Johnnie Walker Black Label is a blended scotch that even single malt snobs will enjoy. It’s a solid, reliable option that can be found behind most bars and in retail shops worldwide.
Classification: blended scotch
Distillery: Various, Scotland
Cask type: ex-bourbon and rejuvenated bourbon casks
Released: 1909; ongoing
Aged: at least 12 years
Mash bill: malted barley
Awards won Double Gold Medal, San Francisco World Spirits Competition 2020; Gold Medal, International Spirits Competition 2020
- Just about any bar or liquor store that stocks whisky will have a bottle of Black Label handy. It’s solid and reliable, no matter how divey the locale.
- There are few better introductions to peated whisky. The smoke is immediately noticeable, but it’s gentle and restrained, giving plenty of room to the sweet and malty flavors that also make up Black Label.
- The very restraint that can make Black Label so appealing to scotch novices can make it seem a little boring and unappealing to drinkers who are looking for something a little more unbridled.
Color: An elegant coppery orange—Diageo uses caramel coloring in many of its whiskies, but assuming it’s done here, it’s not overdone. It’s not unusually dark for a whisky of Black Label’s age.
Nose: Light smoke is immediately recognizable, as are apricots, ripe peaches and malty grain, along with a touch of dry oak.
Palate: Sweet honey, caramel and vanilla are soon overlaid with a dry, gentle smoke. Wood and tart citrus make an appearance on the back of the palate. The smoke gradually intensifies as it moves throatward but never overwhelms. It’s restrained throughout.
Finish: An appealing combination of malt, lemons and oak, with a gentle alcoholic kick on the swallow that feels a bit stronger than its stated 40% ABV.
Johnnie Walker may be the best-known name in scotch, and it’s also one of the most respected. Founded in 1819, J.W. is known today for its color-coded label expressions, from the mixable and inexpensive Red Label to the opulent Blue Label and beyond. The expressions change from time to time, but Black Label, launched in 1909 and containing more than 40 malt and grain whiskies from throughout the Diageo portfolio, is a cornerstone of the brand.
An 80-proof blended scotch can dazzle only so much, no matter how well-executed. If single malts are the steaks of the whisky world, then lower-proof blends are like burgers. But we all know that burgers can be pretty terrific in their own right, and in context, Black Label is indeed pretty terrific. For the novice whisky drinker who wants to learn more about peated malts, its gentle, restrained smokiness is a perfect entry point. Its sweet-malty-smoky flavor profile is an ideal baseline for anyone who wants to dive deeper into scotch. It’s a solid dram either neat or on the rocks, and it’s quite serviceable mixed into cocktails ranging from highballs to Rob Roys.
Johnnie Walker’s sibling, Double Black, which was introduced in 2011, does amplify the smoke and ups the proof a bit. But though it’s a fine whisky in its own right, it’s not as perfectly balanced as Black Label. Few whiskies are.
Black Label contains some of the best-known and most beloved of Diageo’s single malts, including Cardhu, Lagavulin and Talisker, which add their distinctive smoky notes to the blend.
The bottom line: Black Label may not dazzle, but it always satisfies. Whether drunk neat or mixed into cocktails, it’s a terrific everyday whisky at a price to match.