The Whiskey Review: Johnnie Walker Black vs The Glenlivet

[Originally published March, 2012 at Manarchy Magazine]

The Whiskey Review: Johnnie Walker Black vs The Glenlivet

Round 1

We’ve got a couple big contenders lined up for this month’s tasting. Last time we covered the ubiquitous Jack Daniels Old No 7, which is probably the most well-known, best-selling whiskey in America. Today we’re going to cover two of the most well-known, best selling whiskeys the world over, so I thought I’d set it up like a cage match.

Even though neither of these bottles are what you would call an investment to purchase, both ringing up at around $25-35 US, I’d still recommend finding a liquor store that carries the smaller sample bottles or going Dutch with a drinking buddy. This is primarily because if you like one selection, chances are you won’t like the other. So, proceed with caution.

Oh who am I kidding? If you end up with a nearly full bottle of one of these that you don’t like, just mix it with cola at your next party and tell people it’s a refined version of the old Jack and Coke. They’ll love you for it.

So let’s dig in.

The Glenlivet 12 Year Single Malt

On the nose, the first impression is a full bouquet of balanced floral notes underscored with citrus and honey; sweet and slightly summery. The color is also very much like honey, but since there are so many different kinds of honey, this isn’t saying a whole lot.

The first sip coats your mouth almost entirely with pepper and smoke, and this comes on strong and sharp but doesn’t last too long, giving way to mild floral notes with a touch of vanilla. From there it seems to lean from sweet toward mildly dry and malty at the finish, but nothing really stands out after what I can only call the initial “attack”. My mouth feels oily after the second sip, and this lingers for several minutes for no apparent reason.

As full as the nose was, I expected a bit more sweetness or depth to develop on the palette. Being the best selling scotch whiskey in the world, I’m forced now to wonder if this is a result of really good marketing, or just the strangely homogenous overall flavor.

Over ice it just tastes weaker and watery, not smoother or more delicate as with many other scotches.

Imagine you’re driving your little red convertible down a one lane country road with an orchard to one side and fields of wildflowers to the other. The sun overhead warms you gently as the road dips and curves along the landscape. Then your car overheats and that hot engine smell sticks in the back of your throat as you walk back down the same road, checking your cell phone periodically to see if you’ve found reception yet: That’s what drinking this whiskey is like for me. Promising, but ultimately a letdown.

I won’t be heartbroken when the bottle runs dry, but I sort of wonder how long that will take. I’m certainly not excited about drinking it again, and I’d be reluctant even mixing it with something as strong as the bite was on the front end, so maybe I need to find a friend who’s already a fan and set it aside for them whenever they come over.

Round 2

If I were to make a Hollywood comparison for the Johnnie Walker offerings I’ve enjoyed thus far, I’d line them up to characters in the Godfather. Blue label is obviously Brando’s Vito Corleone: Measured, mature, balanced if not understated, pleasantly nuanced. Blue Label’s expansive finish is brilliantly subdued, well worth the $150-180US price tag.

Gold Label is more akin to Pacino’s portrayal of Michael Corleone: Optimistic and lively at first, never lacking depth, character, or the resolve to do what is needed with vigor underscored with a certain subtle grace.

Black Label, tonight’s contendor, is more like Caan’s Sonny Corleone: Hot headed and rambunctious, and not without merit, but possibly lacking the requisite maturity to keep his wits about him when it really counts.

So the question remains, will our challenger, Black Label, be able to compete with the world-over best-seller, The Glenlivet? After Glen’s less-than-stellar performance, I’d say it’s anyone’s match.

Johnnie Walker Black Label

The nose is heavy with smoky oak and spice, and increasingly acidic the more I swirl it. I’m surprised at the latter component, actually. It reminds me of how some of those fancy, expensive ground mustards work over your nostrils. (In hindsight, I suppose this is better than if the Black Label smelled like plain old yellow mustard.)

The first sip, neat, is a sucker punch to the palette the moment you swallow. It swishes around nicely, but comes on much too strong afterwards. The alcohol bites and then bites again, then tries to make amends with hints of earth and possibly vanilla on the back end to keep you sipping. I wasn’t very impressed with this last ditch effort to hold my interest.

The finish leaves your mouth feeling like a charred oak barrel with hints of tobacco and possibly leather that’s spent a little too much time in the sun, and the alcohol bite tends to linger after the second and third sip a little longer each time. I don’t know if I mind, however, since there wasn’t much to savor in the first place. This is essentially death to your palette, the perfect scotch if you’re not concerned with tasting whatever you’re having for dinner. Maybe your wife burned the roast.

Over ice, swirled a few times, the nose attains more sweet earthy notes, but the smoke and spice still prevail. The acrid dimension is almost gone, however, so at the moment I’m wondering if ice is the key.

The first sip, everything comes across softened ever so slightly by the vanilla that opens up thanks to the ice. But another sip or two and you feel like you’re in the same boat as before. Though muted, that bite begins to take over and keep your palette from savoring any of the other notes, even the hint of fruitiness, which try to develop. The fruit is possibly raisin or date, but sadly, by the time I notice this, it’s too diluted to nail it down.

Once the ice has melted, however, instead of the aforementioned bite, the note that hangs around takes on a strangely medicinal quality (though many people tell me I’m wrong on this, and that this is actually a nice flavor). Whatever it is, it lingers long after the other flavors have given up. Think dead menthol cigarettes floating in the ashtray on your back porch after a good rain. The moist earth in the distance is nice, but the more immediate soggy tobacco and ash overtakes the senses.

I came back to this straight one last time, about half an hour later, and it just kept biting my palette then nose diving before anything enjoyable could really develop.

Think Charlie Sheen back when his death spiral nearly spelled disaster for Two and a Half Men: Acts exactly like a 12 year old, then crashes and burns with surprising enthusiasm.

I’m glad I ordered it at a bar, as this is the slightly better of two evils. I’m sure I look like a schmuck, sitting here at my computer writing tasting notes for a rather lackluster blended whiskey. On the one hand I’d hate to have another bottle sitting around collecting dust. I feel like I’ll have to come back sometime and order something more distinguished and expensive to save face, or just find another place to drink.

Conclusion 

So we’ve got two whiskeys that, much like Paris Hilton and Charlie Sheen, probably shouldn’t be as popular as they are, but such is the world in which we live.

It’s the spunky yet unrefined best selling single malt versus the most popular but not altogether attached-to-planet-earth blend.

Ask yourself this: Who would you rather be seen hanging out with? Paris Hilton or Charlie Sheen?

Personally, I say Sheen. At the end of the day, we’re both dudes, so the chances of getting an STD are a lot lower with him.

Likewise, I think the one-trick-pony of the Glenlivet is just not enough to best the slightly more refined (probably a result of blending) Johnnie Walker Black.  Tasting them both on the rocks is what tips the scales in Black Label’s favor, since The Glenlivet just comes off watered down and at least with Black Label there were some new flavors to discover. I didn’t like them all, but at least they were there. That shows effort.

Of course, you will have to decide for yourself. What do you think? Are there any whiskeys out there you want me to cover (that are, you know, under $200 a bottle, of course)? Discuss.

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