Whisky Review #86: Johnnie Walker Black Label 12 Years Old (1980s bottling)

It is a well-known fact that the Johnnie Walker range of blended Scotch whiskies is the best-selling brand in the brown spirits industry (although it does trail other spirits in terms of overall sales volume).

The latest estimate puts annual sales at approximately 243 million bottles across the entire range, although the Diageo-owned brand has suffered an 8% decline in total year-on-year sales lately.

This hasn’t affected its overall supremacy over the Scotch whisky category, as it currently outsells its next biggest competitor, Pernod Ricard’s Ballantine’s, by approximately 160 million bottles per year.

Those who have kept a close eye on the blended Scotch whisky market over the past few decades would be aware of one thing though: The flavour profile may remain somewhat consistent, but the distilleries which supply the various malt and grain whisky components are ever-changing.

Up until a few years ago, it was a known fact that Johnnie Walker Black Label 12 Years Old, which is the best-selling whisky within the range, was comprised of up to 39 single malts and 1 grain whisky. The signature malt components were also at one point made up of the following whiskies:

  • Caol Ila 12 Years Old
  • Cardhu 12 Years Old
  • Lagavulin 12 Years Old
  • Lagavulin 16 Years Old
  • Mortlach 16 Years Old
  • Talisker 12 Years Old

During my tour of Lagavulin back in January 2015 though, I brought up the importance of Lagavulin in the make-up of Black Label to my tour guide and was told that Diageo was actually removing it from the recipe due to its importance as a single malt and its importance as a signature malt in the White Horse blended Scotch whisky.

It was also hinted that Caol Ila was to play a bigger role in the make-up of the new Johnnie Walker recipe and this has proven to be as such, especially when one can pick out the Caol Ila on the nose and on the palate when sampling newer bottles of Black Label.

There has also been a rather noticeable change in terms of the flavour profile of the new Caol Ila 12 Years Old, as it no longer has a gentle herbal and peat note but is now more robust and heavy on the palate.

It is also well-known that older expressions of blended Scotch whiskies exhibited a higher amount of sherried whiskies within the recipe and this also made them somewhat more enjoyable in the old days, whereas the newer iterations are more bourbon-centric due to the high (and dare I say it, prohibitive) costs associated with acquiring sherry casks from Spain and other countries.

It therefore makes for a rather interesting side-by-side comparison when one is able to nose and taste both older style blends and their modern counterparts in order to discern just how different one is from the other.

This week’s review focuses on an expression of Johnnie Walker Black Label 12 Years Old which was bottled in the 1980s (which would also put it within the purview of DCL and United Distillers) at 43% abv.

So, let’s dive right into the review!

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Johnnie Walker Black Label 12 Years Old (1980s bottling)

Johnnie Walker Black Label 12 Years Old (1980s bottling, 43% abv)

Colour:Deep gold

Nose: Initial entry presents a smooth, perfumed and rounded nose which exhibits a fairly pronounced sherried note. Sweet malt and barley sugar are both rather apparent as well and there is a note that is reminiscent of raisins as well as an underlying grainy note which alludes to the fact that this is not a single malt, but a grain.

Honey and oak coupled with cinnamon and brown sugar also make an appearance later on and the overall nose is mellow, yet complex. (20/25)

Palate: Initial entry presents a palate which is mellow, rich and also subtle in some ways. Slight sherry and honey notes coupled with cinnamon and barley sugar emerge fairly quickly and is complemented by light smoke and a touch of citrus.

With time, more of the honey and citrus notes emerge and there is a certain oakiness which becomes more pronounced as well. The cinnamon grows in prominence as well and more of the grainy underbelly begins to make itself apparent. (21/25)

Finish: Medium to long on the finish, with the honeyed sweetness giving way to the drying oak and a touch of smoke. Vestigial traces of cinnamon and chewy malt linger, but eventually fade away. (20/25)

Balance: A fairly well-balanced and enticing dram which exhibits a good level of complexity. The sweetness at the forefront and the dryness towards the end provide an interesting contrast to one another. This is a great example of a classic blend style from a bygone era! (21/25)

Rating: 82/100

I found this expression to be somewhat superior to the modern versions of Johnnie Walker Black Label and the fairly obvious amount of sherried whiskies in this expression makes it a treat as well as something to savour as it truly is a representation of a bygone blending style.

As demand grows and sherry casks become more expensive, it will become more and more difficult to allocate sherried whiskies to blended whiskies as their importance to the ever-increasing single malt market will mean that it is there that such whiskies will be prioritised.

It is therefore worth sourcing for some of these older blended Scotch whiskies for collection and consumption purposes as they will surely appreciate in value and in opinion over time.

Until the next review, have a great week ahead.

Slainte!

Brendan

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