Cask finished releases are extremely common in the Scotch Whisky category, especially among single malt whiskies. While many Scotch Whisky blends use a variety of cask-aged spirits to construct their flavor profile, very few releases actually discuss or focus on the finishing process. It’s noteworthy then that Johnnie Walker, one of the largest blended whiskies in the world, would jump into this space with a new line of limited edition blends acutely focused on cask finishes.
The first in the Johnnie Walker Select Cask series is a Rye Cask Finish which brings together a blend of whiskies aged for 10 years in first-fill American Oak barrels and then finished in American Rye barrels. Diageo isn’t disclosing the source for these rye barrels, nor how long this blend spends in a finishing barrel, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to guess that the rye barrels come from Diageo’s Bulleit brand and MGP (Midwest Grain Products).
In addition to focusing on the cask finish, it’s interesting that Diageo is giving this release an age statement. Diageo seemed to be steadily moving away from age statements in many of their key releases, including Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve, Oban Little Bay, and Talisker Storm, so they must have felt that the age statement is still important to the end consumer.
Another notable point about the Johnnie Walker Rye Cask release is that it’s being released at a higher ABV than the traditional Johnnie Walker releases (46% vs the traditional 40% ABV), although its price point of $45 is squarely in line with other 10 year old special releases like Johnnie Walker Double Black.
Johnnie Walker Select Casks Blended Whisky – Rye Cask Finish (46% ABV, $45) – dark gold / light amber in color, this blended whisky has a decidedly American Whiskey tone. Charred oak leaps out of the glass to lead one of the most oak-forward noses we’ve ever seen on a Johnnie Walker release. Underneath the charred oak is baked apple, caramel, honey, cinnamon, and a touch of rye spice. The nose is very expressive and assertive, something that blended Scotch Whisky drinkers might not be expecting.
Although the nose is bold, things are much more restrained and even on the entry. Light malt, vanilla, and honey sneak their way in before the blast of oak, rye, black pepper, cinnamon, and smoke explode in the midpalate. The entry feels like a quick disclosure that indeed there is malt in the mix before jumping head first into all the spice and oak. Ironically, the very things that hold back a blend with a hefty amount of grain whiskey in the mix actually help make this Rye Cask release work. Although the midpalate has a blast of oak and spice, that’s not the end of the story: towards the end of the midpalate, these strong notes begin to fade and the spirit navigates toward a semblance of balance. This is, after all, a blended whisky!
While the presentation of spice in the midpalate is pretty expansive, as we head toward the finish, the spice gets very focused, moving from a blast around the entire palate to a nice spicy patch on the tongue. The finish is generally dry, but not unpleasantly so, and the preservation of the spice on the tongue is exceptional. Overall, the finish isn’t extremely long, but it doesn’t feel cut short, and it’s well in line with the rest of the taste experience. The decision here to boost the ABV to 46% was a smart one, as the alcohol really supports the flavors, spice, and overall taste experience. The structure in this whisky is solid and a big part of that is that there’s enough alcohol to really deliver it all, the subtle along with the strong.
Johnnie Walker Rye Cask Finish is an intriguing attempt by Diageo to appeal to American Whiskey drinkers and show that Scotch Whisky can present some of the same kinds of flavor, with a little more balance and finesse than your average American Whiskey. They’ve managed to present bold flavors and solid spice without losing focus on balance and the entire taste experience.
It’s also important not to understate the gamble that Diageo is taking here – Johnnie Walker is one of their most important brands, and this cask finished line is a sizable gamble, so we have to applaud them for not resting on their laurels. The current spirit market is very fluid (excuse the pun), a place where innovation and unique taste experiences have the ability to really drive growth. It’s nice to see Johnnie Walker explore some new territory, and we look forward to the next installments in this series. 88 Points.