If there’s one theme I’ve been writing on for the past few months, it’s that in this homebound, sedentary lifestyle a lot of us aren’t used to experiencing, the best way to feel connected to the places you’ve been pining to visit is to keep calm, relax, and take a sip of some fine spirits from those destinations. Whether it be bubbly French champagne, sweet rosé, or refreshing tequila, they all make a fine addition to your virtual happy hour/game night or to share with those you have (safely) closest to you.
It’s often said that, in the bottle of fine alcohol, people can sense the spirit of the nation from which it came. Simply giving a freshly uncorked bottle a whiff will make you say: “Oh, I get it. This is what they’re about.” Out in the Scottish Highlands, one man gets to live that every day, to smell and taste the spirit of his home. And when he’s done, his seal of approval ensures you will, too.
Jim Beveridge, Scotch whisky’s king of kings, is the man behind the magic at Johnnie Walker, quite possibly the most well-known and respected whisky distiller in the world. Wearing the crown of Master Blender, the very same title that Mr. Walker himself held when he began his venture, he and his shockingly small team of 12 other very talented whisky makers create and perfect amazing flavors (in their case, “labels”) for any reason you may try and justify, which he was more than willing to describe.
“I think the key to understanding the differences is to think about the occasions when you would enjoy them,” he said. “Red Label is more for high-energy occasions with lots of ice or a mixer, Black Label is more contemplative, had neat or on the rocks. Blue Label is for things like celebrating success or composing music with friends. It’s much better to view them like this than it is from the perspective of price points. It just makes more sense.”
In my youth in India, Johnnie Walker was wildly popular. Black Label was always enjoyed with some nuts by the men before dinner, and my wedding was absolutely flowing with the stuff!
This conversation with Mr. Beveridge couldn’t have come at a better time, as this soft-spoken Scot helps celebrate Johnnie Walker’s 200th anniversary. Though the brand had been around for centuries, it’s almost shocking to know that barely anything about it has changed.
“We have extensive archives of the recipes here in Scotland. Johnnie Walker Red and Black have stayed more-or-less the way they were since their inceptions,” he said. “It’s an amazing heritage that we sit upon.”
But that doesn’t mean they’re resting on their laurels, and hasn’t stopped them from revealing a new label every now and again. Beveridge said that now is a very exciting time for his line of work, and they continue to innovate, with Double Black Label being one of the most recent additions to the lineup, which is described as Jim’s darker and smokier take on the classic Black Label.
Beveridge wasn’t handed the sword from the pond all willy-nilly and became Master Blender, either. He began his career 40 years ago as a flavor chemist, which allowed him to take a peek at the deep intricacies of aging and flavors of whiskies across Scotland, which he was able to apply to his future blender position and eventually Master Blender.
Speaking of heritage, Beveridge is a firm believer in his mission as the head of a prestigious whisky distillery and to define what Scotch means to the Scottish.
“For Scotch to be Scotch, it has to be made here, with very simple ingredients. Whisky distilling goes back to the 18th century, so it’s very much part of our tradition. It’s quite identifiable to us. Then you have Johnnie Walker, being a global brand, and the Scottish identity has kind of gone with it. Spreading “being Scottish” is a part of the whisky itself. If you go to one of the distilleries, you can see the amount of people making the whisky, and it shows you how much of a part of us this is. It’s embedded in our culture.”
Beveridge said that Johnnie Walker is planning to have distilleries accessible to the public in the “Four Corners of Scotland,” those being the Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside and the Islands, with the Lowlands one near Edinburgh called Glenkinchie Distillery being the first to open recently (though Covid restrictions do apply for visitors). It’s a beautiful location with a great landscaped garden, honeybees and orchard, all of which reference the taste of Johnnie Walker, so if you have a way to see it now you absolutely should.
So, since Johnnie Walker is celebrating 200 years, they probably put out a special blend, right? Well, actually, they didn’t.
The put out three.
First, there’s John Walker and Sons Celebratory Blend ($75), which is a nod to the inception of the whisky and Mr. Walker’s entrepreneurial spirit. On the nose, you’ll sense dried raisins, spice, and marzipan, while the taste is more of icing sugar and roasted nuts with a peppery finish.
Next, Johnnie Walker Blue Label Legendary Eight ($350) is made using some of the rarest whiskies in Scotland, including “ghost distilleries,” those who have stopped blending and have irreplaceable stocks. The taste and smell is wide-ranging and sweet, with notes of apple, brown sugar, and zest on the nose with more apple and fruity flavors along with cocoa on the tongue.
Lastly, John Walker and Son Bicentenary Blend ($1,000) is inspired by the aisles of the original Kilmarnock grocery store opened in 1820, and is packed with exotic flavors, also made with exceptionally rare ghost whiskies all at least 28 years old. Warm spice, candied ginger, berries and more dance through your nostrils as the taste of sweet honey, rich molasses, spices and dried fruit take your mouth through Johnnie Walker’s back rooms.
When you are finally able to put the whisky tumbler down and hop on a plane to fly over to beautiful Scotland, where should you head? Well, Jim has some ideas. Being born near Glasgow, he can’t understate how much heritage it and nearby Edinburgh have. But once you’ve seen the big cities, he strongly implores you to hit the countryside, where most of the best whisky distillers are located, and use them as landmarks to experience what makes Scotland, well, Scotland. Once you start getting a taste of what authentic Scotch whisky is capable of, you’ll start to agree with what Jim Beveridge said; it’s a part of their identity, and you better believe it’s one of the things they do best.