In 1820, a year after his father’s death, John Walker sold his family farm to open a grocery shop in Kilmarnock. The business took off quickly thanks to the town’s thriving community. But Walker found that the quality of the single malts he offered varied from cask to cask, so he started blending them to achieve consistency in flavour and character. This became the cornerstone and guiding principle of John Walker & Sons, the whisky company founded by his descendants.
As it prepares for its 200th anniversary in 2020, the producer has unveiled the third edition of its John Walker & Sons Private Collection. Released annually since 2014, each collection is created from rare and irreplaceable reserves from five distilleries, namely Cameronbridge, Caledonian, Cambus, Carsebridge and Port Dundas (only Cameronbridge continues to operate). Designed by master blender Jim Beveridge, who has been with the company for 36 years, each Private Collection showcases a particular facet of whisky. The 2014 release focused on smokiness, layering old elegant whiskies with Islay spirit to create a complex and balanced blend.
The 2015 release, which emphasised whisky’s rare fruit spectrum, comprised a portion of whisky reserves from Diageo’s Calculus trial. “The idea behind the Calculus trial was to set down benchmarks of whisky examples from various distilleries matched with particular casks," explains Johnnie Walker’s global brand ambassador Tom Jones. “We have about eight million casks of whiskies in Scotland. They’re just sitting there, but what do you do with them? That’s when Jim said: ‘I’d like to use them’."
The 2016 edition (S$1,250, main image above) explores whisky’s honeyed notes. Using mostly single-grain Scotch with a dash of Highland single malt, the blend features layers of harmonious complexity and a soft texture.
“The honeyed nose that comes through is from the grain, while the malt is blended in for balance," says Jones. Adding to the whisky’s allure are notes of vanilla and coconut sweetness, derived from a long maturation process in American oak (the cask used for whisky maturation has approximately 65 per cent of influence on the spirit). “Fundamentally, that is the heart of what blending is about," Jones adds. “You get an abundance of flavours, but there is balance as well."
Legally, Johnnie Walker is not permitted to disclose the ages of the whiskies used in the blends, but the fact that a large part is drawn from four distilleries that have been closed for a considerable period of time offers a clue as to how old the stocks may be.
Equally important, however, are the inclusion of younger whiskies, as Jones duly notes. “You don’t want the blend to go too far in the honeyed direction and become syrupy. So younger whiskies are added to bring freshness and zing, as well as contrast and balance to the maturity of the older ones."
The overarching element of the Private Collections, Jones goes on to suggest, is one of simplicity. “Often in discussing whisky we use words and expressions that are almost convoluted. With this range, where we talk about their smoky, fruity or honey aspects, we want to show that we can use something that is exceedingly rare to create a blend that can simply convey the depth and key flavours that you’d find in great Scotch whisky."
With a limited run of 8,888 bottles worldwide, Johnnie Walker is unabashedly courting the Chinese market by playing to its fondness for auspicious symbols. It’s clearly paying off for the producer — bottle number 8,888 has already been sold, while bottles with the digit eight are flying off the shelves — although Jones is quick to point out that Johnnie Walker tries to produce 10,000 decanters for limited-edition bottlings. “If we can hit that number, we will, because we know that the whisky would be in huge demand, and it’s a bit of fun as well."
Every distillery and cask offers a distinct identity and character. It is this variance that contributes to whisky’s wealth of textures and flavours. In creating the Private Collection series, Johnnie Walker drew from casks across five distilleries. Each brings something different to the blend, constituting a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Here are our findings of cask samples we tasted with Tom Jones. Cask Sample I, grain whisky: Nuances of Madagascar vanilla and some citrus on the nose, with a rounded creaminess that glides over the palate. Cask Sample II, grain whisky: Aromas of toffee and fudge with a chewy, fleshy texture. Dilution brings out a pronounced wood character. Cask Sample III, malt: Distinct characters of fruits such as pears and a bit of honey. Its flavours are vibrant and rich, suggesting youthful vivacity. Private Collection 2016: A nose of honey, toffee and pear lead to a rounded, voluptuous palate with a lovely intensity of flavours evoking sweet fruit and marmalade.