Friday, October 18, 2013

A Dusty Red Label From Back When Red Label was Awesome

Johnnie Walker Red Label, today, is a bottom of the line Diageo blend that is made for mixing into cocktails.  I reviewed it last year and didn't like it straight at all.  But Red Label exists in deep time - born of a marketing name change (from "Special Old Highland") back in 1909 - the year the iconic striding man logo was developed.  This is also the year the Lincoln penny replaced the Indian head cent design.  I have managed to get my hands on a number of samples of Johnnie Walker Red Label which occupy a range of periods from the 1930s through today.  But this isn't that post.  I started the tasting dead in the middle with a bottle that dates from the late 1960s to the late 1970s (I'm not certain which).  It surprised and delighted me - shocked me really.  Thus the stand-alone review.

Dating a dusty Johnny Walker Red.  

In gross terms, the first pass at dating  anything not obviously antique involves looking for these features:
1) Is there a tax strip?  They were discontinued in 1985.  
2) Is the volume listed in metric (liters) (1980 or later) or avoirdupois (pints and quarts)(means prior to 1980)
3) Is there a UPC Code?  They came into use, generally, in the late 1970s.
There are more - particularly for a slightly more recent era.  A great place to start is Steve Urey's post 
Dusty Thursday: Dating your Dusty

So this bottle has a tax strip, uses avoirdupois (4/5th of a pint), and has no UPC code - so were' talking about a bottle that's from the late 1970s or earlier.  You'd think a big clue would be the strength.  Current Johnnie Walker Red is 40% abv. (80 proof)  This is listed as 86.8 proof.  Another potentially likely sounding clue is the importer: the front label clearly states "Imported by Somerset Importers LTD., New York, N.Y." This shows it's a US import and thus I know that 86.6 proof is US proof.  However, a review of the advertising shows this on a multitude of labels with essentially identical style, importer, and 86.8 proof from 1967 through 1988.  Ads from 1966 and earlier show the importer as "Canada Dry Corporation" not Somerset Importers LTD.  Even earlier ads have different label details and start having cork closure.  By 1992 we have the redesigned label and icon with the "phantom" walking man and a reduced proof of 40%.  That's right, the proof wasn't reduced from 86.8 (43.4%) to 40% until 1992.  

1966 ad.  The same except Canada Dry Corporation is the importer.

1972 Holiday ad.
So where does this leave us with dating this bottle?  It's somewhere after 1966 at the earliest and the late 70s at the latest (because of the lack of a UPC code) - and it's tough to be precise.  So, bottom line, this is a late 1960s through late 1970s bottle of Red Label.  I'm struck by the 1972 and 1974 holiday ads - which show the identical bottle (but 4/5 quart bottle).  I have a feeling, aided by the provenance, that this is from the late 1960s to early 1970s - but it's a hunch. 
1974 Holiday ad.
1979 "Hotline" ad - check out the awesome phone.
But, really, so what?  Red Label is Red Label, right?  Turns out that isn't so:

Johnnie Walker Red Label (late 1960s - late 1970s dusty) 86.8 proof.

Color: full gold

Nose:  A shocking revelation:  it's good.  Really quite good.  Highland honeycomb, floral heather, some fruity esters, and a distant complicating tang of coastal air, and a rich foundation of gentle smoky background peat.  It's a rich and lovely Scotch nose - quite vivid.  This has nothing in common with the current Red Label's nose.  In fact it cleanly blows away most of the current Johnny Walker line and most regular blends.

Palate:  Heather honey, with the meadow florals showing through in the opening.  There is a grain note in the opening too - but it's good grain whisky flavor, with notes of coconut and a bit of bubblegum.  It adds freshness and complication to the Highland heather floral honey entrance.  There are also hints of mint and pineapple.  The mid palate blooms with spice overlaying a strong malt richness.  The peat shows up here too in the spice and it waxes into a gentle and very well balanced waft of smoke as the midpalate fades into the turn.  The finish is gentle, without bitterness at first, and moderately long.  There is gentle oak and an array of sweet herbals and lingering gentle peat smoke.   With repeated sipping a bit of bitterness and grain whisky milk tang builds up on the palate - prompting me to take drinks of water to clear it.  

Make no mistake.  This is delicious and I could drink it all day long.  It's rich and yet soft and easy drinking - compulsively, dangerously, easy to drink.  At no point does this call out the imperative to be mixed into a cocktail.  On the contrary it is a delight to sip neat.  The grain whisky component is readily detected - but it plays along in a really nice way with the malt.  I can feel the blenders art here and it's good.  The star of the show is the rich honeyed floral nose and the presence of those flavors in the opening.  The mid palate and finish, while fine, don't play at that level.  But heck, this was (and is) the entry level expression.  I'm really looking forward to tasting my old samples of Johnnie Walker Black!  This is a shocking level of tastiness given where Red Label's flavor signature is at the moment.


I'm sure the 86.8 proof helps a bit over the 80 proof that started in the 90s - but it can't explain all or even the lions's share of the differences.  I'll reserve my conclusions for the full vertical of Johnnie Walker Red from the 1930s to today coming up in the weeks or months ahead.  But it's well nigh impossible not to think of Oliver Klimek's post
Has Whisky Become Better, Worse or Just Different? 
Klimek addresses the declining complexity of malt whisky and relates it to increasingly mechanized and homogenized manufacturing methods.  This old Johnny Walker Red is in a vastly different league then the current stuff - or a majority of blends up well over $50-$75 now.  This was ordinary luxury Scotch of the time.  Whisky was simply more complex and tasty in that era.  Or does bottle maturation play a role?  This will be an ongoing debate.  But bottom line - delicious.  I wonder when that stopped?

Further reading / viewing, and corroboration

Oliver Klimek did a Red Label vertical covering this period and comes to many of the same conclusions:

Ralfy Mitchell performs this exact same tasting and comparison with more wit, verve, and humor than I could dream of - with the high wire act of a live performance.  He comes with the same conclusions flavor-wise, but attributes the changes to the use of glut stocks and to extended marrying time in the bottle: 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A shot across the bow of The Whisky Sponge

The blogosphere has been all abuzz for months with the antics of a mysterious anonymous presence known as The Whisky Sponge.  This satirist writes with razor sharp wit and a dark palette (not palate - although maybe that too).  The Sponge's target is the whisky world - particularly the puffed up, self important, bombastic, money grubbing, success oriented, and just dissipated parts.  No personage is too esteemed, or (apparently) too trivial for The Sponge's depredations.   Time and again these posts are repeatedly laugh out loud funny.  Raucously hilarious, in fact.  In the dark and often murderous and cannibalistic details of The Sponge's brilliant satire the comparisons with Swift are unavoidable.  This stuff is so good that it almost veers into the terrain of literature - except manages to stay on the side of trashy fun.

In the blogosphere and social media channels of the Scotch whisky world this new comedy blog has hit with the impact of an atomic bomb.  People speculate endlessly about the identity of this phantom.  They also joyously post and discuss when their rivals are skewered - and twice as vigorously when they or their friends are roasted (and that's what is going on here, if you haven't picked up on that already, oh swift one).  Pity The Sponge's primary targets, a few listed at random here out of the many many options: poor Blair Bowman (pierced as "Blow Hairman"), Victor Bagging Brierley (mangled brilliantly as "Victoria Shagging Barfly")  Ralfy Mitchell - always presented as himself, Ian Buxton (who is abused as the hardly disguised "Liam Buxton").  Yes - these are all live links to various hilarious Sponge posts.  This is just the tip of the iceberg.  There are dozens of named references that are probably too inside for me to get - Yankee that I am.  

Pity poor Jon Beach
There have been close to half a dozen fawning links to Sponge posts in the closed Facebook group for whisky bloggers alone.  After coming close to posting a plea for people to stop doing that, I was forced to it myself when The Sponge attacked my beloved #WhiskyFabric (a concept created by awesome Canadian whisky blogger Johanne McInnis@whiskylassie) as captured in a Rob Gard interview - and the topic of a previous post here.  The sponge also viciously attacks all of whisky blogging as well.  This was too much for me.  Last week I posted on the FB Whisky Bloggers group:

They are trying to stop the culling of Whisky Bloggers...
"I have grown weary of the ceaseless posting of Whisky Sponge blog posts to this group (and to every other group and page I frequent across the wide Internets). I tire, too, of the ceaseless fawning praise of The Whisky Sponge - even while, granted, I'm among the most egregious offenders. However, the latest Sponge post specifically skewers whisky bloggers and had me literally laughing out loud at least half a dozen times while reading it. It (the Sponge) ends by skewering the concept of the #WhiskyFabric itself. I practically wet myself. It is necessary to post a link to it here: Now, any time, someone satirically suggests mass murder it's almost impossible not to make a comparison with Swift. And, indeed, this is positively Swiftean. But after I stopped laughing I became angry and now vow vengeance. I suggest we all begin using natural sponge in the shower. Time to kill some of those buggers off..."

Such a move was, perhaps, tactically unwise. The Sponge clearly has eyes and ears in every whisky quadrant. It was, thus, hardly surprising when I found that The Whisky Sponge abused me publicly in its latest post. The offending part comes at the end as Mr. Sandler (and I wonder what HE did to earn the wrath of the vicious Sponge?) says the following:

“I’m completely excited. You guys will love what I’ve cooked up for you all. I’m going to get started right away with my first feature, it’s called Wanking For Whisky, basically I travel round the whisky festivals of the world with a bottle of Bowmore Bouquet and a camera goading impoverished whisky lovers to perform extreme and demeaning sex acts with the promise of the Bowmore. The funniest bit is that the bottle is just full of Drumguish. I’ve already arranged a meeting with some guy called Joshua at Whisky Live New York. He seems really keen, you should see some of the pictures he already sent me, I never even knew Bell’s Decanters were so versatile.”

This time it's personal.

I should be outraged - and INDEED I AM. But also, oddly, tickled pink that the VICIOUS EFFING SPONGE even knows I'm alive! I WILL HAVE VENGEANCE. But for the life of me I have no idea how. I certainly can't engage in satire. That would be like stepping into the ring with Mike Tyson.

FYI - for those who didn't catch the Bowmore Bouquet reference, here is Serge Valentin's tasting notes for the monster 1966 Bowmore Samaroli bottling (which earned a staggering 97!):

And, of course, even here The **EFFING** Sponge is mocking me - because I have publicly expressed desire for a taste of 1964 Bowmore for my Birthday next year (when I turn 50) - as 1964 is my birth year. The Sponge mocks me with the highest rating being not for the vaunted Bowmore Black, White, Gold, Fino, or crazy $14,000 crystal decanter one... but for the EFFING 1966 Samaroli (which might as well be a unicorn anyway - and isn't a 1964)!   And, is it possible that The Sponge knows my secret weakness for Bell's - and even deeper weakness for hyper-mature Inchgower (the primary component of Bell's)?  Many of my recent dramming partners know this - but I've never written about it on this blog.  Is its network of spies that deep?  What can I do?

I come to you, dear readers.  Please suggest an avenue for me to grapple with this erudite and satirical Titan.  Honor demands it.  Leave your suggestions in the comments section below.  Please...


Update:  Rob Gard suggests that the Sponge's allegation is perhaps deserved given my expression in Greenie D. McGee (@greenietravels)'s photo of me pouring Smooth Ambler at Whisky Fest: