John Walker Odyssey Rocks (but gently)
Jonny McCormick climbed aboard John Walker’s boat and had some whisky. Here’s his log entry.
Captain 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.
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.”
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…