Sometimes you deserve to treat yourself in the middle of the week. Monday seems a distant memory but Friday is not yet in your grasp and you may need a little self- indulgence to keep yourself going the rest of the week. This seemed exactly the reasoning behind last Wednesday's kickoff to Johnnie Walker's House of Walker Experience, an elegant and exclusive series of whisky tasting and education.
Hosted by the world's leading Scotch whisky brand,The House of Walker Experience was a private whisky tasting geared toward both the whisky novice and connoisseur. For the event, the industrial space of Resolution Digital Studios was transformed into a sleek cocktail lounge with dim lighting and velvet drapes. A light-projected timeline of the Johnnie Walker history glowed in the darkness while a lineup of regal whisky bottles held court off to one side, illuminated in a glass case.
The evening kicked off with a cocktail reception for guests to whet their palette with a few of the classic Johnnie Walker flavors. As whisky amateurs ourselves, us SCS girls chose the popular cocktail of Johnnie Walker Red with ginger ale and then struck a pose in the official House of Walker Experience photobooth.
After a couple palatable cocktails, we were invited into the presentation space which consisted of floor to ceiling film screens and low banquettes boasting tasting glasses, mixers and a single golden pin of the signature Johnnie Walker emblem—the stately looking aristocrat with a top hat, tails and cane—which we quickly fastened to ourselves in preparation for the excitement.
Immediately the lights were dimmed and we were transported to a road in Irish farmland where the thick brogue of actor Robert Carlyle told the tale of Johnnie Walker, himself walking nonstop throughout the duration of the film (which we later learned was all done in one take). He explained the humble beginnings of the whisky label, how it started with a teenage boy named John Walker (Johnnie to his friends) who began blending tea and selling whisky as a grocer in Kilmarnock, Ireland in 1820. In 1857, Walker's son, Alexander, dreamt up the idea to blend single malt whiskys together and created Walker's Old Highland Whisky, which would jumpstart a phenomenon. Over the next two hundred years, each generation of the Walker family would make their own contribution to the business, helping it to evolve into the global presence it is today. See the full video here:
It was then that the real fun began. The Master of Whisky, Stephen Wilson, came out to launch us into our interactive tasting, which included several of Johnnie Walker's five unique blends.
First up was the Johnnie Walker Black Label. A concoction of 40 different whiskys, aged individually for a minimum of 12 years, the Black Label is what Wilson referred to as the "heart and soul" of the Johnnie Walker business. He had us note the color of the whisky—a rich, amber color that comes from the type of oak that is used to blend. Next, we smelled the drink which inspired words from the audience like maple, smokiness, pepper, vanilla, citrus, honey and caramel. Finally, we tasted it and allowed the various levels of flavor to take over. After the initial taste, Wilson suggested we add a few drops of water with our eye droppers to the straight whisky then try it again. Water, he explained, cracks the surface of the blended elements and allows new aromas and new flavors to surface. Indeed, after adding the water the whisky tasted both lighter and sweeter.
As we went on we tasted Johnnie Walker Red Label, a brainchild of Johnnie Walker's two sons John Jr. and Alexander, who took the first steps in taking the brand global by offering Red Label to ship captains. The Walker brothers wanted a taste that would translate to different cultures, climates and tastes. Red Label is now one of the most internationally versatile whiskys. It is notable in that it stands up well to mixers (hence our ginger ale cocktail earlier that evening). For our tasting, however, we tried Red Label with the favorite mixer of France and Spain-Orangina. Sure enough, it was refreshing and delicious.
Johnnie Walker Gold Label was next on our roster, which was introduced in 1920 by the original Johnnie Walker's grandsons. They wanted a richer, creamier formula that could be used for special reserve. This special occasion whisky was not named Gold Label until the 1990's, and contains half the number of whiskies as Black Label and is often served chilled to amplify the creaminess and flavor. The Gold Label color is more straw than amber and its texture is much more viscous. Once we tasted it, it was noticeably more sweet than smoky—the perfect elixir, Wilson explained, for a celebration.
Finally, Johnnie Walker Blue Label, the often thought coup de grace of the brand, was served. This most lauded of blends is made up of some of the rarest whiskies in the world, many from distilleries that no longer exist. The selection process, as Wilson explained, included about 1 in every 10,000 well-aged whiskies chosen for Blue Label. It is rare, expensive and divine. Just smelling it was an indulgence, and the audience threw out words like floral, perfume, lavender, butterscotch, honey and citrus for the aroma. As a non-whisky drinker, even I had to admit that the taste was enveloping—warm, buttery and delicate with what Wilson explained as "a round, smoke finish." I was officially converted.
The House of Walker Experience in Chicago was truly a treat to be part of. Available only to Johnnie Walker Striding Man Society members, the private tastings are clearly the most informative and interesting way to celebrate the culture of whisky. The historical background made each sip more meaningful as we learned what ideas and resources went into creating the tastes. And the staggering breadth of Stephen Wilson's knowledge was enjoyable to sit back and "drink in". As a measure of the success of the evening, this former non-whisky drinker is now saving up for my first $225 Johnnie Walker Blue Label bottle. Enough said.
For more information of the Johnnie Walker Striding Man Society, the labels and heritage—visit http://johnniewalker.com/en-us/.
Photo Source: Second City Style, Social Pix
Video Source: Youtube.com
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Tags: Alexander, Alia Rajput, Black Label, blends, Blue Label, bottles, Chicago, cocktails, drinker, education, emblem, events, flavors, generation, ginger ale, glasses, Gold Label, grocer, history, industry, Ireland, Johnnie Walker, members, oak, Orangina, Red Label, Robert Carlisle, spirits, Stephen Wilson, Striding Man Society, tasting, whisky