Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Dewars 12 vs Johnnie Walker Black - Beauty or Poise

Dewar's 12 is one of the "101 Whiskies You Must Try Before You Die" according to Ian Buxton - and it turns out to have something compelling to offer. But I didn't, until recently. Why? I'm guilty of "entry-level preconception". It goes something like this: ten years ago I'm on a long flight. The airline cart only has a couple of whiskies on offer and Dewar's White Label is the one I pick. I spend the next hour trying to dig out some malt satisfaction drinking it neat - and fail and bitterly write the entire Dewar's line off. The Dewar's brand became conflated with the shortcomings of the entry level offering which is really just meant for mixing. If I had had Johnnie Walker Red Label that evening instead I might have written off the whole Johnnie Walker family too, I guess.

Buxton makes the point in "101 Whiskies" that Dewar's has upped its game under current management.  I took his word for it.  I had already decided to give Dewar's 12 a whirl and had tasted a dram. I found its nose beguiling. Later that day I attended a lovely dinner party at my friend Gurinder's house. As the evening wore down a bottle of Aberfeldy 12 came out. Lo and behold, here was that same beguiling nose, with an added richness to boot. Honey and heather with some lovely soft pineapple-apricot fruity nature. The concordance between the Aberfeldy and the Dewar's 12 was striking. In fact - that's the main "problem". Over on there was a thread a couple of years ago titled "Johnny Walker Black or Dewar's 12 yr.". ABV quipped: "I'm pretty happy with both but the Dewar's makes me want to go drink Aberfeldy while the JWB doesn't". Aberfeldy usually goes for around $45 here (NYC) and Dewar's 12 is usually $35. At Shopper's Vineyard now, in the post holiday sale mode, Aberfeldy is $37 and Dewar's 12 is $30. That slim price difference easily justifies the slightly richer Aberfeldy 12 over the Dewar's 12. But both are very good. And there are plenty of times when Dewar's 12 is handy and the rare Aberfeldy 12 isn't. And the question at hand is, if the choice at the bar is Dewar's 12 or Johnny Walker Black - a very likely scenario in this big cold world - what's the choice?

Dewar's 12 (left) Johnnie Walker Black (right)

Dewar's 12 40% abv.

Color: Full Gold

Nose: honey, paraffin, heather, and a whiff of some estery fruity florals: green pear, white melon, baby's breath. It's a light but lovely aroma. It's strikingly like Aberfeldy 12 - but a tad less rich.

Honeyed, sweet, and beguilingly malty on entry, Dewar's 12 strides boldly. The mid-palate adds warm and tasty notes of baked oat cakes with butter and clover honey with a slathering of marmalade that adds candied citrus notes and the waxing verge of citrus pith vegetal bitter. Light, warm, floral and frankly full on decent. The grainy note that marks this a blend shows up at the turn to the finish. It's at the moment where the sweet waxes into wood or bitter notes in many drams. Here, it's malty melding into a younger grain note. The finish that follows is brief, gentle, and warmly malty. After the excellent nose and entry it's not a gourmet experience - but it's not offensive either. This blend succeeds in satisfying my malt whisky monkey bone and is a potent weapon in the arsenal.

*** and a high 3 stars indeed.

Johnnie Walker Black Label 40% abv.

Color: full gold, a hair darker. Doesn't mean much as both products are colored with E150 caramel coloring.

Nose: Gentle floral esters, white melon, toffee, and vanilla perfume with a bit of citrus acid and a pickle note from faint iodine and a whiff of putty peat. Later there are some wood notes and a little hint of mint.

The palate entry is sweet and creamy with malt, toffee and, heather. The mid palate brings a gentle spirit heat but also a solid cereal grain note and bit of peat smoke. The transition to the finish brings in oak vanilla notes and a sense of the wood. Very well integrated, the blend is seamless and doesn't betray an underlying grainy flavor at all.


Head to head, it's a little bit of a conundrum. The Dewars 12 has more wayward spirit heat and more of the unwelcome flavors of not fully matured grain whisky peeking out at the end of the mid-palate and into the finish. Johnnie Walker Black Label enjoys a smoother, better integrated, and more convincingly blended presentation. However, the Dewars has a much lovelier, more richly fragrant nose. It has the sweeter entry and the superior flavor density through the mid-palate. The Dewars' bit of untidiness in the turn and the finish doesn't erase the exhuberant power and sweet thrill of what comes before. On the whole, Dewar's 12, in the current incarnation, is a richer and more involving whisky drinking experience - and I find that, for me, this gives it the edge. It's not a clean cut or across the board win in the least. JWBL is a composed and elegantly black dressed lady with comportment and breeding. Dewars 12 is a sprightly blonde with bouncing curls wearing a beautiful if slightly messy white crochet. Which you'd rather be with is highly dependent on mood. Dewars should be commended for crafting a blend that captures the soul of Aberfeldy. Johnnie Black for crafting a blend so seamless it's not easily apparent precisely which of it's many signature is foremost at all.

Johnnie Walker Black remains a touchstone of value for me. I frequently compare it to other blends and entry level single malts and it usually wins. Here are links to other posts on this blog on the topic:

Johnnie Walker Black Label Versus Chivas Regal
Johnnie Walker Black and Johnnie Walker Red review compared head to head.
Great King St. Artists Blend is a solid effort. Is it a Johnnie Walker Black and Chivas killer?
Glenrothes Select Reserve compared with Johnnie Walker Black Label


  1. Replies
    1. Nope. Not gone yet. I should explain: I will be taking a hiatus from blogging shortly to work on family and personal issues. There is one more post (Mackmyra) and then I'll post a public notice. I'm leading a public event March 1st. There will be the occasional post during the hiatus on the subject of the whisky events at The Morgan Library.

  2. I know all about blog hiatuses (hiati?). I hope all is well, and hope you're back at it soon!

  3. There's good reason that Dewars would taste and smell like Aberfeldy.
    Aberfeldy is the main component of the Dewars blend.
    Dewars actually opened Aberfeldy distillery, back in the 1890's (though Bacardi now owns dewars and Aberfeldy).

  4. wow, this is comical patter --- rich corinthian prose

  5. They are both acceptable. I prefer dewars out of habit but buy jwr occasionally.
    They are standard bar stock and have never had anyone turn their nose up at either. Ever. We're talking decades
    I often prefer other brands but at the price points usually pass.
    They are different products but not so noticeable as to make it an issue. It's preference. My brother buys jwr and he never complains when I give him a dewars and vice versa

  6. If you drank that much coke in one evening? even without the whiskey in it, you would get sick.