Unobtainable Johnnie Walker … inspired by tea?

March 19, 2013 § 1 Comment

Dr Nicholas Morgan at Diageo is a man on a mission. As Malt Whisky Director he oversaw the implanting of Diageo’s malt portfolio in the consciousness of aficianados worldwide for many years, but as Head of Whisky Outreach since November 2012 he has been addressing the fact that Diageo had almost forgotten that its existence was due to the success of its blended whiskies. Bluntly, blends are actually where it’s at … and always have been. Whisky historians have always known this of course, but punters? The problem in terms of the public’s perception is that 95% of the ‘whisky conversation’ is about malt whisky, but 95% of worldwide Scotch whisky sales are of blends. Last year I was at one of the first of his presentations to readdress this imbalance to scribes, bloggers, retailers and  journos at Diageo’s HQ in Edinburgh and on the 5th March I was amongst nine non-Diageo attendees at Nick’s next lesson in the Scotch Whisky Experience.

Caroline Master and Nick Morgan of Diageo take us through the Johnnie Walker cardinal flavour groups

Caroline Martin and Nick Morgan of Diageo take us through the Johnnie Walker cardinal flavour groups

Others there were Vince Fusaro from Luvian‘s in Cupar, Paul McLean and Liz Gillespie from the Angels Whisky Club, Graeme Gardiner from the Edinburgh Whisky Blog, Andy Simpson of Whisky Highland, Caroline Dewar of, Keir Sword of Royal Mile Whiskies and Richard Joynson of Loch Fyne Whiskies.

This time, he went straight to the heart of the matter – the reasons why Johnnie Walker is the world’s most successful Scotch whisky brand and how that brand was built. So he started with how it all began in KIlmarnock, in a grocer’s shop, selling tea.

Tea? According to Nick, the branding and selling of tea in Britain was a forerunner to how blended whisky was sold. Basically, single teas were considered too strong and blends also commanded a higher price. Tea blending was big part of Walker’s grocery business and in creating blends he was essentially brand-building so that his customers came back to him rather than the other, competing grocers in the town. But Walker was not the only one intent on this activity. In 1871 James Greenlees moved his whisky business to London to trade as the world’s first commercial blender. He sought, above all, uniformity and conformity in his blended Scotch whisky. In 1909 he said, ‘Ninety nine men out of every 100 would prefer a blend; the other man would prefer an Islay, and the other 99 would not look at it.’ What Greenlees was effectively stating was what Nick then told us: ‘Single malts in the 19th century were undrinkable.’ Shock, horror. Surely some mistake?

The 2008 to 2012 JW Director's bottlings. So limited as to be unobtainable.

The 2008 to 2012 JW Director’s Blend bottlings. So limited as to be unobtainable.

Well, let’s look at the facts. In the 1820’s the Glasgow liquor trade was all rum. Not whisky. Punch was the social lubricant which oiled the chattering classes in trade halls, merchants’ houses and inns. Evidence? The punch bowl collection at Glasgow’s Peoples’ Palace. When William Wordsworth visited Glasgow in 1803, he stayed at the Saracen’s Head Inn on Gallowgate which was the terminus for the coaches arriving from London after a 12-day, 400-mile journey as John Duncan records on the website:

This inn was the rendezvous of the elite of the city where many splendid functions were held, and something of its past grandeur can be seen in the form of a five-gallon punch bowl on show at the Peoples' Palace in Glasgow Green, with the words inscribed on the inside of the bowl SUCCESS TO THE TOWN OF GLASGOW. This punchbowl was made at the Delftfield pottery near Anderston. Punch was made with sugar and rum brought to Glasgow from the West Indies and was greatly appreciated by cold travellers, who would set themselves down around this bowl of steaming punch and light up their clay pipes.

When whisky was consumed it was done so as a toddy with the addition of lemon and sugar. With the arrival of blending the drinking of toddies declined, or simply transformed into the taking of cocktails. The likes of Greenlees and Alexander Walker recognised that the market for good quality blended whisky in England was immense and the only way to satisfy it was to create a uniformly consistent Scotch from the ‘undrinkables’ which in those days were far more robust and smoky in style than, with perhaps Islay apart, they are today.

England was duly taken by storm and the world followed as the likes of Tommy Dewar, James Buchanan, Peter Mackie and Alexander Walker established overseas agencies in the Colonies and the United States. Blended Scotch whisky quickly usurped brandy in Australia as the spirit of choice and its worldwide domination has continued from the late-Victorian era to the present day.

It was this quest for uniformity and excellence that moved Walker to make the following statement in 1887 that still resounds as one of the great mission statements of the Scotch whisky industry: ‘ … we are determined to make our whisky, so far as quality is concerned, of such a standard that nothing in the market shall come before it.’

In the early days the Johnnie Walker style was heavily influenced by the then Highland, Islay and Campbeltown styles … heavy, robust and smoky. By the late 19th century Alexander Walker had developed a regional approach to his blend drawing from the whole range of malts available to him. He introduced a ‘building block’ approach drawing from vattings of regional whiskies which had labels such as ‘North Country’, ‘Islay’, ‘Speyside’, ‘Grain’ and so on. By 1910 Walker was drawing from 70 malts up to 10-years-old with some up to 16-years-old, and 12 grains which gave quality and flavour combinations and created complexity and quantity to spread the risk in supplying the company’s expanding markets. The diversification which this system created has been the key to JW’s success.

Now Caroline Martin, one Diageo’s Master Blenders, took up the story to explain exactly how Johnnie Walker fits into Diageo’s stategy … or perhaps that should read how Johnnie Walker drives Diageo’s strategy. In order to maintain the mantra of consistency, uniformity and excellence, Diageo had to deconstruct the current JW blends by referring back to the stock books that Alexander Walker had created. In doing so, they identified 6 cardinal flavour groups, each of them influenced by the wood in which the component malts and grains had been matured:

1. Highland malt: robust and savoury, meaty with smoky elements, heavily influenced by European ex-sherry casks.

2. Highland smoke: complex smoke. A lingering remnant of the original Highland malt style.

3. Island smoke: powerful smoke, heavily influenced by European oak casks.

4. Grain: spicy cereal, influenced by American oak, delivering sweet, vanilla notes.

5. Speyside fruit: fresh fruitiness, the post-Victorian Speyside style with fruits and esters. Matures will in ex-bourbon casks.

6. Light Lowland: fresh, cereal maltiness, the lighter style balancing the heavier Highland and Island malts.

To date some of these flavour groups have been used to create a distinctive style in the first 5 bottlings of the Directors’ Blends. In this way the JW blending team have created a unique whisky experience which Diageo uses to promote the excellence of the JW blends. By restricting access to around 500 bottles each year and distributing these to key people in the company and further afield, the aim is to stimulate conversation and create discussion about Johnnie Walker. You won’t find these bottlings for sale anywhere in the world.

Caroline took us through each one in a systematic, informative and entertaining manner. During the discussion she explained how Diageo’s range of 28 malts are produced within a narrow range of key specifications, commonly called ‘distillery character’. In response to a question from Andy she also confirmed that competitors’ malts that Diageo buys in are similarly scrutinised. This allows her to use the largest possible range of malts and grains to construct the JW blends. Checks are continually made to ensure that each constituent malt or grain remains within its character range, and if they stray from that character, remedial action is taken, whether it’s a Diageo product or someone else’s.

Caroline and Vince making their judgements.

Caroline and Vince making their judgements.

The range of Directors’ Blends are bottled with no age statements, as it is all about flavour which is not necessarily delivered simply by choosing aged whiskies. The strengths also vary. Of the five bottlings here are my scores:

2008. Cardinal flavour: Grain. 46%abv. Score 2 out of 5.

2009: Cardinal flavour: Coastal smoke. 43%abv. Score 3 out of 5.

2010. Cardinal flavour: Speyside fruit. 46%abv. Score 1 out of 5.

2011: Cardinal flavour: Wood influence. 46%abv. Score 4 out of 5.

2012: Cardinal flavour: Fresh malts. 43%abv. Score 5 out of 5.

Once we had finished a show of hands was taken and years 2011 and 2012 came on top, although in a different place and time I might have plumped for the smoky 2009. When Nick presented these whiskies to a group of connoisseurs, 2009 came out on top.

‘Were there many Germans in that group, Nick,’ I asked.

‘Err, yes, there were quite a few Germans,’ he confirmed.

When it comes to malt whisky, Germans do tend to be unable to see past the smoke. Or should that be through it?


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