Since I’m getting back into the swing of things, tasting whisky again in a pseudo-professional capacity, I decided to stop by the Diageo office this past week in San Francisco and visit some old friends. The gang was gearing up for Whiskyfest, putting together some serious masterclasses (including an Oban retrospective with some very old whiskies!), while getting ready for the big Game of Thrones push as the HBO blockbuster moves into its final season. You’ve probably seen the Johnnie Walker “White Walker” edition at your local store already. It’s a mellow, milder, smoke-free edition of the blended classic, stripped of Talisker and Caol Ila, and padded instead with Clynelish and Cardhu. Bottled at 41.7% (1 throne, 7 kingdoms), it’s a fine, non-fussy whisky for fans who likely care more about the bottle anyway. Not bad, not amazing.
I was far more impressed with the new 10 year old “Blenders’ Batch, featuring three different grain whiskies in the recipe—one distilled from wheat, one from corn, and one from barley. Not that it matters all that much, as most grain whisky distillers will tell you. When grain whisky is distilled on a column still to a high proof, the original flavor of the grain itself becomes less important. It’s more about the impact of the refill-Bourbon oak casks used here, as I thought the flavors were absolutely wonderful: robust, rich, oaky, and concentrated. I couldn’t exactly put my finger on what I liked so much about it, but as I told Ewan in the tasting bar: “The Blenders’ Batch tastes like old school whisky, like what I used to sample back in 2011 when there were loads of great casks still available.” It has an intensity that’s been lacking from whisky over the last few years. If you want a bit more oomph from your blended Scotch, more bass notes with plenty of treble, this is the Johnnie Walker for you. There's a solid dose of Mortlach in the recipe, so that explains the meaty richness, I think. I’ll likely pick up a bottle.
Speaking of Mortlach, I was treated to a sneak preview of the new 12 and 20 year old editions due to arrive in the states soon. Most of my experience with Mortlach comes from the various sherry-saturated single casks I brought in over the years via Chieftain’s, Signatory, and A.D. Rattray, but it’s fascinating to see what Diageo has been able to do with an actual branded release. The new expressions, both coming in at 43.4%, are matured in a combination of refill Bourbon and Oloroso Sherry butts and, while they maintain the meatiness of the Mortlach character (a heavier spirit due to less copper contact, among other reasons), they’re not the sherry-soaked spirits you might have tried in various independent bottling. Both whiskies are far more restrained and polished around the edges, but they’re very tasty. I thought the 12 was good, the 20 very good. It’s definitely worth paying the extra $$$ for the jump up, in my opinion.
While the White Walker wasn’t necessarily anything out of the ordinary, the new Game of Thrones malt editions set to hit the U.S. next year have definitely piqued my interest. Eight new expressions, from distilleries that I like very much, all purportedly to be quite reasonably priced. I was told the Clynelish cask strength edition should come in around fifty bucks, while the Lagavulin 9 year around sixty. It’s nice to see Royal Lochnagar in the U.S. again, and I thought the black Oban “Night’s Watch” bottle was very cool. As Ewan said to me, it was important to Diageo that fans of the series be able to buy multiple bottles and collect the entire set “without taking out a second mortgage on their home.”
I love a good value as much as the next person, so I’m excited to see how these hold up.