The Johnnie Walker whisky story all began in rural Scotland two centuries ago in the town of Kilmarnock when John Walker opened a small grocery store. He was concerned with flavors and savors wanting to bring only the finest to his customers which led to his interest in conceiving whiskies that would wind up traveling the world. Whiskies that were rich and balanced and aromatic. And two hundred years later, the famous dandy seen walking across the Johnnie Walker whisky bottle is still walking all over the world. It remains the most widely sold Scotch whisky in the world — 223 million bottles are sold annually — and the house possesses the largest reserve of casks in Scotland with over 10,000, some of which contain the oldest and rarest whiskies in the world.
John Walker set about blending the whiskies in his shop just as he had previously done with the teas that he carried. He invented the Walker style, delicately balanced, refined, elegant and powerful. They were and still are marked by their smoky aromas, brought about right from the beginning with John Walker favoring island distilleries that used peat to dry their malt. When John died suddenly at the age of 42 his son Alexander took over the operations. He would create in 1867 his first whisky christened Old Highland Whisky a unique blend that would be sold throughout the world. It is this whisky that is found in this year’s limited edition Celebratory Blend using whiskies from distilleries that were already in operation in the 19th century and relying on the Walker archives. He used the Adventure Merchant Business system which exported merchandise on board ship and it was he who conceived the distinctive square bottle so recognizable still today.
He recruited the ship captains as ambassadors of the brand which then traveled throughout the Empire. Paris would be the first place in Continental Europe to welcome the celebrated whisky. When Alexander died in 1899 his two sons Alexander II and George took over the family operations. The brothers would invest in the distilleries with whom they worked starting with the purchase of the Cardhu distillery famous for the quality of its single malts. Today the house works with 28 ancestral distilleries among the most reputed in Scotland like Talisker or Port Ellen. Alexander II would create two new whiskies, with blends that are more complex and more subtle. The legendary Johnnie Walker Red Label and Black Label were born.
Meanwhile George called upon the talents of the then contemporary artist Tom Browne in 1908 to undertake the first advertising campaigns of the brand. He would create the celebrated gentleman dandy walking across the labels of the bottles. A dandy who remains to this day. And in a highly creative nod to the maritime history of the brand, George would create the famous swing carafe, a carafe that moves with the inclination of the rolling of a boat over the waves.
The house’s current master blender is Jim Beveridge who joined Johnnie Walker back in 1979. The longevity of the tenure of Johnnie Walker’s blenders is another hallmark of the house for in 200 years only 6 master blenders have placed their imprint on the house. The ideas is to perpetuate the heritage of the house’s whiskies while leaving their own mark on those that he blends. Mr. Beveridge has twice received the Master Blender of the Year award within the context of the International Whisky Competition and he created, in 1992, Johnnie Walker’s iconic Blue Label using whiskies that were 45 years old or older. He deemed that it did not excel in terms of blended whisky and five years later he created the blended malt Green Label, a blend of single malts that were are least 15-years-old.
“As a whisky-making team, we work carefully to make sure we’re making the right decisions to meet demand, and continue to craft whisky that is savored and enjoyed by consumers,» commented Mr. Beveridge.
Savory additions to the collection this year include the Celebratory Blend showcasing the house’s first blend created in 1867, the Old Highland Whisky. Two special editions of the Blue Label are also on the agenda with the Blue Label 200th anniversary edition revealed in a limited edition. Meanwhile the Blue Label Legendary Eight offers a blend of whiskies coming from Scotland’s most prestigious distilleries like Oban and Lagavulin among others. And the Bicentenary Blend is a blend of exceptionally rare whiskies that are at least 28-years-old.
©Trish Valicenti for The Gourmet Gazette