Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Johnnie Walker Blue vs. Kirkland 24 year blended Scotch

Johnnie Walker Blue Label: Blended Scotch Whisky, no age statement, 40%, $180
Kirkland Signature: Blended Scotch Whisky, 24 years old, 40%, $70

Johnny Walker Blue is a status symbol whisky. I state that as an observation and not necessarily as a derogatory remark. It’s a product that is almost universally recognized as being expensive and most people presume that the liquid in the bottle will be exceptional in consideration of the price. Sure, you can spend at least ten times as much on a bottle of Brora or Port Ellen, but only whisky aficionados will recognize those for what they are. But that square bottle with a delicate blue tint to the glass and gold accents on the labels will invoke the aforementioned reputation, even among people who know almost nothing about whisky. If you want to impress someone with a gift, your expense account, or a bottle displayed on your desk, Walker Blue is the go-to choice.

That being said, I’ve been meaning to write an honest review of the stuff for some time now. Rather that a straight forward review though, I thought it would be more interesting if I could find another whisky to use for a side by side comparison. I came across the perfect candidate when perusing the liquor section of a Costco Wholesale store; Kirkland Signature Blended Scotch Whisky, Aged 24 Years. If the two whiskies are on par in terms of quality, this could be a much less expensive option for drinkers who aren’t trying to impress their friends and colleagues.

One of the things that sort of bothers me about blended Scotches is the lack of technical or background information associated with them. Usually composed of many different whiskies, you might occasionally be able to find out which distilleries are the major contributors to a blend, but getting a full listing is almost unheard of. That’s partly the nature of the beast; the job of the master blender is to create a consistent flavor profile from year to year, regardless of changes in the supply of whiskies he has to work with. Any history associated with a blend is usually just the history of the brand and that leaves plenty of opportunity for embellishment, especially with the origin stories of older brands.

So, what makes one blend more expensive than another? First is the ratio of malt whisky to grain whisky in the blend. This is something that most producers are pretty secretive about, although there are a few exceptions where this information is included in marketing materials. Malt whisky is notably more costly to produce than grain whisky, so it should typically represent a higher proportion of the liquid in the blend for a more expensive bottling. I’ve read that it is common for cheap blends to have about 10% malt whisky and premium blends to have 30% to 40% malt whisky in them. I have also seen references to blends containing as much as 90% malt whisky.

The next three factors apply to blends as well as single malt whiskies. With ex-sherry casks (and other, more exotic cask types) costing upwards of ten times as much as ex-bourbon barrels, the types of casks used to age the whisky will certainly contribute to the final cost of the blend.

Age is another big cost factor. While lengthy utilization of warehouse space adds to overhead, evaporation from the casks is the biggest driver of the expense associated with extended aging. These losses are typically 2% to 3% of the casks’ contents each year. Since I’m going to compare a non-age stated whisky to a 24 year old, I should mention that the stated age has to be that of the youngest whisky in the blend, and that a wide range of ages can be used to build complexity. If an expensive blend has components that are 40 to 50 years old and there’s also a little 10 year old in the mix, it wouldn’t really make any sense to put and age statement on the label.

Finally, you have the inclusion of rare whiskies as a cost driver for expensive blends. These are typically the remains of long-closed distilleries and the liquid becomes more valuable as time marches on. Unfortunately, most producers usually talk about such exotic component whiskies in rather vague terms, referencing the “rarest stocks” from their inventory. This stands to reason though; such whiskies are a limited commodity and if they are identified by name the producer will eventually have to admit that they are no longer part of the recipe.

At the more extreme end of the high price range, the cost of lavish packaging could also come into play, but that’s not really a factor for these examples.

My blog post research usually involves a few reference books from my personal library and a whole lot of Google searching. But I decided to change things up this time and see what sort of information I could get through official channels. I started off with an email to Diageo’s North American Press Office asking for some detailed information about Walker Blue; percentage of malt whisky in the blend, range of ages of the component whiskies, confirmation of Port Ellen single malt in the blend (I’d heard rumors of this in the past) and any specifics on the “rare and exceptional” whiskies mentioned in the official description. My email got a quick auto-reply and then I heard nothing for two months until I followed-up with another email. This time I was told that I was being connected directly with the Johnnie Walker team. A week later I got an email from someone at a PR firm in New York. And then I had to forward her the questions that I had originally sent to the press office.

Finally, after another month, I got a response which hedged my expectations by mentioning up front that “Blue Label is a bit of a sensitive topic for the blending team”. As for the percentage of malt whisky and range of ages in the blend, they were “unable to comment”. Regarding the component whiskies, they did tell me that Walker Blue includes malt whisky from Benrinnes, Cardhu, Clynelish and Caol Ila, and grain whisky from Cameron Bridge and Port Dundas. As far as blend components go, that’s all pretty standard stuff. Benrinnes did stop using its rather unusual partial triple distillation process (in favor of the more common double distillation) in 2007, so older whisky from that distillery could qualify as being somewhat rare, or at least unique. Port Dundas was permanently closed in 2010, but the distillery did make 39 million liters of spirit each year up to that point, so I wouldn’t call it rare just yet.

To honest, I was surprised that I was able to get any information at all out of Diageo. I had high hopes that Costco would be different in this regard; it seemed like a pretty cool company after all. So I sent a series of questions via Costco’s online Media Inquiry form regarding their 24 year old Blended Scotch; what is the percentage of malt whisky in the blend, is there any whisky significantly older than 24 years in the mix, what are the total number of component whiskies and would they identify any of the individual distilleries, who did they work with in Scotland to create the product and was anyone from Costco involved in developing the blend of influencing its flavor profile?

The response came quickly, I think just a few days later. And the answer was a blunt “we will not be able to accommodate your request”. I was thanked for my interest in the product and my support of Costco. Then the person that emailed me requested that I not attribute her name to the information in the email. I think I read that four-sentence email at least three times looking for the information that I wasn’t supposed associate with its sender. And then I laughed. I don’t think I could ever work for a large corporation.

Taking a closer look at the label, I do see that the Kirkland offering is matured exclusively in bourbon barrels and bottled by Alexander Murray & Co. Ltd.

Before I move on to the tasting notes, I should mention that the price of $180 that I have listed up top for Walker Blue is the price that you will typically see it for in Costco. In more traditional retail settings it usually sells for about $220 to $225.

Both whiskies are medium golden amber in color, but the Kirkland blend is ever so slightly darker.

Walker Blue:
The nose definitely has some good character to it. I’d say the aromas are medium in intensity (probably a little more than I expected from an 80-proofer) and show some really nice complexity. Some fruit comes through, but it is fairly restrained. Damp cellar aromatics (in a good way) are more prominent with dunnage floor, well-aged oak, subtle butterscotch and cedar-driven spice notes coming through. Maybe even a hint of a floral note. A delicate suggestion of peat smoke is there, but barely noticeable.
On the palate, Walker Blue doesn’t quite sing to me the way it does on the nose. Maybe my preference for higher proof (92 and up) whiskies without chill filtration is hard for me to get past. The liquid is somewhat full bodied and the flavors (malt, oak, dry spice notes) seem to be well-integrated, but perhaps its subtleties are lost on me; I just don’t find it to be that interesting.
The flavors do evolve on the finish, with a grassy note briefly emerging as the drying spice notes become more dominant and give the finish additional warmth and length.

Kirkland 24 Year:
The aromas here have a lot less depth than those on the Walker Blue. The notes are primarily oaky, but in a very dry, dusty, woody kind of way. Some caramel and clay-like aromas also eventually emerge. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t say it’s aromatically flawed; it just seems kind of flat by comparison.
This one also seems a little thinner (in terms of body) on the palate. The flavor profile is quite oak-heavy (in an old, tired oak kind of way), to the point of seeming a bit out of balance up front. A fresh-cut grass note emerges on the mid-palate, making thing go a little astringent before it transitions into the finish.
There is a bit of redemption on the back end though; the astringency quickly fades and warming spice notes pull things back into balance for a relatively pleasant ending.

I’ve probably tasted Walker Blue at least half a dozen times over the past 12 years. Each time I felt the same way; not quite understanding what all the fuss (and the high price) was about. I did my best to come into this tasting without bias and I was surprised to find Walker Blue offered so much aromatically.

While Walker Blue clearly has the upper hand, if you were to factor price into the equation, I’d say these two are on pretty equal footing. But they’re both pretty damn expensive for what they have to offer.

The only blend that I actually drink semi-regularly is Chivas Regal 12 year (typically priced around $25 at Costco, $38 elsewhere). I poured myself a little sample of that too, just to see how these two stood up to it. I feel that it bests the Kirkland 24 year blend on all fronts. Walker Blue is a good bit more interesting on the nose. I might even give it a slight edge on the palate, but not by much, and that really says something considering the stark price difference.

No comments: