We’ve been talking a lot about a massive change in the Scotch Whisky market lately with a clear move away from age stated whiskies. Johnnie Walker has made another major move in this direction by replacing its highly acclaimed Johnnie Walker Gold Label 18 year Blended whisky with the new Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve. For its “introduction” (the whisky was previously only available in travel retail internationally), Johnnie Walker has put the new Gold Label Reserve into a shiny gold bottle that looks a lot like the Ace of Spaces (aka Armand de Brignac champagne) packaging. The shiny gold bottle isn’t intended to be the permanent packaging for Gold Label Reserve as it’s billed as a “limited time offering.” This is probably a good thing as the packaging is one of the worst we’ve seen come out of Johnnie Walker.
Another major change for Johnnie Walker’s Gold offering is the dropping of the 18 year old age statement. The Scotch Whisky industry has seen some dramatic shortages of 18 year old malts, and while Gold Label has traditionally been an 18 year old product, Johnnie Walker Platinum Label has now taken over that space. Perhaps the most difficult change for Johnnie Walker fans is the price. Johnnie Walker Gold Label 18 year traditionally retailed for around $85, this new Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve was initially rumored to come in around the $65 price point (a fair adjustment for a much younger product), but unfortunately, much to our surprise, Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve comes in at the painfully high $87. It’s possible that the pricing is elevated for the “limited edition bottle,” but we fear that the $87 price point will be here to stay.
To be fair, we’ve decided to start with a review of the new Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve individually, before we start comparing it to Gold Label 18.
Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve (40% ABV / 80 proof, $87) – light amber in color, Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve has a very sweet and fruity nose with honey, apricot, and raisin. These fruit notes are monstrous and leap out of the glass. Underneath this fruit is a very subtle smoke, a little salinity, a touch of oak spice, and a little barnyard hay. The entry for Gold Label Reserve feels a little thin and watery, which is a disconnect from the extremely expressive nose. It takes a moment for the flavors to really arrive on the palate, but once they do they are a pale version of the notes in the nose with honeyed malt, apricot, and raisin. In the midpalate the slight smoke from the nose does emerge along with very slight black pepper, but it’s the oak that really jumps out and begins to take over the fruit, throwing whisky off balance. Towards the end of the midpalate the fruit notes begin to dry out and are replaced by light citrus. The finish on Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve is fairly short and dry, mostly dominated by citrus, light smoke, and strong oak.
Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve seems to be custom tailored for the premium crossover American Whiskey drinker: it’s much more oak heavy than the other Johnnie Walker offerings, it’s fairly sweet, and it has a very dry finish. Johnnie Walker Gold has the affability of a blend without anything that’s going to really challenge or offend anyone. It’s a complete mystery how this liquid found its way into a near $100 offering. That is until you listen to Brian Radics, Director of Scotch Whisky with Diageo frame the whisky, “Gold Label Reserve provides consumers with a unique flavor for high energy celebrations that may not have been traditionally looked at as a Scotch whisky occasion.” It’s unfortunate that Diageo decided to swap out what was considered one of their top connoisseur blends for a product aimed at nightclubs and traditionally non-whisky “occasions.”
So how does it compare with Johnnie Walker Gold Label 18 (aka The Centenary Blend)?
Johnnie Walker Gold Label 18 (40% ABV / 80 proof, $85 – discontinued) – while it’s the same light amber color as Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve, Gold Label 18 has an extraordinarily different nose. Instead of monster fruit, the nose on Gold Label 18 is a well integrated and complex blend of aromas including a nice soft smoke, malted barley, honey, varnished oak, dried apricot, and a little brininess. While the mouth feel of Johnnie Walker Gold Label 18 is light, it’s not nearly as watery as Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve and it is much more forthcoming with its flavor notes, which are more closely aligned with its nose. The entry leads immediately with some of the sweeter elements of the whisky with honey, dried apricot, and apple. These fruit notes are combined with a nice clear malt flavor. In the midpalate a pleasant smokiness emerges from the heart of this whisky which combines with a solid salinity that integrates wonderfully with the fruit notes. Towards the end of the midpalate the whisky takes on a little spice with oak, black pepper, and ginger. The finish is fairly long and is a superb blend of the sweet, smoky, and spice elements all coming to a slightly dry conclusion.
Johnnie Walker Gold Label 18 is a phenomenal example of a quality blended scotch. It brings together a wide variety of flavors and delivers a nice level of complexity and integration while still maintaing a lighter style of flavor experience and a high level of affability. Johnnie Walker Gold Label does a superb job of bringing together many of the different kinds of malts in the Johnnie Walker universe into a singular expression that demonstrates why blended scotch is so highly consumed.
With 18 year old malts in limited supply, it’s not a shock that Johnnie Walker pulled the age statement from their Gold Label release; what is a shock is how dramatically they’ve shifted the strategy for a product with almost the same name. Johnnie Walker fans looking to Gold Label Reserve as a replacement for their beloved Johnnie Walker Gold Label 18 will be severely disappointed, maybe even downright mad. These two Johnnie Walker Gold Label releases couldn’t be more different. The change, though, isn’t entirely out of context. Johnnie Walker has quickly become one of the world’s great aspirational brands. In many countries it has outpaced the indigenous spirit, a feat considered nearly impossible just a decade ago. Johnnie Walker’s premium line, including the now discontinued Johnnie Walker Green Label Malt Blend and Johnnie Walker Gold Label 18, along with the astronomically priced Johnnie Walker Blue, used to be much more focused on the blended whisky connoisseur. The line now with Johnnie Walker Platinum and Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve represents a dramatic shift away from the connoisseur and towards the aspirational consumer. Diageo is clearly banking on the fact that they can re-capture the connoisseur with one of their many single malt offerings (it’s no coincidence that Talisker Storm was released at the same time as Gold Label Reserve).
Our best advice is for connoisseurs of blended Scotch whisky to run out and stock up on some of the few remaining bottles of the Johnnie Walker Gold Label 18 Year still out there in liquor stores. Johnnie Walker Gold Label 18 represents the end of an era for Johnnie Walker blended scotch whisky, one that will be fondly remembered.