Former DI editor Patience Gould on Johnnie Walker

on 08 February, 2013

I vividly recall a conversation, over lunch, with a one-time publisher, who will remain nameless, and my utter astonishment when he pronounced that, up until said lunch, he had always thought blended whisky was a mix of different malt whiskies...

The conversation with publisher had been inspired by Diageo’s decision to transmute one of its single malts, Cardhu, into a blended malt – a move which flouted several important conventions in the scotch whisky industry, but that is all done and dusted now, and happily Cardhu has regained its single malt status.

I mention Cardhu because it was the first serious move the old Distiller’s Company combine made into the single malt firmament, which had been pioneered by the ongoing success of William Grant’s Glenfiddich. Up until then the group had been widely criticised in the press for its lack of vision when it came to single malt. Looking back it was pretty understandable. Brands such as Johnnie Walker, Dewar’s Old Parr, White Horse and Haig (Don’t Be Vague Dear!) were all international stars and their growing export successes only underlined the overall importance of blended scotch whisky and its significant role within the DC empire – ergo why should we bother with single malts? 

So it was with some amusement that at a recent blended whisky tasting courtesy of Diageo, presided over by Dr Nick Morgan, head of Whisky Outreach, and Johnnie Walker master blender Jim Beveridge, the following question was posited: “Why is it that 95% of all talk and articles is about malt when 95% of the action is blended scotch whisky?” 

There is no simple answer to this other than to bat the ball back to Diageo with the message: “Because you (that is scotch whisky producers) have singularly failed to not only underline the importance of blended scotch whisky generally but also to highlight the taste differences that exist between the brands.”

Each blended brand has its own DNA and that is crafted by the master blender and, aside from the mix of malts, it is the grain whisky element which is the catalyst or foil to the overall taste of the scotch. As Beveridge put it: “Grain plays a very active role, it brings out the taste of the malts and adds a sweetness. The main reason for the malt content is to underpin the quality of a scotch whisky blend.”  However, such is the blender’s art a scotch can be made to suit not only a huge variety of tastes but also to cover as many price points.

So to Johnnie Walker’s Directors Blend. Currently a range of five whiskies, including this year’s, it is the perfect model on which to demonstrate the power of blending and how different blended scotches can be. “In short it is a celebration of the art of blending,” says Beveridge. “I have a blank piece of paper with only two charges in the brief – the Scotch has to be a blend, and it has to be rooted in Johnnie Walker.” 

The idea was inspired by the manager’s dram, in which Diageo’s distillery managers are encouraged to bottle their malt for sale only at the distillery. So each year Beveridge is charged with creating a whisky that, while carrying the DNA of Johnnie Walker, is essentially a special edition of the world’s number one (by far) scotch whisky. And it’s not only the whisky that gets the special treatment – the packaging is also suitably ‘burlesque’, or even off the wall in some cases, which is certain proof of the branding power of Johnnie Walker’s square bottle with its slanting label.

The whisky is essentially for gifting and not for sale, so you know you’re ‘in’ with Diageo if you got a Directors Blend for Christmas. Having had a preview I can tell you that the 2012 version has a “green, fresh, maltiness and is underpinned with exotic fruits”. Well, I think that’s how the experts described it.

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