie Walker blends, whose burgeoning popularity required increasingly vast volumes of single malts.
Johnnie Walker White was dropped during World War I. In 1932, Alexander II added Johnnie Walker Swing to the line, the name originating from the unusual shape of the bottle, which allowed it to rock back and forth.
The company joined Distillers Company in 1925. Distillers Company was acquired by Guinness in 1986, and Guinness merged with Grand Metropolitan to form Diageo in 1997. That year saw the introduction of the blended malt, Johnnie Walker Pure Malt, renamed as Johnnie Walker Green Label in 2004.
When the brand’s owners, Diageo, announced its decision in 2009 to close all operations in the town of Kilmarnock, it met with backlash from local people, local politics and then First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond. Despite petitions, public campaigns and a large-scale march around Kilmarnock, Diageo continued to forge ahead with the closure. The Johnnie Walker plant in Kilmarnock closed its doors in March 2012.
Johnnie Walker’s range of labels include:
- Red Label (40%) – A non age stated blend. It has been the best selling Scotch whisky in the world since 1945. Its primary use now is for making mixed drinks.
- Black Label (40%) – Aged at least 12 years, it is one of the world’s best-selling premium Scotch whiskies.
- Double Black Label (40%) – Made available for general release in 2011 after a successful launch in travel retail. The whisky was created taking Black Label as a blueprint, adding more peaty malt whiskies to it and maturing it in heavily charred old oak casks.
- Gold Label: A blend of over 15 single malts, it was derived from Alexander Walker II’s blending notes for a whisky to commemorate Johnnie Walker’s centenary. Originally, Gold Label was bottled at 18 years and labelled “The Centenary blend”.In 2013, Gold Label was replaced by a no age statement blend, labelled “Gold Label Reserve”.
- Aged 18 Years (40%) – Originally introduced as Platinum Label, it was introduced to replace the original Gold Label in the Asian market, and sold alongside Gold Label Reserve. Though still available around the globe, the Platinum Label name was discontinued in mid-2017 and replaced by Johnnie Walker Aged 18 Years. The two are identical except for the label.
- Blue Label (40%) – Johnnie Walker’s premium blend with no age statement. Johnnie Walker Blue Label is blended to recreate the character and taste of some of the earliest whisky blends created in the 19th century. Bottles are numbered serially and sold in a silk-lined box accompanied by a certificate of authenticity. It is one of the most expensive blended Scotch Whiskies on the market, with prices in the range of US$174–450. Over 25 Limited Editions have been released till date.
- Johnnie Walker Swing (40%) – Supplied in a distinctive bottle whose irregular bottom allows it to rock back and forth. This type of bottle design was originally used aboard sailing ships. It was Alexander Walker II’s last blend: it features a high proportion of Speyside malts, complemented by malts from the northern Highlands and Islay.
Johnnie Walker Green Label 15 Year Old (43%)
Green Label was first introduced in 1997 as Johnnie Walker Pure Malt 15 Year Old, it was renamed Johnnie Walker Green Label in 2004. Green Label is a blended malt whisky, meaning it is made by mixing single malts with no grain whisky added. All whiskies used are a minimum of 15 years old. Diageo discontinued Green Label globally in 2012 (except for Taiwan, where demand for blended malts is very strong), as part of a reconstruction of the range that saw the introduction of Gold Label Reserve and Platinum Label. The brand was reintroduced in 2016 and is again globally available.
Check out my YouTube video of my tasting it during the 2018 Scotch Whisky Advent Calendar here: