This is my second post about the Johnnie Walker webcast event titled “Johnnie Walker Black Label Centenary Journeyman Blending Webcast with Johnnie Walker Master Blender Andrew Ford.” Whew! My first, introductory post is here. Andrew Ford was the host of the webcast, airing from the Brandy Library in New York City. The webcast was divided into two parts. The first part being a history of Johnnie Walker, and the second being an overview and tasting of 7 whisky samples that represent the big building blocks of Johnnie Walker Black. These samples were sent out in a blending kit to the webcast attendees.
In this post, I’ll go ahead and share my notes from Mr. Ford’s history discussion, along with some pictures of the Walkers and some historic bottles for the history buffs out there. Then I’ll do another post with notes from the tasting, along with the Q&A from the interactive webcast.
John Walker and son Alexander
John Walker was thrust into the grocery business in Kilmarnark at the age of 15 when his father passed away. He somehow got into blending whiskies in an attempt to provide a consistent whisky product to his customers. [Note: The initial blends would have been solely comprised of single malt whiskies, as grain whisky didn't come about until 1832] That’s really about all that’s known of John Walker, and it was his son Alexander that took the family grocery business and turned it into a big whisky company.
Alexander built up a wholesale business and started exporting whisky worldwide. He’s the one that came up with the square bottle (possibly for better packing in shipping containers), as well as the slanted label.
Alexander II and George
Alexander Walker left the family business to his sons George, Jack and Alexander II. George took over the business operations and became CEO. Jack fell ill and died while looking after the Australian part of the business. Alexander II was the blender. They still have original blending notes from Alexander II in the Johnnie Walker archives. Mr. Ford showed a picture of Alexander II in a blending room sometime around 1910, and commented that the room looked similar to the blending rooms used today.
To ensure the supply of whisky for their blends, the Walker brothers started buying distilleries. Cardhu was the first distillery purchased, and is still a cornerstone of the Johnnie Walker blends.
Note: Mr. Ford noted during the webcast that this was one of the “happier” pictures he’s seen of Alexander II. Quite the serious fellow, it seems.
How did “Black Label” come to be?
Alexander II came up with the Johnnie Walker Black Label recipe around 1906 and named it “John Walker Extra Special Old Highland Whisky.” Quite a mouthful! The label was black, to distinguish it from the standard blend which used a red label. Given the long name of the Extra Special blend, people just started referring to it as “Black Label.”
In 1909, they added an extra label to the bottle with the text “Johhnie Walker Black Label”, and here we are 100 years later celebrating the anniversary of the official “Black Label” release.
Andrew Ford mentioned during the webcast that he had a chance to try a 1950’s Black Label from the archives. It wasn’t exactly the same as current Black Label, but he noted that some of that could be due to bottle aging.
Coming in Part 2…
Rather than create one huge post covering the whole webcast, I’m going to stop here and resume in another post, where I’ll cover the process of actually walking through the seven whisky samples provided to the attendees.
There were also a number of questions fielded by Andrew Ford during the webcast. I’ll provide the details from the Q&A in the next post as well.
Previous Post: Introduction and a look at the blending kit
Next Post: The Art of Blending webcast – Part 2