The many colours of Johnnie Walker

I grew up in a scotch drinking household. Single malt scotch to be more precise, was my dad’s favourite. Also for as long as I can remember he kept what he called an “everyday drinking” scotch on hand.  This would always be a moderately priced blended scotch, typically J & B or an equivalent.  The purpose of said scotch was for more general scotch drinking.  For those times when you didn’t have time to sit down and appreciate the nuances of premium single malt.  At the core this example represents some of the fundamental differences in the scotch world.  Single malt is the premium product, aged for long periods in expensive casks, made with the finest malts and by the finest producers.  Blended scotch is mass produced, a blend of many different scotches, and sold at much more reasonable prices.  Typically.

Let’s start with a quick definition of the two:
Single Malt Scotch: a scotch which is distilled in a single distillery, in a pot still, using only malted barley in the production.
Blended Scotch Whisky: a blend of one or more malt scotch whiskies or grain scotch whiskies from different distilleries.  A general “Blended Scotch Whisky” can contain both malt whisky or grain whisky.

Blended scotch whiskies can lack the attention to detail and finesse in production, the care that generally goes into single malt scotch production.  But that is an extreme generalization and in some cases the finest scotches may just happen to be blends.  So with that in mind I thought we would take a quick look into the world’s largest distributer and marketer of blended scotch. A scotch that most people (whisky drinkers or not) know by name.   I present to you the many colours of Johnnie Walker.

Walk into a liquor store in virtually any city in the world, walk over to the whisky section, and you are sure to find Johnnie Walker scotch.  They have been around for nearly 200 years and are currently the world’s largest distributer of scotch whisky.  To get that type of notoriety you need to run a savvy business for sure, but you also need the quality product to back it up and Johnnie Walker certainly has that.  But don’t worry about ages, fancy names or regionality… to understand their line-up you just need to know your colours.

Ordered from lowest to highest quality, as well as (surprise, surprise) lowest to highest price.

Johnnie Walker Red: A blend of about 35 different malt and grain whiskies.  Some light whisky from Scotland’s East Coast and some dark peaty whisky from the West Coast. This is the base of the Johnnie Walker line-up.  Retails for $29.95 at the LCBO.

Johnnie Walker Black: A blend of over 40 selected Whiskies from around Scotland.  The youngest scotch in the blend is aged a minimum of 12 years, allowing them to label the bottle as a 12yr old scotch.  The Black is created to have more depth and character than the Red and it certainly succeeds.  Retails for $50.95 at the LCBO.

Johnnie Walker Double Black: The newest addition to the Johnnie Walker family, this scotch takes the Johnnie Walker Black as a general guideline but adds some additional heavily peated malts, as well as more whisky which has been aged in deepy charred casks.  This add’s darkness to the colour and strength to the flavour.  Retails for $69.90 at the LCBO.

Johnnie Walker Green: A blend using only malts from each of the four corners of Scotland.  In fact the four malts used are from producers many would be familiar with for their success as premium single malts in their own right.  Caol Ila, Talisker, Cragganmore, and Linkwood.  The bottle is labeled a 15 year old, meaning the minimum age of the whiskies making up the blend is 15 years.  Retails for $79.95 at the LCBO… though I believe has been discontinued in this market.

Johnnie Walker Gold: A blend of 15 single malts, the Johnnie Walker Gold is a bit tougher to come by and has only been available outside the company since the 1990’s (according to the Johnnie Walker website itself).  This blend is created for smoothness with sweet notes and rich gold colour.  Retails for $109.45 at the LCBO.

Johnnie Walker Blue: In this blend Johnnie Walker taps into the rarest and most exceptional whiskies from their stock, which happens to be the largest in the world, so they have a lot to choose from.  The whisky is intended to be in an early 19th century style with literally each whisky in the blend being hand selected by their master distiller for its exceptional quality.  It’s easily the smoothest and most complex of the Johnnie Walker family.  Retails for a cool $289.95 at the LCBO thanks to a recent price increase of $60.

*note: they do produce some seasonal product and limited releases which fall outside of the above list, but this is their core line-up.

Don’t like scotch? Well feel free to mix the base line Johnnie Red with water, soda, or even coke.  You likely won’t offend anybody.  However the options above that level are really not meant to be mixed with anything but a dash of water or a little bit of ice.  Certainly above black you don’t mix.  With Green or Gold I would start to think about holding the ice as well.

Now let’s get back to the Blue for a second. For starters do not mix anything in a glass of Johnnie Blue.  Neat is the only way to go.  Plus at $290 a bottle (Ontario) I would hope you would want to taste nothing but the scotch.  The burning question though is… Is it worth it? $290! About $30 a shot in most bars! That’s a lot of money.  Personally I would argue that in this market, at this price point, it’s actually not worth it… but it’s very, very, close.  It’s a smooth scotch with many layers of flavours and complexity.  Rumour has it that some bottles of Johnnie Blue contain portions in the blend which have been aged up to 100 years.  However through countless sources and a fair bit of research I was unable to confirm this.

In fact the differences between all the levels of the Johnnie Walker scotches are quite discernible in colour, complexity, and ultimately taste.  It’s one of the reasons I think folks can appreciate the price gaps at each level.  If you ever want to compare and contrast scotch whisky’s across various price points and various levels, Johnnie Walker will likely provide you the best opportunity to appreciate it.  If you do get that opportunity feel free to pass an invite my way.  I’ll clear my calendar.

- Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman 

Gabbiano Wine Tasting Review – June 11th, 2012

As a wine writer there are perks to the job.  One of the obvious ones is that you get to attend wine tastings. Some snobbier critics may call this “work” or “part of the job” but I call them perks.  To me tasting and evaluating wine will always be enjoyable and I consider myself fortunate everytime I get invited to attend these sessions.  This is especially true when your tasting the Tuscan classics from Chianti.  Let me remind you that back in March I declared Sangiovese to be my third favourite grape variety (read that entire post here) and Sangiovese is the epitome of Chianti and the noble grape of red wines produced there.  To add to it this tasting was hosted by Gabbiano, one of the largest and most respected producers of classic Tuscan wines.

The history of the region is amazing.  It is actually one of the oldest known wine appellations, with Chianti being recognized as a wine producing area as early as the beginning of the 18th century.  Gabbiano epitomizes this with a castle at the heart of their property which dates back to 1124.  To this day visitors to the Gabbiano estate can still stay in rooms in that castle.

For starters the evening was memorable for where the tasting was hosted.  Everything was held at the Vintage Conservatory and though I don’t think I am legally allowed to publicize the address, it’s one of these private cellar rental spaces in Toronto.  People with a bit too much money, or too much quality and age worthy wine, can rent cellar space at this place to store their wine.  I admit the concept is cool, because along with the storage space you get a membership into the club which includes the usage of their facilities including tasting room and lounge area.  Though I left a bit underwhelmed as there was no secret handshake or anything before you got in.

As far as the wine is concerned I was far from underwhelmed.  Folks you heard it here first.  While some Gabbiano is available now it will be HUGE in a few years.  A wine you will come to know and love and one that will be prominently displayed on LCBO shelves everywhere.  The wine is good right from the low end to the high end, and all along the way it provides exceptional value.  For starters take the Chianti Classico DOCG, an LCBO general list at $16.95.  You will be very had pressed to find a comparable Chianti Classico of DOCG status at that price point.  If you do please send it to me.


We also got the pleasure of meeting winemaker Federico Cerelli who was a wonderful man to talk to and a passionate man about wine and the Chianti region.  He declared “we produce grapes first and make wine second” showing his commitment to terroir and the old world Chianti values.  But beyond the grapes, Gabbiano is blessed to have the passionate and talented Federico at the helm whose resume in Italy (he even did a stint with the famous Antinori) I imagine places him as one the most coveted winemakers around.  His talents are on full display at Gabbiano showing some of the best classic expressions of Sangiovese.

3 wines sampled which are available at the LCBO:
The 2010 Pinot Grigio IGT (#77990, $12.95), the 2011 Chianti DOCG (#78006, $13.95), and the 2009 Chianti Classico DOCG (#219808, 16.95) were the three we tried that are available at the LCBO.  The first was the Pinot Gris which was as expected.  A simple white wine, rich with lemon and ripe acidity.  It would make a great summer wine.  At $12.95 there are many comparable Pinot Gris out there, but this one is no slouch.  Secondly the Chianti was a bit green with aromas of tomato sauce, bay leaf, and basil, and since it is aged in large barrels there is almost no oak in the wine.  To be honest this was likely my least favourite of the bunch but that’s more a testament to the lineup then a knock on this particular wine.  Third we tried the Chianti Classico.  At $16.95 this is a steal and easily my favourite of those available at the LCBO.  Aged 15 months in oak this wine shows much more pepper and earthiness than the aforementioned Chianti.  The tannins were soft and manageable and the acid was still very noticeable meaning you could easily enjoy this wine now or lay it down for 2-3 more years.

4 wines sampled which are available on consignment:
Naturally as we moved into the wines which were only available on consignment (meaning you buy by the case directly from the import agency) we sampled some of the best.  First the Chianti Classico Riserva was slightly better quality than the Chianti Classico referenced above.  Made with 100% Sangiovese it was a great expression of the grape.  Then the 2009 Bellezza (another Riserva Chianti Classico) was likely the wine of the night.  Hints of chocolate, oak, pepper, and black cherry, the wine had tremendous mouthfeel and a impressively long finish.  Then we got into a couple interesting wines in the Solatio IGT and the Alleanza IGT.  Both are made with what Italy considers to be foreign grape varieties.  The Soatio being a syrah, merlot, cab sauv blend resulting in a wine which was a fruit forward, very ripe wine, meant to be consumed young.  Federico even called it a “baby supertuscan” paying homage to the legendary Tuscan classics while at the same time recognizing his wines shortcomings.  However that made his Alleanza his “supertuscan” and rightfully so.  A blend of 60% merlot and 40% cab sauv this wine could easily sit in a cellar for 5-10 years and improve over that time.  Too bad you have to order a case at $39.95/bottle, though I would argue a single bottle or two would be worth that price.


1 bonus Rose sampled:
I love when winemakers serve a bonus wine, because as many know I am never one to turn down more wine.  In this case we were treated to their Rose which is also made from the Sangiovese grape variety.  Though Rose in colour it was almost pure red wine in taste.  Easily one of the best Rose’s I have ever had and I wish it was available in the LCBO.  Like many others we tried on Monday night I hope that Treasury Wine Estates (Gabbiano’s importing agency) can find a way to get more available in the LCBO.

Chianti has always been on my list of places to visit, now Gabbiano will provide me a place to stay when I do.  If you find yourself fortunate enough to visit this region of Italy I can stand behind the wine at Gabbino.  If you do go, say hi to Frederico… if he hasn’t been poached by another winery or isn’t running his own by then.

- Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman

My EURO 2012 (wine) Bracket

The EURO 2012 soccer tournament is officially underway.  What a great time of year for sports fans everywhere.  Like the World Cup, we are only treated to the EURO tournament once every 4 years, where anticipation and excitement culminate in 4 incredible weeks of soccer.  Loyalties to one’s home country are at an all time high.  Soccer fanatics are braced for triumph and defeat and debates over who will prevail are everywhere.  Then of course there are the office pools, where fans will do a copious amount of research to decide who will advance and eventually take the tournament.

Then there’s me…. You see I like soccer.  I don’t follow the game closely or study the players or teams, but I certainly enjoy the sport.  So once every couple years I get to enjoy quality soccer in the form of either the World Cup or the EURO tournament and I go along for the ride.  But as I just said I only “like” soccer… I “love” wine.  So like many others I decided to join my office pool.  I put my $10 down and submitted my bracket.  But unlike many others I did zero soccer research.  I don’t know a single player on any team.  I know which countries are supposed to be good, and I know which countries are perennial contenders, but none of that factored into my decision making at all.  I picked my entire bracket based on wine regions and my take on who is producing the best quality wine in Europe.

So ladies and gentlemen I give you the projected winner of the 2012 EURO soccer tournament… ITALY!!!

Let me break it down for you in true expert analysis fashion.

Coming out of Group A: Greece & Russia.
Group A is by far the lightest on quality wine producing regions but Greece and Russia emerge.  Admittedly I don’t have much knowledge or experience with Russian wine (Vodka yes) but I did a bit of research and they are 11th in the world in wine production.  Good enough for me to come out of a group that also features Poland (not even in the top 50) and the Czech Republic (32nd in the world, right behind Canada).  Not the toughest group to get out of.  Greek wine on the other hand is something we see in Canada from time to time.  They rank 15th in the world in total production and have three phenomenal and popular noble grape varieties in Assyrtiko (white), Xinomavro (red) and Agiorghitiko (red).  They are excellent food wines with Greek cuisine and you should expect to see more and more of them available in the Canadian marketplace in the years ahead.

Coming out of Group B: Germany & Portugal
The so called “group of death” is perhaps the toughest group from a soccer perspective.  With the 4th ranked (favoured in many circles) Netherlands team and 10th ranked Denmark in addition to Germany and Portugal.  From a wine perspective however, this is another no brainer with Germany and Portugal prevailing.  The Germans produce some of the finest Rieslings anywhere in the world and are universally recognized as such.  Plus they are now producing some interesting red wines with Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir) emerging as their #1 red.  Portugal is another easy pick as not many countries can boast having an entire classification of wine style named after them.  Port wine is popular around the globe and comes from one of the oldest and most beautiful wine regions anywhere (The Douro Valley).  Sorry to the heavily favoured Dutch, but this one is no contest.

Coming out of Group C: Italy & Spain
If my bracket was based on Beer I would possibly have Ireland winning it all, but with all due respect to the Irish and the Croatians they don’t hold a candle to the wine regions of Italy and Spain.  Two of the 3 old world giants (along with France) Italy and Spain are dominant on the world wine scene.  Italy ranks second in terms of wine production and houses some of the most famous wines around from regions like Barolo, Chianti, Valipolicella and on and on.  Spain ranks 3rd in terms of wine production producing some of the finest Grenache and Tempranillo based wines anywhere in the world.  If I’m not mistaken these are also two pretty good soccer countries every year so perhaps this strategy is going to work out.

Coming out of Group D: England and France
France is an absolute lock to come of this or any group.  The #1 wine country in the world in terms of production.  With regions like Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne, France features some of the most established and recognized wines ever to be produced, commanding some of the highest price points.  So France is a done deal.  For the second seed however we have England, Sweden, and the Ukraine.  Believe it or not the Ukraine is actually the highest of the 3 in terms of total production at #19.  However none are really that well recognized for quality wine production.  So here is why England comes out of the group for me.  The English are some of the largest consumers of wine (#9 in the world), with many of the most notable wine critics being English.  Plus the WSET wine curriculum (which I happen to be a student of) is the most well recognized wine education around the world.  That curriculum is established and based in London.  Good enough for me.

The Quarter Finals:

Greece vs. Portugal
The classic old world Port wines versus what I would consider to be an up and coming European wine country in Greece.  As I mentioned above Greek wines can be of exceptional quality and may soon be more prevalent on the world scene.  But Portugal is a wine powerhouse.  Anybody who knows anything about wine has heard of Port which by law can only come from Portugal.  Unfortunately at this point in time the Greeks are nowhere near that status.  This one goes to the Portuguese.

Spain vs. England
Though for me England escaped the first round on an education technicality they have no business even being in a wine match-up with Spain.  This one goes to Spain in a blow-out.  The soccer equivalent of a 6-0 loss.

Russia vs. Germany:
See the Spain vs England clarification above.  The only difference being this one probably scores more like 8 or 9-0 in favour of Germany.

Italy vs. France:
Wow! This match-up would be reserved for the finals in any other wine based argument.  The two most powerful wine countries in the world, even if you expand this beyond just Europe, and I have them meeting in the second round.  You have Bordeaux, Burgundy, The Loire, Rhone, Champagne, Cognac, and the Languedoc facing off against Chianti, Barolo, Brunello, Valipoliocella, and Amarone.  As far as total wine production is concerned Italy and France jockey for the #1 and #2 spots every single year.  The same is true if you look at total exports and total consumption around the world.  Not sure which team is better on the soccer field but in the wine world this match-up definitely goes down to penalty kicks and extra penalty kicks at that.  It’s such a tough call I have no choice but to lean totally on personal preference.  Though I love French wines, I slightly prefer Italian wines.  I have declared Chianti (and the Sangiovese grape) to be one of my favourite regions anywhere in the world.  Plus as an added bonus I largely prefer Italian cuisine to French cuisine, and wine and food go hand in hand for me.  So the edge goes to Italy.

The Semi-Finals:

Portugal vs. Spain:
From a Soccer perspective this stands to be a pretty good game… I think.  Portugal is ranked #5 in the world and Spain is the top ranked team in the tournament.  So perhaps this wine logic is not such a bad way to pick a soccer bracket.  Here we have a classic old world match-up of neighbouring countries producing very similar wines in many ways.  The River Douro even extends into both countries with top wineries parked along the river on both sides of the border.  For me Portugal hangs its hat on Port wine as I have mentioned.  They do produce quality red and white wines, but they are not overly common in North America.  Spain on the other hand produces tons of quality wine and gets the edge on the world scene simply based on quality.  This is by no means a blow-out, but Spain is heading to the finals.

Italy vs. Germany:
Another absolutely classic match-up of two European wine powerhouses and I give full credit to Germany.  If you compared the two based on white wine and sweet wine then Germany wins by a landslide.  But as soon as you factor in red wine Italy dominates.  There is no question.  Plus once you have taken out France in a wine battle you are going to be tough to beat.  Italy is heading to the finals.

The Finals:

Spain vs. Italy:
So there you have it after a long and thoughtful deliberation process I have determined the two top wine producing countries for EURO 2012 to be Spain and Italy.  If I didn’t make this bracket based on wine but based on soccer, this might still be a pretty good final.  However based solely on wine it’s an excellent final.  I love Spanish Grenache and in terms of total bang for your buck you would be hard pressed to rival Spain, save maybe Chile and Argentina, but they’ll come up when we analyze the World Cup in two years.  But at the end of the day bias shines through.  Italian wines are the king of Europe in my eyes and for that they are officially towineman’s 2012 EURO champions!!

Side Note: Germany takes the consolation prize for third place with their victory over Portugal.

Stay tuned to the tournament to see how this plays out.  I will certainly post the results when the tournament ends on July 1st.

- Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman 

10 Random Thoughts – June, 2012

10. I still hate the fill from the bottom dispensing system for draft beer at The Rogers Centre.  Maybe it’s just me but I always spill some out the bottom  Past the impenetrable little tab and all.
9. The numbers have been released, last year the LCBO posted a record $1.6 billion in profit for 2011-2012.  Wow!
8. Having a drink while you BBQ is mandatory.  I don’t even know how to operate the BBQ without a drink in my hand.
7. I still can’t find any appreciation for Gin.  Can someone please recommend a particular brand of Gin, or a Gin based drink that you think will change that.  Use the comments section on this post and I will definitely try it.
6. Canada is now up to #31 in the world in terms of total wine production.  Move over Czech Republic we’ve got our sights set on Algeria.
5. I prefer draft beer to bottled beer almost 100% of the time.  Still the only exception I have been able to find is Steamwhistle.  For some reason I prefer Steamwhistle in the bottle.
4. There is no better beer drinking sport out there than Adult 3 pitch softball.  As we embark on the heart of summer I always look forward to our Thursday night games.  Part of me enjoys the game and the competition, another (very big) part of me enjoys the social aspect and the beer.
3. To a large extent I support privatization of alcohol sales in Ontario, but you have to admit the shopping experience at the LCBO is a very enjoyable one.
2. Someone told me once that as you study wine and get more and more involved in critiquing it and writing about it, you will lose your true enjoyment of it and the simple pleasure of drinking it.  I can confirm this statement is completely incorrect.
1. The traffic and page views on this blog continue to trend upwards and more and more people seem to be tuning in with each passing week.  Thank you to everyone!  I hope you are enjoying it and I hope you continue to enjoy it.  Your feedback is always welcome and encouraged.  Let me know what topics you would like to see on here.  Cheers.

Yellow Tail Wine Orchestra – Event Review, May 31st, 2012

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of interviewing Alan Doyle of Great Big Sea (catch the entire interview here) however my purpose in being there was more as a blogger at a great wine event, for a great cause.  Hosted by the wonderful people at Yellow Tail Wines and iYellow Wine Club me and 100+ other happy patrons were treated to wine, music, and good times… all for charity.  Yes the charity angle was a great one and that is what brought Alan and the Yellow Tail folks together.

It is actually a great concept both from a philanthropy and marketing perspective for Yellow Tail.  It’s called the Yellow Tail Wine Orchestra.  What they are encouraging people to do is upload a video of themselves making music using wine glasses, wine bottles, etc.  The videos are shared on the Wine Orchestra page and via Facebook.  For every upload or share on Facebook Yellow Tail donates $1 to the Unison Benevolent Fund.   That’s where Alan Doyle comes in.  The Unison Benevolent Fund is an assistance program for musicians created by musicians.  It is designed to provide relief to music industry personnel in times of personal hardship or crisis.  In a passionate opening speech by Alan himself you could tell it was a cause close to his heart and to that of many musicians.  Personally I was quite content drinking wine to support it.  I strongly encourage you to check out the Yellow Tail Wine Orchestra site, there are some very enjoyable and creative videos on there.  If you get two seconds upload your own as well and consider it your $1 donation to the Unison Benevolent Fund.

Now although the event was focused on music and charity there was wine there… Yellow Tail wine.  I am a wine writer and as such I try to be as objective as possible.  So here’s the deal… I am not a big fan of Yellow Tail Wine.  As I have documented on here before Australian Shiraz (which is their most popular wine) is simply not one of my personal favourites, whether made by Yellow Tail or any other producer.  Even beyond that though, Yellow Tail wines have never appealed to me.  However I realized on Thursday that Yellow Tail must be doing something right.  In fact they do a lot of things right as since their beginning in 2001 they have risen to become the #1 bottled wine exported from Australia.  They are hugely popular in Canada, they are a lock as a general list at the LCBO, and they are inexpensive.  After meeting the folks from Yellow Tail on Thursday I think I know why they have achieved that success.  They make very approachable wines.  Their target market is not the connoisseur segment or the wine critic.  Their segment is the everyday consumer who may be fearful of the big boys from France and Italy and who may not understand what they heck they’re drinking in those bottles anyways.  To that segment Yellow Tail wines make sense.  Plus as evidenced on Thursday night they are a marketing powerhouse.  The event was wonderful and the concept of the Yellow Tail Wine Orchestra is simply genius.  They even came equipped with a video truck where guests could create and upload their video on the spot.  All for a good cause.

To kick it off Alan performed “I’ve Seen a Little” off his new solo disc “Boy on Bridge” as well as the Great Big Sea classic “Ordinary Day” to a packed audience at Bang Bang Bar on College street.  The bar was a bit small but it was packed and had the key element that every good event needs, an audience who were there to have a good time.

So even as a wine writer and a critic of Yellow Tail wines this event proved that sometimes you just need to take a step back and have a good time.  Check.

- Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman