December 2011

Seeing Double Black

By: Richard Carleton Hacker


Step away from the bar, put down that glass and start rewriting those cocktail recipes, because there’s a new Johnnie Walker Black Label in town. Its name is Johnnie Walker Double Black. And while it’s got a lot in common with its older Black Label brother—the bestselling blended whisky in the world—judging from its muscular demeanor, Double Black has been working out.

Your first clue that this is a different style of Johnnie Walker Black is the bottle itself. Appropriately enough, it sports a double banded label. And although it’s still the same, easy-to-stack, -grasp and -pour square shape, unlike the clear glass of Black Label, which allows the golden color of the whisky to show through, the Double Black bottle is smoky gray; the color accents the gold Royal Warrant seal even more and is particularly fitting, as the first thing your nose and palate lock onto upon pouring Double Black is the increased intensity of gentle smoke.

Also, Black Label’s sherried fruitiness is given a hard shove forward. In fact, just as Black Label is a more pronounced version of Red Label, Double Black is a noticeably more amplified version of Black Label.

It’s the smokiness that really sets it apart. This is due to the fact that Double Black not only uses a greater percentage of smoky single malts—such as Caol Ila and Lagavulin from Islay—than Black Label, but younger versions of these whiskies as well, which tend to have a greater concentration of peat. Thus, unlike 12 Year Old Black Label, there is no age statement on Double Black.

Brand Ambassador, actress Christina Hendricks, with Master of Whisky Stephen Wilson.

“Double Black shares the same core malts and grains as Black Label,” says Nick Morgan, Head of Whisky Outreach for Diageo ”and, of course, it has the DNA of Johnnie Walker running all the way to its heart. Where it’s different is that we’ve dialed up the smokiness of the new blend, at the expense, I suppose, of some of the more delicate fruity elements that you can find in a glass of Black Label.
“The principle difference is around this West Coast intensity of flavor that comes from whiskies like Caol Ila from Islay. There’s also an added richness in Double Black, and that comes from casks which have had a particularly deep charring. The result is that it really opens up the wood surface and allows for a greater interaction between whisky and wood, delivering a fuller and more richly flavored single malt.”

In the final blend for both Black Label and Double Black, the balance of European and American oak casks is about the same, as is the basic ratio of single malts and grain whiskies. However, the recipe is tweaked slightly to compensate for the different ages and strengths of these whiskies. But most dramatic is the use of more thickly charred barrels for aging, which intensifies the sweet fruitiness of the sherry casks. The result is not only a deeper flavor of Double Black, but a deeper color as well, which is about ten percent darker than Black Label. This intensity of both tone and taste opens up whole new vistas for creating new on-premise proprietary cocktails, as well as more muscular interpretations of some of the classics.

“It’s still basically Black Label,” says Diageo Master of Whisky Edward Adams. “It’s just that everything you like about Black Label—the smoke, the richness of the sherry barrels—is punched up a little.”

With over seven million barrels of whisky aging in Scotland, Johnnie Walker Master Distiller Jim Beveridge had a lot to choose from to create Double Black.

The man behind Double Black is Johnnie Walker master distiller Jim Beveridge. Given the fact that there are up to 40 different whiskies in the blend, combined with the universal popularity of Black Label, it took a combination of courage, confidence and skill to create a variation of an already-proven market leader.

“We wanted to bring out something that would surprise and delight existing Johnnie Walker Black Label drinkers, and increase their bond to the Johnnie Walker franchise,” says Morgan. “So we’re not really going after new drinkers here, although it’s possible that the additional smokiness of Double Black may intrigue and attract some malt enthusiasts to try it. Remember, this is a huge departure for us—we haven’t done anything to Black Label since it was introduced in 1909, so to bring out a new expression of Black is quite a thing for us, and our consumers.”

First launched a year and a half ago in Duty Free shops globally, Double Black’s popularity has brought it to the U.S. just in time for the holidays. With an SRP of $40, its limited production makes continued availability a matter of conjecture. But for now, one thing is certain: Johnnie Walker Double Black is—quite literally—smokin’.

Rob Rubinkan.

Jazz Meets Johnnie Walker at Spaghettini

To say the regular patrons of Seal Beach, CA’s Spaghettini Italian Grill and Lounge have a comfortable relationship with the venue’s Bar Manager, Rob Rubinkan, is a bit of an understatement. When word got out that the popular dining establishment and jazz club was going to start pouring Johnnie Walker Double Black, the familiar faces that routinely pop in for drinks had no qualms about letting their feelings known to Rubinkandirectly. “A handful of our regulars who drink whisky told me to text them the moment the first shipment arrived,” Rubinkan says.

Quirky? Perhaps. However, such a scenario suits Spaghettini perfectly. After all, this revered restaurant that straddles the border of Los Angeles and Orange County,“We’re an Orange County restaurant with an L.A. vibe,” Rubinkan states—has been building up cherished relationships with its customers since it opened in 1988, through a unique blend of elegant Northern Italian cuisine and nightly offerings of sultry jazz tunes.

In a way, Spaghettini’s beverage program serves as the perfect bridge between food and music. Indeed, the venue’s inclusion of Johnnie Walker Double Black highlights a passionate devotion to quality libations that can work in either milieu. And while Rubinkan is scheming to conjure up a few cocktails built around the newly introduced potable, the plan now is serve it in its pure, unadulterated neat form. “The drink has such a great ‘Scottish campfire’ essence about it,” Rubinkan says, “so we want to give it some time speak for itself.”  —Rich Manning


At Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo’s new Son of a Gun restaurant in Los Angeles, Johnnie Walker cocktails are a mainstay. Shown are (left) a Blood & Sand made with Red Label and a Scotch Maid with Black Label.

Meet The Rest Of The Johnnie Walker Family

Johnnie Walker Red Label One of the two original blends by John Walker’s grandsons, whisky blenders George and Alexander, it was originally called “Old Highway Whisky” when introduced in 1909. Affixed with a red label, people simply began asking for “Red Label” whisky. A blend of approximately 30 different single malts (including younger impressions of Caol Ila and Talisker) and seven to eight grain whiskies, the flavor is slightly smoky and sweet, making it a perfect base for cocktails. It carries no age statement. ($23)

Johnnie Walker Black Label Slightly peatier than Red Label, there are stronger influences of oak, along with citrus and fruit. Its statement claims that no whisky in the blend was less than 12 years old. Talisker, Cardhu, and Caol Ila are the base single malts, which makes it versatile enough for cocktails or on the rocks. SRP $34

Johnnie Walker Green Label First introduced in Duty Free in 1997 and brought into the U.S. in 2004, this is a vatting of four single malts—Talisker, Caol Ila, Linkwood and Cragganmore—with no grain whiskies added. Sweet smoke, coconut, and caramel abound, making this a complex dram best served neat. SRP $60

Johnnie Walker Gold Label Comprised of 15 specially selected single malts, each is aged for a minimum of 18 years in sherry oak casks. Then one grain whisky is added to meld these flavors together. Floral smoke intertwines with honey and citrus to make this blend destined for a snifter. SRP $85

Johnnie Walker Blue Label The epitome of the blender’s choice, made up of 15 to 16 of the rarest single malts, ranging in age from 15 to 60 years. Leather, honey, cedar, and oak with a touch of smoke make this a blend to be poured from its recently redesigned, thick-walled, individually numbered bottle to celebrate special occasions. It is a blended whisky that even diehard single malt aficionados will savor. SRP $220
— Richard Carleton Hacker 

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