Whisky Advocate

John Walker Odyssey Rocks (but gently)

August 28th, 2013

Johnnie McCormickJonny McCormick climbed aboard John Walker’s boat and had some whisky. Here’s his log entry.

3 McCormick_John Walker Voyager in Port of Leith 3Captain Mark Lumley safely berthed The John Walker & Sons Voyager at the Port of Leith in Edinburgh, completing its Grand Tour of Europe. The luxury ocean-going yacht has been refitted as a floating Johnnie Walker House for this epic journey, which began last year with a 15 stop tour of the Asia-Pacific region. It has been exquisitely designed to tell the story of Johnnie Walker and the dynasty of master blenders that followed in his wake. Tom Jones, Johnnie Walker’s global ambassador, has been aboard for the duration of the journey. He estimates that he has personally conducted tastings for more than 14,000 drinkers on board and he’s not finished yet.

The focus of the endeavor is to launch the John Walker & Sons Odyssey, originally envisaged as a luxury whisky for the Asian market but one that has exceeded Diageo’s expectations around Europe too. Can it repeat that success in America too, I wonder? Arguably, the Voyager is acting as a flagship not just for Johnnie Walker but for Scotch whisky as a whole. As it docks at each global destination, this glamorous spectacle helps attract new people towards trying whisky, something we should all support as whisky drinkers. Once they’ve found their way in, we know they will be just fine exploring wherever their palate takes them.8 McCormick_John Walker & Sons Odyssey

Not everyone spotted the subtle shift in emphasis when the Johnnie Walker Blue Label King George V edition was repackaged as John Walker & Sons King George V. Now Odyssey weighs anchor in the open sea between KGV and The John Walker and there were hints of more whiskies to follow. The bottle has that perpetual rocking motion of the Johnnie Walker Swing bottle but with a gentler amplitude due to its higher center of gravity. Oh, and before you ask, it’s $1,000 a bottle.

Intriguingly, it’s a triple malt, the first blended malt whisky to be created in the JW range since Green Label became extinct in most markets. Not to mention a technical challenge for master blender Jim Beveridge. “I’m a blender, I value grain enormously, and I had to think very strongly when asked to make this a blended malt,” he admitted. Blended malt whiskies are a relatively uncharted territory, though whiskies by Compass Box, Wemyss Malts, Monkey Shoulder, Big Peat by Douglas Laing, and the MacKinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt (Shackleton’s whisky) have done much to change perceptions.

To be clear, as a triple malt, the volume of Odyssey is greater than three single casks. The particular volume of each release dictates the parcels of stock available to the blender. Feasibly, that could include different vintages and ages of stock. “If it’s a relatively low volume, I can go to a part of the stock that is really special. The flavor for Odyssey had to match that John Walker style, so I can choose to create a blend around those ideas.”

Jim Beveridge

Jim Beveridge

While the precise distilleries remain part of the mystique, Beveridge alludes cryptically, “The distillery character would be typical of a Speyside style which will work well with the Highland style, both of which do well with European oak. The rich, dry fruit is the European oak, the fresher autumnal, berry fruits; that’s from the distillery. That’s how it comes together.”

He will be faced with the challenge of achieving the same taste profile for future editions. Shrewdly, this doesn’t commit him to only using stock from the same three distilleries. “We’ve got over eight million casks to choose from,” he noted, “and there are very few that could be used to make this particular blend. It is old, but age isn’t a defining character. No age statement gives me the freedom to choose casks when they’re right.”

At present, there is not a 750 ml version for the United States but that is expected to follow if plans materialize for the yacht to undertake its third tour in the Caribbean and southern ports of the United States.

Let me pose some questions, as this opens up a new frontier. I’ve never seen a major release of a quality blended malt positioned for the luxury market quite like this, nor backed by this kind of leading-edge campaign. Moreover, it looks to have been strikingly successful to date. Will the bow wave effect of this ultra-premium offering challenge your attitude to the values associated with blended malt whiskies? What is your experience with other blended malt whiskies and the flavors they achieve? On your own whisky journey, is this your direction of travel? This could be the vanguard of Scotch whisky. Can blenders produce a synergistic experience superior to the component single malts without the grain? The floor is open…

13 Responses to “John Walker Odyssey Rocks (but gently)”

  1. Rick Duff says:

    I’m a fan of whiskies that are a blend of single malts.. it all depends on the taste and value.
    For example, I believe the first Wilds Scotsman Blended Malt was excellent. I really like the balance of the different malts in it. Was made super awesome when I picked some up on clearance for $30.

    As for this JW .. I’ll surely never try it. Don’t even want a free taste. This segment of the market is a huge turn-off for me. If it tastes good and is reasonably priced, it’s for me.

    I’ve got two two gallon decanters I keep relatively filled up. I put the last 1/4 of bottle of Single Malt or Bourbon in each.. so effectively I have a blended Malt, and a blended Bourbon… but no grain spirit in it. They often taste way better than the originals. Also for the record.. I have nothing against grain spirits that have been properly aged.

    • Danny Maguire says:

      Agrain whisky needs to be old enough to vote to enable it to developed some character, then they’re a lovely drink.

  2. Lew Bryson says:

    I guess I’m kind of — hopefully — looking on this like a car company’s racing program. Can JW learn something by selling this to monied status seekers that will help them bring me a blended malt at a reasonable price, that will help them figure out how to position a blended malt and educate drinkers on the prospect and the value? That’s the plus side I see here. Otherwise, I’m with Rick: I’m never gonna buy this one. Though — sorry, Rick — if someone’s offering, I will certainly try it.

  3. Carlton says:

    For me, blended malts offer a chance to experience something different (from their constituent single malts). I would consider a good example, such as The Spice Tree or JW Green Label, to be the equal of many single malts. After a few rough years for the category, it is encouraging to see a large brand promoting a blended malt.

  4. RN says:

    You lost me at, “The luxury ocean-going yacht has been refitted as a floating Johnnie Walker House…”

  5. Louis says:

    This whole thing is very confusing. The ‘John Walker’ brand is a marketing ploy. It is only a coincidence that the Odessey, the first expression created since the brand introduction, is a blended malt. Over the years, I have enjoyed various CBW and other vatted/blended malts, but that will not make it any more likely to buy the Odessey than the King George V (which is not happenning either).

  6. Gary Stratton says:

    What a bunch of Hootinanny. JW Green was EXCELLENT and they discontinue it in the US market. 🙁

  7. I Schmidt says:

    I took part in a malt blending cometition last night and it was a hoot. The resulting blend was an enhancement of all the parts, it was superior to the singles that made it up. If whisky tastes good and I like it, I will drink it, but perhaps not buy it. I will still drink a single by preference though.

  8. Danny Maguire says:

    I don’t know this King George V, I remember my father used to drink King George IV, that had a blue label.

  9. Mary Anne Ramer says:

    Ah, my nostalgia for the simplicity of the category of “vatted malts.” I too loved JW Green Label. I would not
    ever pay $1,000 for any bottle of anything, since it would represent about 20 bottles of my desert island
    single malt, Lagavulin 16 year old. And, FYI, is the JW marketing ship going to moor anywhere near New York City?

  10. Bob Louis says:

    JW, like most companies, is trying to maximize profit. The more products they have, the more inventory that will be carried and hopefully sold. I believe the black is the best scotch value and is my everyday potable. My favorite is green. The gold (18) is very elegant and smooth. The blue, which I rarely savor, recently has improved from an oily product to a smoother, more refined and better product. Let’s not forget the red, their biggest seller (which I hate).JW has an excellent stable of products. With all their new additions in Duty free shops and throughout the world they will confuse scotch drinkers and perhaps lower their quality quotient. Quality will always sell above marketing.

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