Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Johnnie Walker Green Label

stats: blended malt scotch, 15 year, 43%, $60

Last week I mentioned the fact that, as of 2009, the Scotch Whisky industry had done away with the terms “vatted malt” and “pure malt”, and replaced them with the newly coined term “blended malt”. This change was instituted by the Scotch Whisky Association, but agreement on the move was far from universal within the industry.

To explore the circumstances that led to this change in terminology, we have to look back on a controversy that happened 10 years ago.

As I’ve stated many times before, the whisky industry is one of bust and boom cycles. With the aging process putting a lag time of many years between distillation and a finished product that is ready for sale, setting production levels can be a task fraught with peril. Whisky companies have been caught out with supply shortages numerous times before, and in 2003 Diageo found itself in just such a situation, with a scarcity of single malt from its Cardhu distillery.

Keep in mind that when it comes to Scotch whisky, Diageo is the proverbial 800 lb gorilla in the room. With 28 malt distilleries and 2 grain distilleries in their portfolio, as well as ownership of Johnnie Walker and several other blended scotch brands, Diageo is responsible for roughly one third of the Scotch that is produced each year.

Between rapidly growing sales of Johnnie Walker Black (of which Cardhu is a major component) and an unforeseen rise in popularity of Cardhu single malt in the Spanish market, Diageo had a problem. Common solutions would have included raising prices and limiting distribution. Supplies can also be stretched by lowering the bottle proof, but Walker Black and Cardhu were already at 40% abv, the legal minimum for Scotch Whisky. Blends utilizing Cardhu could have been reformulated to lessen their dependence on it, or Cardhu’s 12 year age statement could have been lowered or dropped, but Diageo chose to get much more creative with their solution – they turned Cardhu into a pure malt. By that, I mean they added other single malts to the whisky. It did still contain Cardhu single malt, but that was now mixed with other Speyside single malts, drawn from Diageo owned distilleries which had produced surplus whisky. However, the name on the bottle remained the same, and in fact they kept the same distinctive bottle shape and left the label as similar to the original as possible, primarily just changing the word “single” to “pure”.

Surely this was the first time that a pure malt had prominently featured the name of one of its component distilleries on the label, thus masquerading as a single malt – and said controversy ensued.

The switch occurred in March of 2003, and by November of 2003 the situation had reached a boiling point. I’m sure there must have been some unhappy consumers, but most of the anger at this move came from within the industry. Diageo’s competition felt that the reputation of the industry in general and single malt scotch in particular was at stake.

In December of 2003 Diageo gave in to the pressure and agreed to update the Cardhu label, changing its color from red to green and making the words “pure malt” far more prominent. They also agreed to run promotional campaigns in regions where Cardhu had a strong presence to clear up any confusion about the product. Finally, in March of 2004, Cardhu pure malt was withdrawn from the marketplace. Some online sources have referenced plummeting sales after the conciliatory label change. Cardhu 12 year single malt was reintroduced in 2005.

Of course, the powers that be felt that a more permanent solution to this issue would be needed to keep history from repeating itself. That happened in 2009 when the SWA updated their rules, regulations and definitions for Scotch Whisky industry. It seems obvious to me that the answer would be to make a rule which did not allow the name of a single malt or malt distillery to be prominently featured on the label of a pure malt bottle. At the same time, one of the terms, either “pure malt” or “vatted malt”, should have been chosen (and officially defined) and the other dropped from use.

But that is not what happened, the SWA chose to remove both terms from the Scotch vernacular, and replace them the “blended malt”. I guess their thinking was that the word “blended” had a strong enough association with inferior quality products that any bottle bearing it could never be successfully passed off as a single malt.

Many in the industry protested this move. Blended Scotch and Blended Malt Scotch are hard to distinguish from one another. Not to mention that the whole “Cardhu incident” could happen all over again, this time with the words “single malt” replaced with “blended malt”.

But the SWA forged ahead and made the change anyway. In my opinion, with their misguided attempt to defend the name of single malts, the SWA has inadvertently sullied the name of pure malts, not to mention causing undue confusion among consumers.

So, where am I going with all of this? There’s an interesting footnote to this story. As the controversy raged in the fall of 2003, Diageo first attempted to defend the change they had made with Cardhu. They asserted that the implications of the move had been distorted and over-dramatized, and they also made claims that the new whisky was an innovation in an industry mired by tradition.

It was a nice attempt at media spin, but pure malts were nothing new, and Diageo had even introduced one in 1997 with Johnnie Walker Pure Malt. In late 2003, Diageo worked through the Cardhu debacle by negotiating with the SWA. I believe that was when it was determined that “blended malt” would eventually become the official (and only) term for the category. Shortly thereafter, in 2004, Walker Pure Malt was re-launched as Walker Green Label, and described as a “Blended Malt Scotch Whisky”. The phrase “the art of pure malt” was also put on the bottle, on a lower label.

Walker Green is composed of fifteen single malts, each of which has been aged for at least 15 years. None of the distillery names are shown on the bottle, but the names of the four key single malts (Caol Ila, Talisker, Cragganmore and Linkwood) do appear with equal prominence on the back of the box in which it is packaged.

In December of 2011, it was announced that Green Label would be dropped from the Johnnie Walker lineup, but that stocks were sufficient for it to remain available in the U.S. market through the summer of 2013. I have read reports that this change was prompted by falling worldwide sales volume for Walker Green, with a 30% drop from 2008 to 2009 and a 65% drop from 2010 to 2011.

Anyway, on to the tasting:

The nose is full, but with a certain softness to it. Complex malt and floral aromas mix with subtle peat notes. On the palate, the vibrancy of the island malts comes through up front, with the Caol Ila adding weight and the Talisker bringing its signature black pepper spiciness to the table. Dark berry fruit notes emerge on the mid palate, adding to the malty base. The floral complexities of the Cragganmore come to the fore as it moves through the finish, while the spice notes hang on throughout. The peat notes are far less prominent than I expected, primarily manifesting themselves as spice and evergreen.  I wish Linkwood was in the repertoire of single malts I have tasted so I could try to identify its contribution here. I’d also love to know the proportion of each of the single malts in the vatting. I like this whisky, but I think part of my appreciation for it comes from my familiarity with its component malts. I can see why I might have been indifferent toward it in my less well informed days.

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