I would describe myself as a pretty traditional journalist, trained up to be suitably and sufficiently cynical and sceptical. Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel rather honoured to be yet again invited to a special tutored tasting with Johnnie Walker master blender Jim Beveridge.
This time it was for the unveiling of the 2016 edition of the John Walker & Sons Private Collection. Just for the record: individually numbered, 8,888 bottles at £550 for the 70/75cl boxed decanter.
Obviously Diageo, the owner of this phenomenal, truly global blended scotch whisky brand, wants all of us present to write, if not eulogise, about this latest, the third edition of Private Collection. But there is another agenda, which is, at least, if not even more interesting. That is Diageo’s head of whisky outreach, Nick Morgan’s mission to promote blended whisky and counter the belief by many that single malt whisky is better than blended.
The art, or science, of blending is a skill in itself. Frankly, after a session with Beveridge, simply making a single malt whisky seems like a walk in the park, or in this case, a spoon fed guided tour through a distillery.
Starting with a blank piece of paper as to what the next edition or blend is going to be, is intimidating enough. For 2014, he went smoky/peaty, emphasising that element of the Johnnie Walker house style. 2015 was all about fruity characters. Then 2016 was to show that grain whisky means business. Time to step up to the plate, or quaich. A great scotch is not all about whisky made from malted barley. This ties in nicely with the increasing interest in whisky made from grain. Not least of which is the David Beckham-endorsed Haig Club which has been launched with the now world famous former footballer to try and tempt younger drinkers and particularly women into the hitherto masculine world of whisky.
Beveridge is a modest, self effacing man, frankly unlike many brand ambassadors who are, in the main, essentially sales people (nothing wrong with that), who have either showed exemplary interest, knowledge and/or passion - plus the necessary constitution of an ox, or have got the gig to travel the world, as a reward or sinecure.
Beveridge and the rest of Diageo’s scotch whisky blending team have been hauled out possibly dragging and screaming into the PR spotlight, by Morgan to extol the virtues of blending and show off the expertise within the drinks giant. For those of us who have been the happy recipients, it has been a joyous insight into what goes on in those rooms at the distilleries which are full of sample bottles.
To have to sample whiskies from something like 100 casks and then fine tune to three strands in the 2016 case: woody, estery, heady grain whiskies, followed by lighter, gentler, more distillery character grain and then finally an outstanding Highland single malt to lift the grain whiskies, release the more aromatic compounds and reveal complexity. Well, you try doing it? If you have ever been invited to make up a blend of anything - whisky, rum, brandy - you will know how difficult it is to achieve the right balance.
The exercise, as well as showing off the expertise of blending teams, Beveridge et al, also goes to show off the amount of whisky that Diageo is sitting on as well as making.
So another interesting Johnnie Walker expression comes onto the market. Morgan quipped that he thought £550 is a “not unreasonable price to pay for something to drink” as opposed to just collecting on investing in. Whisky author/writer Ian Buxton concurred: “I think it is quite a drinkable thing at £550.”
When you realise the work and expertise that has gone into such a blend and that some of whiskies come from distilleries now closed so they are irreplaceable, you can appreciate that, certainly in this case, John Walker & Sons Private Collection is not all about the packaging as in some cases. Far from it, the packaging is quite understated, low key - which is more than you can say about some of the offerings in the global travel retail sector.
Pushed to chose my favourite, I went for the more fruit character-led 2015, although I had a slight knee jerk for the peaty 2014, which is surprising as I'm not a fan of some of these Islay style in-your-face/mouth smoky peat laden expressions. Maybe tasting all those light, delicate, refined grain whiskies, set up a reaction on my palate. Who knows? Jim Beveridge might.