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Comparing Two Old with The Current Johnnie Walker Red Label

by Oliver Klimek on July 3, 2012

Old blends are a fascinating study object since many brands have existed for decades. Having expressions of the ‘same’ whisky across the decades gives you access to a whisky time machine. Two years ago, Ralfy did a video review of a 1960s bottling with a 2010 release that I found very insightful.

I was fortunate to receive two samples of older bottlings of Johnnie Walker Red from fellow Malt Maniac Ben, one from the 1960s and one from the 1970. So I can finally do such a comparison myself in a head-to-head-to-head tasting.

1960s

Colour: Dark amber
Nose: Raisins, prunes in Armagnac, burnt sugar, orange and lemon zest, raisins, soy sauce, black currant jam, cinnamon, cardamom, hints of nutmeg.
Palate: Aged oloroso sherry, butterscotch, raisins, cassis, orange zest, cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg, hints of camphor.
Finish: Long, fruity and slightly spicy.
Overall: Very complex on the palate and a massive nose, this is a very bold dram. It has a certain meatiness without really tasting meaty and the sherry influence is more than obvious.
Score: 87/100

1970s

Colour: Medium amber
Nose: Prunes, raisins, vanilla, also slightly meaty and herbal with a strong helping of mild spices. Citrus emerges after some time with orange zest becoming rather dominant.
Palate: Caramel, orange zest, vanilla, hints of oxtail soup, dried herbs, nutmeg, hints of pepper.
Finish: Long and savoury.
Overall: A very interesting combination of flavours, the savoury character is rather pronounced, but overall it still is a rather light dram.
Score: 83/100

2012

Colour: Bright amber
Nose: A balanced mix of citrus and cereal notes, underlined by raisins, honey and a tiny whiff of smoke, but also a slightly acrid note.
Palate: Caramel and vanilla dominate, raisins and faint citrus notes come next, there is a minimal hint of peat.
Finish: Medium long, sweet and slighty fruity.
Overall: Very much in line with my 2011 tasting notes, although now I find it slightly more complex than last time.
Score: 68/100

Conclusion

The first, and very obvious, difference between the three bottlings is the increasing brightness of the colour. A diminuishing sherry cask content is quite evident form the tasting notes, but caramel colouring has always to be taken into account. All three noses are markedly different. After intensive nosing of the two old expressions, the current bottling gave me a immediate flash of ‘newmake’ character.

Compared to the 2012 Red Label which is a decent entry level blend for today’s standards, the 1960s version is huge and bold, almost overtowering. The 1970s expression still is very richly flavoured but not quite as thick anymore. So there certainly is a trend visible towards a lighter style.

When you have a blend it is virtually impossible to tell just how much of the change was caused by adjusting the recipe – a shift form Mortlach and Benrinnes to Cardhu seems very likely here – as opposed to the change in the primary components of the blend. I am not sure about the grain whisky, but malt whisky definitely has changed over the decades due to changes in production and barley varieties.

The older versions seem much more mature than today’s Johnnie Walker Red Label. There may be some bottle aging involed here, but still I feel confirmed in my notion which I expressed in my latest E-pistle for the Malt Maniacs that in the past whisky needed less time to mature than today.

Seeing the scores coming down with time, as a whisky lover I can only be sad about this development. But from the buiness side Diageo may have made the right decision to turn Red Label into a drink that seems more easily accessible for uneducated palates. The sales statistics speak for themselves. But on the other hand the vast majority of today’s Johnnie Walker fans probably have no idea how it used to taste in the good old days.

Anyway, old Johnnie Walker bottles are still around on auctions for reasonable prices. Tasting such an old expression is a highly recommendable experience that you can have even with a thin wallet.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Joshua Feldman July 3, 2012 at 5:10 pm

Fascinating topic, Oliver and perfectly on target given our recent conversation with Billy Abbott (aka @cowfish). It’s fuel for the fire – and the imagination.

I definitely get the acrid flavor note of young raw grain spirits in the modern red label. I wouldn’t have considered looking for old examples of JWRL because of this but I’ll reconsider based on your excellent tasting notes. Personally I’m pursuing dusties of Teacher’s Highland Cream, White Horse, and JWBL as well as interesting bourbons.

For this particular review, photographs of the color of the drams would have been very useful. Consider adding some pics to future whisky review posts where color is part of the topic, thanks!

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Oliver Klimek July 3, 2012 at 5:21 pm

I suspect Johnnie Walker is exemplary and you might find similar trends in other brands. I agree that pictures of the drams would have been nice in hindsight, but I didn’t really give too much attention to the colour issue until I wrote the article.

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Adelina November 2, 2012 at 4:23 am

Hi, Im from malaysia and I have an old persumely 1970s red label for sale. on the lable, there’s the printed name of the importer in malaysia, caldbeck macgregor (m) sdn bhd. do you know where i can get this bottle evaluated and if there’s a good selling price for it?

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Oliver Klimek November 2, 2012 at 6:49 am

The best you can do with such a bottle is to open and enjoy it. It’s good whisky. Most probably you will not get more than $30 to $40 for it because such bottles are not particularly rare. A die-hard Johnnie Walker collector might be interested in a Malaysian version, but I doubt that this will add very much to the price.

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