Johnnie Walker is the best-selling whisky brand in the world. So for the drinker new to the scotch category, it’s the perfect place to start.
But you may have some questions — especially if you’re just jumping into the scotch product category for the first time. In this post, we’ll explore what the brand’s Red and Black Labels have to offer so you can decide whether it’s worth it to spring for the extra $13 for the higher-end bottle.
The story of this eponymous brand naturally revolves around the historical figure John Walker. He was a shopkeeper who fell into the world of whisky at the perfect time to build a brand that would span centuries.
John Walker was born in 1805 onto a farm in Kilmarnock, Scotland. When his father died in 1819, the family sold the farm and opened a grocery shop on the town’s High Street. Despite living a sober lifestyle, he began selling distilled spirits, including rum, brandy, gin and — most importantly for us — whisky.
A turn of events helped his whisky business soon outgrow the family’s grocery interest.
First was the Excise Act of 1823, which relaxed the UK’s strict distillation laws. The updated legislation allowed numerous single malt distilleries that operated illicitly to avoid death by taxes and come into the light and of day. As distillers began to sell their products legally, grocer brokers like Walker were a vital part of their revenue stream because they brought the products to market.
Next was the introduction of the industrial column still invented by Aeneas Coffey in 1832. This new still was much more energy, time and input efficient than the traditional copper pot stills in use until its arrival and allowed whisky to be produced cheaply and quickly.
Finally, the British Spirits Act of 1860 legalized the blending of cheap grain whiskies produced on column stills with the single malt scotch produced by the many small distilleries that dotted Scotland’s highlands. Although John Walker died in 1857, his son Alexander Walker and grandson Alexander Walker II would pioneer the art of blending these two types of whiskies to make affordable yet delicious whiskies that everyday folk could enjoy. Today, bottles of Johnnie Walker grace bars in nearly every county that allows the legal consumption of alcohol.
Both Johnnie Walker Red and Black Labels are blended scotch whiskies.
When making blended scotch, at least two types of component whiskies are combined to make a complex product that is arguably greater than the sum of its parts. In the case of Johnnie Walker Black and Red Label whiskies, they are a combination of single malt and single grain whiskies produced in various distilleries throughout Scotland.
According to UK regulations, single malt whiskies must contain a grain bill of 100 percent malted barley. Single grain whiskies can be made using any cereal grains — most notably wheat, malted barley and corn, which is called maize in the UK. The barrels dumped to make each batch will have been distilled as one of these two types before being blended.
Distillation & Production
While some whiskies used to make Johnnie Walker may not have been distilled by a Diageo distillery — especially casks older than the merger between Guinness and Grand Metropolitan that formed Diageo in 1997 — most will have been produced at one of their sites.
Diageo operates 28 malt distilleries and two grain distilleries across Scotland’s various regions, along with coppersmithing, cooperage and malting operations. Each malt distillery will house at least two traditional copper pot stills, while the grain distilleries operate continuous column still equipment.
From these stills, the whiskies used to produce each distinctive blend will flow.
Scotch regulations require whisky to be matured for a minimum of three years in wooden containers. Some Johnnie Walker expressions have age statements, reflecting the minimum number of years each component whisky spent in oak. Others do not and are considered no age statement, or NAS, whiskies.
Let’s examine each to learn more about the maturation process.
How old is Johnnie Walker Red?
Johnnie Walker Red Label is a NAS whisky. Therefore, at least some of the whiskies used in the blend will be around the minimum of three years, while others may be older. By combining whiskies of various ages, the blending team can add complexity and depth to the finished product. Marrying older whiskies with less mature barrels will create the flavor profile desired for the specific product.
How old is Johnnie Walker Black?
Johnnie Walker Black Label has an age statement of 12 years, which means that each barrel used when blending the batch was matured for at least 12 years at one of the many maturation warehouses operated by Diageo.
We say the word ‘warehouse’ when some of these stockpiles are open-air. The collection of maturing barrels destined for the Johnnie Walker portfolio is the largest globally, and some of them are held in outdoor storage. Exposure to the elements — wind, rain, temperature, humidity — drastically affects the chemical reactions and oxidation as the spirit matures inside the cask.
Some of the barrels from silent stills that Johnnie Walker has in its warehouses include Port Ellen and Brora. The term silent still describes distilleries that have ceased to operate over the years.
It’s a lot to consider.
The man who stays on top of these moving parts is Master Blender Jim Beveridge — one of the most prolific names in the world of whisky. His palate is considered one of the most finely calibrated in the business. In fact, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2019 at Windsor Castle in honor of his service to the scotch whisky industry.
The blending team, led by Jim Beveridge, will taste barrel samples to create each blend and taste the batch against samples from earlier batches. For the world’s largest brand that utilizes arguably the largest arsenal of component whiskies in the industry, making each bottle of Johnnie Walker Red or Black Label, for example, taste the same whether it was bottled in 1982 or 2022 is quite a feat!
Ownership, Price Point & Value
The Johnnie Walker franchise is produced by London-based drinks giant Diageo PLC — the largest distilled spirits producer in the world.
Johnnie Walker Red Label is about $27 for a 750mL bottle at 40 percent alcohol by volume, or 80-proof.
Johnnie Walker Black Label 12 Year Old is about $40 for a 750mL bottle at 40 percent ABV, or 80-proof.
Because both offerings fall under the Johnnie Walker brand, it makes sense to explore the full range.
When answering the question, ‘What is the best Johnnie Walker blend?’ consult this breakout. In addition to ascending in price — from low to high — they are also ascending in quality.
Although the most straightforward metric is maturation, some bottlings have no age statements. Other quality metrics include the proportion of malt whisky to grain whisky in the blend, the quality of grain whiskies, the maturation warehouses utilized and other factors.
The Johnnie Walker Lineup
Johnnie Walker Red Label — The introductory offering, this product is best utilized in mixed drinks.
Johnnie Walker Black Label — Now we’re ready to level up. This familiar square bottle with the black tilted label is a welcome sight to any international traveler who knows exactly what to expect inside. Notes of smoky Islay peat are more pronounced than Red Label.
Johnnie Walker Double Black — Bolder. It utilizes heavily-charred barrels and a higher proportion of single malts from the west coast of Scotland, the islands and Islay, including Lagavulin, Talisker, Caol Ila and Clynelish.
Johnnie Walker Green Label — Let’s leave the grain whiskies behind. This is a blended malt whisky — historically called a vatted malt — that contains a blend of single malt scotch whiskies from the many Diageo PLC distilleries across Scotland.
Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve — This expression focuses more on Speyside and Highland whiskies and has less of the signature peat smokiness of some other expressions.
Johnnie Walker Aged 18 Years — An 18-year-old bottle of scotch ain’t something to ignore.
Johnnie Walker Blue Label — The most premium standard offering from the brand. Some specialty bottlings and high-end exclusives aimed at the travel retail sector may ask for a higher price, but they are not as widely available.
Johnnie Walker Red Label Blended Scotch Whisky
Description: In the glass, Johnnie Walker Red Label has a medium yellow hue and is the color of burnished copper. It has slight legs at 40 percent ABV, or 80-proof.
Nose: Walnut, tobacco, spent match, hint of peat creosote.
Palate: Vanilla, coconut, tobacco, cinnamon, toffee, raisin, honey.
Finish: A cream soda finish, chocolate, tobacco.
Johnnie Walker Black Label 12-Year-Old Blended Scotch Whisky
Description: In the glass, Johnnie Walker Black Label has a deep gold hue, with pronounced legs at 80-proof.
Nose: Floral rose notes, a wisp of peat, toasted oak, leather and tobacco.
Palate: Peat and charcoal notes reminiscent of a campfire, sweet wheat and malty notes, leather, tobacco, vanilla, cherries, honey and almonds.
Finish: Leather, tobacco, vanilla, cinnamon, cherries and lingering peat notes.
Johnnie Walker Red Label is an excellent intro to the broader scotch whisky category. It has an affordable price that can fit into any budget — including the of-age college student looking to see what scotch is about.
Some common questions when considering these two brands:
Is Johnnie Walker Red or Black better?
‘Better’ is an objective term. But we’d wager Malt Master Dr. Jim Beveridge would agree that in a blind side-by-side tasting, Johnnie Walker Black would receive a more superior score than Red Label due to factors such as more extended maturation – Black Label has a 12-year age statement while Red has no age statement — the higher proportion of malt whiskies and higher-quality component grain whiskies.
Which is the more costly, Red Label or Black Label?
See above. At $27, Johnnie Walker Red Label is considered within the standard pricing tier, while at $40, Johnnie Walker Black Label is considered a premium product.
Which Johnnie Walker is most popular?
Again, ‘popular’ is quite an objective term. The total brand sold 14.1 million 9 liter cases in 2020. Traditionally, Red Label receives about twice as much market share volume as Black Label. However, Johnnie Walker Black Label is a higher-value product, which means its dollar value might surpass Red Label.