Last year I was lucky enough to be invited onto the Malt Advocates Course, a two-day long intensive immersion into the world of both whisky and Diageo.
Taking place at Royal Lochnagar (which I reviewed here) the course focused extensively on maturation and the various effects of wood on spirit as it matures into whisky. It was obvious that this exploration has long been a focus at Diageo’s distilleries, with the early in-depth research starting in the late 1980s.
And so it was this that I thought of when I found myself recently getting to experience a whisky which has been hugely influenced by this research (code named Calculus).
The launch was for the new release for John Walker & Sons (the higher end/prestige part of Johnnie Walker). The new Private Collection has been based on what has been learned from the Directors’ Blend series (released exclusively for directors and friends of them on a yearly basis, and which I have reviewed here and here). That series focused on a blend of a small parcel of casks, which each year highlighted a different theme: smoky, Highland, Island smoke etc.
The latest release takes the same concept (a eye to using small parcels of casks and focusing on a theme for each yearly release) but opening them up to the public to purchase. As Nick Morgan, head of whisky outreach for Diageo, explained at the launch: “This is Directors’ Blend thinking beginning to be commercialised for a broader community.”
The idea will be to repeat the series for the next four to five years at least (Dr Jim Beveridge said he hopes it will continue until 2020, the 200th anniversary for Jonnie Walker) with no more than 10,000 bottles of each.
This first edition of the Private Collection is focused on smoke (Highland, Island and Islay), and used 29 vatted casks blended together. To clarify, that means that each of the 29 casks used to make up this blend is, in itself, a vatting which was put together many years ago and then left to re-mature in slightly less active casks. This is where Calculus comes in: the experiments mentioned earlier focused on how wood affected flavour with umpteen various casks left to mature in the warehouses and tracked on a matrix basis over the years.
We tried a selection of the vatted cask samples, and I found the whiskies ranged from one that was quite savoury and acidic with nice tropical notes mixed in amongst the smoke, to another that led with buttery marzipan notes on the nose but which had a good bit of smoke, green peppercorns and waxy texture on the palate.
According to Jim, the benefit of being able to do a limited edition is in being able to access these casks that have been experimented with over the years because he doesn’t have to have a infinite supply of liquid for short run releases. There’s no word on what next year’s release will focus on but he added: “We always try to think from the consumer point of view and work backwards asking ourselves, ‘What would our consumers like?'”
I had the chance after the event to speak to Jim further about tackling this project. Here’s what he had to say (with a review of the final blend following the interview):
How much of a challenge was this compared to other blends you’ve worked on?
Different blends present different challenges. When it came to this, it was the responsibility of working with such rare, irreplaceable and valuable whiskies, many outstanding in their own right, to create a blend that would best suit them and reveal their characters fully.
The small batch nature and style of the blends makes the John Walker & Sons Private Collection the perfect platform to showcase these great casks.
You mentioned you had access to many different parts of stock because you could use smaller parcels because this is a limited edition. Did that make things more challenging because you would have had a lot more to choose from?
We did not actually have very many at all to choose from as we were searching within a very special area of the inventory, casks that I know intimately. The immense scale of our whisky making and blending has, over time, enabled me to build up a reserve of extremely small batches of malt and grain whiskies, blended and set aside in casks for years to create new depths of flavour. Within these bespoke stocks are the series of experimental casks.
The challenge was selecting, without compromise, the few casks to successfully create a rich, complex and balanced smoky blend.
You said you like to think of what the customer might want and work back to what you have available to work with. As this is naturally going to be aimed in part at the Asian market (there are 8,888 bottles in the series, which suggests what markets they’re focused on) where smoky whiskies aren’t as well received, how did the thinking work in this case?
This new release has been developed to excite the palate of whisky connoisseurs around the world. We know that all whisky loving markets, experts and connoisseurs alike, are intrigued by the nuances of smoky flavours, be it in blends or single malts, and the 2014 Edition has been developed with this in mind. The success of Johnnie Walker blends, from Red Label through to Blue Label, in Asian markets demonstrates that smoky whiskies are much appreciated.
How long were you working on this blend for and how special is it for you?
I started work on the 2014 Edition in late 2012.
It is a special project as we’ve been given creative freedom to make a series of whiskies that display the skill and complexity of our blending today through different expressions of the flavours of John Walker & Sons. And we’re working with these wonderful bespoke and experimental casks laid down over my time as blender; it’s the first time for a John Walker & Sons release that I’ve turned to some of these experimental stocks that would not ordinarily be released.
If you could let consumers know one selling point about this whisky, what would be the most important from your perspective?
Great blending team, great stocks, great flavour. That’s not one is it?
John Walker & Sons Private Collection 2014 Edition: 46.8%: £500:
(n): Really layered: it’s savoury with peppery notes but a lot of tropical sweetness and a hint of smoke. The smoke breaks down with the sweetness and it’s not too medicinal, more of a salty smoke. There’s also some apricot and peach notes on nose.
(p): Much more delicate than expected – lots of gentle sweetness with some waxiness, earthy, wet damp leaves, a great kick mid-palate with a good tropical swe
et hit throughout.
(f): Very long finish with some smokiness and almost a slight menthol note too.