When we checked in with Johnnie Walker earlier this year, they were hard at work on their Blenders’ Batch. The series has some limited edition, experimental whiskies that pokes hard at the safety cocoon around Scotch.
We’re glad, and more than a little excited. Blended whiskies, too, can benefit from creativity- perhaps more so, because of the kind of freedom they enjoy compared to single malts. There’s a whole wide world waiting beyond single malts and sherry casks.
The new Johnnie Walker Blenders’ Batch Wine Cask Blend is quite the statement in that direction.
Whisky and Rye
The first three Blenders’ Batch whiskies were the Red Rye Finish, the Triple Grain American Oak and the Bourbon Cask & Rye Finish (which we reviewed here). Inspired by Master Blender Jim Beveridge’s experiences in blending bourbon and rye in Louisville, Kentucky in the 1990s, there is a distinct whiff of Americana to them. Those whiskies each had a distinct character, and were as different from a Scotch as a Scotch could get, for now at least.
Jim Beveridge began the Blenders’ Batch experiments over ten years ago, and his American experiment seems to have run its course, for now. At the Diageo Reserve World Class 2017 in Mexico City earlier this year, Diageo unveiled the Rum Cask Finish and Espresso Roast, which are coming soon(tm).
While we wait for those, though, the fourth expression, the Wine Cask Blend, has arrived in Singapore. It was created by lead developer Aimée Gibson, who is part of the Johnnie Walker blending team.
In her hands, there is a perceptibly different signature to the new expression. While the previous expressions are robust, masculine even, the Wine Cask Blend has a more feminine, softer quality to it. Obviously, we are not talking solely about the packaging, which does have a nice rosy hue, but about the liquid within.
Days of Wine and Roses
Using wine casks to finish whisky is not entirely new. Sherry casks have been used for the longest time to both mature and finish whisky. Experiments in finishing have yielded Port expressions and even Sauternes and Madeira sweet wine finishes. Even red wines have been played with before, such as in the Glenfiddich Age of Discovery Red Wine Finish.
The red wine finishes are, however, rarer than the fortified wine (sherry, port, madeira) ones, and this is particularly so for blended whisky.
We did some sleuthing, and it seems there exists one other blended whisky which used red wine casks: the Old Perth Cask Strength Red Wine Finish. We believe this has much to do with blends being viewed as inferior to single malts, which leads to less effort and creativity (read, cask finishing) being used on them.
To be sure, Johnnie Walker has not disclosed if that there were red wine casks used to make the new Blenders’ Batch, much less which varietal of wine was in those casks. We simply infer that from the flavours in the whisky, which has been described as fruity and berry-like- characteristics of some red wines.
We are excited, of course. Part of it is due to our weariness of sherried whisky. As outstanding as they are, we yearn for something new.
The bigger reason is our fondness for red wine and the sheer range flavours that one can get from them. An Australian Shiraz will likely have dark berries and peppery notes, while a Burgundian Pinot Noir will have red berries, cherries and earth flavours. The green herb flavours of a Chilean Carménère, or a rosy Italian Barolo are equally distinct.
Compound that with variations in type of oak cask- American, French, Slovenian, perhaps even Japanese Mizunara in future, and there’s plenty of room for exploration.
Cream and Peaches
Having said all that, we were looking forward to tasting the new Johnnie Walker Blenders’ Batch Wine Cask Blend. Jumping straight in…
Nose: Cream, vanilla, smoke is almost too faint to be perceptible. Sweet oranges, white peaches, rose petals and forest berries- lightness and tartness that doesn’t really bring a typical Johnnie to mind.
Palate: Thick and rich, coating the tongue with buttery honey and marmalade. The wine makes its presence known towards the middle with flavours of raspberries and sweet cherries. The middle notes have a slight green apple tartness that seems a little out of place, but it passes very quickly. There is also a strong element of peaches, vanilla and cream that mellow the flavour towards the end.
Finish: Vanilla, cereal and pine, with some light spiciness and wood flavours to finish. Of medium length.
The best way we can think of to describe this blend is to picture a French berry pastry caught in a Scotch bottle. A lovely afternoon tea whisky if there ever was one; we suspect the right pairing might be strawberry shortcake.
Overall, the whisky is elegant and the whole combination of flavours feels very well-integrated. While discernible, none of them are out of step. While flavourful, the taste profile is feathery light, so it never sits heavy on the tongue.
Summing it all Up
The whole point of the experimental series was to push the boundaries, and Aimée Gibson has certainly done so here. It’s very different from anything else in the Johnnie Walker stable; if we didn’t know better, we wouldn’t guess that the walking man would be proudly emblazoned on the front of the bottle.
On its own merits, we really loved the light, creamy, fruity flavours of the Wine Cask Blend. There is a dreamy, soft quality about it that we don’t often get in spirits. If you’re looking for big, bold, peaty flavours, you won’t find them here.
That’s precisely the point. There’s plenty of that style of whisky already, but precious little on offer for those prefer a lighter touch.
Gibson set out to “make a blend that can be enjoyed by all tastes, and especially by those people who might previously have thought that whisky isn’t for them.” We think she succeeded. Pour a glass for your more timorous friends and there’s a good chance that you’ll find more than a few converts.
And the best part? It’s going for a bargain price of $69. We suggest filling shopping carts with them.
Johnnie Walker Blenders’ Batch Wine Cask Blend (70cl bottle) will be available at Cold Storage at $69.00. For more information, you can check out the website.