Interview with Johnnie Walker Master Blender Jim Beveridge

Johnnie Walker Master Blender Jim Beveridge
Johnnie Walker Master Blender Jim Beveridge

It’s extremely rare for a company like Johnnie Walker to bring out a new product, and even more astounding that they’d take one of their iconic blends, Johnnie Walker Black Label, and do a different expression of it.  Johnnie Walker Double Black is distinctly Johnnie Walker, with nice approachable and balanced flavors.  With Johnnie Walker Double Black, there’s less emphasis on the sweet and fruity Speyside style of whisky, which comes largely in part from Cardhu, and more emphasis on the deeper, smokier notes from whisky like Caol Ila.  Although Double Black is bolder and more smokey than Johnnie Walker Black Labe,l it’s extremely affable and a great introduction to a smokier style of whisky.

Drink Spirits had the opportunity to talk to Johnnie Walker Master Blender, Jim Beveridge, about Johnnie Walker Double Black, how it came to be, and where it fits in the Johnnie Walker line.

It’s exciting to see that you guys have finally brought Double Black from the duty-free world out into the American market.  Give me some background on the life of this product. When did it initially start and what was the concept for it?

I guess it started about two or three years ago now. The concept was really to think of a different expression of Johnnie Walker Black Label. Black Label has all those wonderful layers of flavor and complexity, so my belief was really to create a blend that would be a different expression of all those flavors that we see in Johnnie Walker Black Label, and actually what was behind it.

Are we talking about a similar blend to Johnnie Walker Black or are we looking at different elements here?

The blend really has the same basic DNA of Johnnie Walker Black Label but there are different elements in there. Primarily, the smokiness that is in Johnnie Walker Black Label is known more overt than Johnnie Walker Black Double Black, so the west coast whisky style, that flavor style, is clearer in Johnnie Walker Black Double and that was the aim behind the blend.

It’s often said that Cardhu is the heart and soul of Johnnie Walker, and in the Double Black it feels like perhaps there might be another heart and soul. Would you say that there’s another whisky here that is represented more strongly than Cardhu?

Yes, definitely, the west coast whisky style, and I suppose Caol Ila would be a good example of that flavor style that is more overtly Johnnie Walker Double Black. Saying that, the lighter Speyside styles are still evident in Johnnie Walker Double Black but they are certainly not as clear as the other Johnnie Walker Black Label.

So you really still have all the same flavors of Johnnie Walker Black, you’ve just enhanced and are expressing different dimensions of the palate?

That’s right, it shares the same basic malts and grains as Johnnie Walker Black Label, but the extra smokiness is more distinctive. To give the blend more smokiness, I’ve had to adjust the other elements so that smokiness is balanced. The extra smokiness still works within the context of a true Walker blend with all the complexity and layers of flavors that is a Walker tradition.

Why revisit a classic blend like Black and express something new in it, versus perhaps coming up with a different expression altogether?

Johnnie Walker Black Label is an iconic blend, it’s one of the true benchmarks of our style of whisky.  Johnnie Walker Double Black takes that as its reference point. The idea was to create a new blend in the Johnnie Walker Black Label style but with a bit more of its traditional smokiness that you associate with Johnnie Walker Black Label – it’s just been dialed up a bit more in Johnnie Walker Double Black.

What was the process of creating Johnnie Walker Double Black?

It takes two, maybe three years to get to where it is now. The starting point was the belief of creating a new expression of Johnnie Walker Black Label, bearing in mind all the different flavors that are evident in Johnnie Walker Black Label.  There were a number of options and certainly I looked at many, but the one that I always came back to and the one that most resonates, that seemed the most appropriate, was to think of the the smokiness that’s associated with Johnnie Walker Black Label. To work with that and create a blend that makes that smokiness more overt but at the same time having the same balance and complexity as Johnnie Walker Black Label.

When you’re approaching making or adjusting a blend, what goes through your head when you’re sitting there with all the different malts in your tool kit?

The biggest thing for me is the respect I have for Johnnie Walker Black Label. Whatever I do, I have to be respectful of that and take great care because it’s such an iconic blend. So that’s the reference point I’m starting with. I’m very lucky because I have a pretty comprehensive choice of whiskys to choose from to make the blend,  so the starting point for me is to take all the elements that I associate with a great Johnnie Walker blend and try to blend them together in a way that meets the brief, which is to be a new expression of Johnnie Walker Black Label. But as I said, the reference point is always back to Johnnie Walker Black Label because of the huge respect I have for that blend. I wanted to make an expression that is true to that tradition but at the same time different.

So when they came to you and said that they were looking at putting out a new expression of Johnnie Walker, what was your reaction to that?

I am a cautious sort of guy, so on one hand, yeah, I love to create new Walker blends. There’s a tradition within the company to innovate and to create new blends, so that is a part of the tradition of working for Johnnie Walker. At the same time, it’s great to innovate and it’s great to create new expressions, but there is a great responsibility because we have a great range of whiskys, so any new whisky has to meet those standards before it can even hit the ground. It has to match all the standards of all all the existing blends, so there is a responsibility there to get that right, so you have to carry that as well.

Did you have a few different candidates that could have become Johnnie Walker Double Black before settling on the final one?

It’s interesting, I had a few candidates on my blending table, obviously sharing with others as we were talking about it, but it became really obvious there was really only one candidate.  I can still remember the day when we created Johnnie Walker Double Black, and once it was made, it become really obvious that it was the one.  There weren’t any choices after that point. The next stage after that was to get some consumer research and we got such great feedback from that. That just confirmed that what we experienced in the blending room was actually going to work with consumers as well. The difficult bit was creating the blend, but once we had landed that, there weren’t any other contenders. It became quite a simple choice.

What do you make of the fact that in the cognac spirit category, the blenders are held as the highest art, but in the whisky category that isn’t always the case.  I think as a blender you almost have to fight the single malt voices for some respect. Why do you think there are these two very different approaches to this very complex and very intense art and science of blending?

Internally we’ve got huge respect, within the business, my role is really very important. I think it’s the debate with single malts that the position of scotch whisky blender is a different position from, say, the guys who are making these great cognacs, for example, because you are right, that’s just one category which stands on its own. Within the world of scotch whisky we have blended whiskys and we have the single malts. I think these days there’s increasing recognition of blends. I have noticed that over the last couple of years, the idea that blends have a lot to offer. Single malts are great, but blends have perhaps more to offer in terms of flavor experiences, so I think gradually the skills and talents of scotch whisky blenders are becoming more recognized now than in the past.

Absolutely, and I think especially when an iconic brand like Johnnie Walker puts out a new expression and drinkers can sit down with both Johnnie Walker Black and Johnnie Walker Double Black and compare what’s going on here, how a blender can take two similar recipes and make two very different expressions.

And still be true to them both, if you like – that was the challenge. How did find Johnnie Walker Double Black?

I like it very much. I’m madly love with Caol Ila and so having the characters of one of the spirits that I so adore be brightened up and enhanced but still in balance with everything else, I think was just wonderfully artful. I often point non whisky drinkers to blends to start with because they get that rainbow of flavors, they don’t have to decide what region of Scotland they want to start with. They can start with a symphony of many of them and start picking out the flavors that call to them the most.

That’s great, I’m really pleased to hear you say that, Geoff, because that’s a brand I’ve been buying for a number of years.

From a practical point of view, Caol Ila is pretty small, so does doing a product that maybe perhaps relies on it a bit more create any production or availability  issues?

That’s always the first thing we do when we create new expressions, we look the inventory to make sure that whatever we make is going to be sustainable.  We’re confident that we have the stocks that could sustain Johnnie Walker Double Black. We are extremely fortunate in having a distillery like Caol Ila so at Johnnie Walker we can make a hundred percent use of those stocks, which is a huge advantage.

What’s your relationship like with individual distilleries, both from a working relationship point of view and a general point of view?

It’s a great relationship because there is almost daily contact with them.  One of the things to think about is that malt distilleries and the kind of flavors they produce today have really been determined by the great whisky blends and what malts they need. So there is an ongoing dialog between myself as a blender and the distillers. At the end of the day, the blends are such a huge part of our portfolio that the conversation between myself and malt distillers has to be good conversation and it has to be an ongoing one so the kind of flavors the malt distilleries are making are the ones that are going to work best in our blends.

So what you are saying is what is in the single malt glass from a distillery like Caol Ila is greatly influenced by the production they are also doing for the blend?

Yes, and I think that that holds true for most malt distilleries. Their production has been influenced by what the blenders want from those malt distilleries. Historically most of the production at malt distilleries was for blends.

I don’t want you to break down the entire recipe on both Johnnie Walker Black and Johnnie Walker Double Black, but if somebody is entranced by the core flavors of Johnnie Walker Black, what single malts do you then recommend they explore, and the same for Double Black?

With Johnnie Walker Black Label there are lots of layers of expression in there. There’s the fresh fruitiness that is typical of the Speyside malts, and then there’s also a rich depth that’s also part of the traditional Johnnie Walker flavor that comes from the kind of casks the malts have been matured in. Those rich, dry fruity flavors are coming from European oak as much as from American oak. Then, obviously there’s the smokiness from the Islay whisky.  You kind go off in about three directions: the malts in Johnnie Walker Black Label and Johnnie Walker Double Black that are sort of fresh fruit take you into the Speyside style, and obviously Cardhu is a real benchmark for Speyside style malts; then, there’s the heavier style which is well complemented with maturity in European Oak, in terms of good examples of that they are much lesser well known distilleries that aren’t known for single malts, used for much of those flavors; and, obviously, the Islay malts are based around the well know Islay whiskys styles like Caol Ila.

If Johnnie Walker Double Black is a real success and you find traction in the marketplace, is there thinking around doing Double Blue, Double Green, Double Gold?

Well, there is always room for innovation, certainly.  In a way, this expression is rather unique and it probably sits best with Johnnie Walker Black Label. With Johnnie Walker Black Label and Johnnie Walker Double Black, there is wonderful relationship between those two. It’s a unique combination and I feel that’s probably best for that positioning. If there are to be other expressions of the other labels, I think those expressions will go different directions.

So what you are really saying this a real distinct and unique pairing here that is really systemic to what Johnnie Walker Black is.

I think so, yes. Although I think Johnnie Walker Double Black will become known in its own right as well.  I believe it’s a great blend so it will have its own unique following as well, I think.

I completely agree, it’s an excellent blend and I enjoy the fact that there is another expression in this space.

Johnnie Walker Double Black sells for around $40 a bottle and is available now in the US for a limited time, although we expect if it’s a hit that Johnnie Walker will find a permanent home for it in their line up.

Be sure to read our review of Johnnie Walker Double Black Whisky