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That's the Spirit: Johnnie Walker Double Black

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Instantly recognizable from Kathmandu to Khartoum, the walking man on a bottle of whisky is seen as an international symbol of taste and quality. And for good reason—Johnnie Walker is the world's best selling blended Scotch whisky (if you're interested in how they got there, check out a great one-shot promotional film about the beginnings and growth of the brand). Their Red Label is the world's #1 selling blend, while the Black Label is the world's premier luxury blended whisky.

Not content to rest on their laurels at the top of the booze chain, the folks at Johnnie Walker have been testing the market for what they describe as a pumped-up Black Label: "The trademark smoky characteristic of Johnnie Walker Black Label has been amplified to deliver an additional rich intensity of flavor." Debuting at selected airport duty free stores, a common move among whisky companies for distribution of rare and limited releases, the Double Black evidently sold well enough to warrant a global release, and launched across the United States this October. Let's dive right in!

The Double Black smells of honey, heather, vanilla, and smoke—but in a very light and disembodied way. There's also a whiff of ethanol that's a little brash. Upon sipping, the smoke is almost overpowering, but there's still a malty sweetness in the background if you can hang in there to find it. A bit more vanilla, some definite but muted oak notes, and an alcohol bite again. This whisky finishes dry and smoky, and while the smoke lingers, the flavors don't particularly develop or deepen. Very drinkable stuff, if a bit insubstantial.

Side by side, the Black and the Double Black taste more like two entirely different blends than a little and big brother. Johnnie Walker Black Label has all of the characteristics of, well, the Black Label (think sweet nougat, apples, honey, malt, and just a hint of smoke), while the Double Black is a smoke-bomb with some sweetness seemingly thrown in to balance it out. Unlike the Black Label, which is comprised of whiskies aged at least 12 years, the Double Black has no age statement, allowing JW to select younger casks to contribute to the new blend. So what's going on here? My best guess is Johnnie Walker wanted to capitalize on the recent popularity of smoky, peated scotches and put together this respectable, if not exactly game-changing, blend. And using the Black Label's reputation to jump start this new whisky has paid off well so far.

Branding and market share aside, the Double Black is a drinkable and smoky dram that would go great in a ginger scotchtail, or on the rocks after a long day when you want some smoke but don't want to be too challenged.

But if truly complex peaty scotch is your thing, your money is probably better spent on some Islay single malt whiskies.

Sample provided for review.

About the author: Andrew Strenio is a lover of all things potable. Since sneaking his grandmother's bourbon balls, he's moved on to touring distillers and sipping snifters. He works by day making documentary television and films for an independent production company in Brooklyn.

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