Like it or not, Johnnie Walker is the brand most people think of when it comes to scotch. And as with anything popular, it has no shortage of detractors. The three primary targets of reason seem to be the brand’s exclusive use of blends, the fact it’s owned by Diageo, and the oft-criticized quality of its introductory bottle. I actually managed to avoid Red Label until just recently. My reason wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to have a potentially bad whisky, but more that I felt the $35 Black Label was already good and affordable enough. Therefore, I felt no reason to step down. Yet anyone who knows me knows that I occasionally succumb to morbid curiosity.
I’ve had my fair share of maligned whiskies and often find myself more bored than offended. Maybe the PTSD I have of drinking Fireball, Jagermeister, and Southern Comfort (easily the worst of all) in my earlier days simply set the bar too low for others to compete with. Be that as it may, let’s take a quick look at what exactly makes Johnnie Walker Red Label what it is.
Diageo’s entry-level scotch is a blend of up to 30 malt and grain whiskies sourced from multiple distilleries. It was originally released in 1908, bears no age statement, is bottled at 40% ABV, and sells for approximately $22 locally. The lack of an age statement means the whisky is at least 3 years old, but its blended nature means region and cask type(s) may vary.
Nose: Sweet and grainy, maybe even a touch of butter. The sweetness enters chemical territory, reminding me of spray paint. Pushing past that yields mild notes of cereal, honey, and apple juice. Has a faintly savory component that’s present, but muted and undeveloped. Occasionally able to pull out a dying campfire essence.
Palate: Thin mouthfeel and weak flavors. Honey, barely steeped tea, and barely buttered toast. Maybe a bit of dried apple. Everything here feels like a pale impression or faint approximation.
Finish: Blink and you’ll miss it. The most memorable note is the faint, lingering ethanol on the back of the tongue. Lingering toast and vague hints of apple or golden raisin perhaps.
Calling this a thud might be generous.
Johnnie Walker Red Label feels short of a gentle nudge. It’s like a light tap on the shoulder when you’re wearing multiple layers of clothing. Nosing elicits an odd combination of emotions, namely boredom and concern. The palate leans generously towards the former, which I should probably be thankful for. I actually find myself oddly challenged by this budget-minded scotch. Pulling out notes proves taxing with little fulfillment to speak of. Breaking it down is busywork in the purest sense. Compared to my most poorly reviewed spirits, Red Label is a delight. In a vacuum, however? This is about as forgettable as my backup pen at work.