The clock hit 5pm on Thursday afternoon, and I high-tailed my way out of work. I rushed home, showered, and donned my best suit so I would be appropriately attired for the night’s festivities. Fearing the worst of L.A. traffic, I didn’t have any time to spare, so I sped off armed with a pack of RedBulls at my side. I arrived at Raz’ place by 7pm, which gave us just an hour and a half before we had to be in line for the Johnnie Walker Journey of Taste set to start at 9pm in Hollywood. From Huntington Beach, the drive is a good 54 minutes by the map, which assumes a common freeway speed of 65mph. As you can guess, this left us with only a 30 minute fudge factor if we encountered any accident or other traffic inducing road hazard on the way. As it turns out we made outstanding time. Not one ounce of traffic hindered our progress, which meant we made it to Henson Studios spot on 8pm, giving us an hour before the next tasting began.
With that hour downtime, Raz and I chose to make the most of it. Between sitting on a mock stoop and chatting about the future of the 3DC, we nosed our way around the studio grounds opting for a picture or two here and there. We even got the main door bouncer (decked out in a full tuxedo) to snap two pictures of us in from of the Johnnie Walker sign, and another in front of the Chaplin studio sign. Two points of note here: 1. always make friends with security early in the night, this will help later in the night, and 2. always be aware of your surroundings. The former will be discussed later, but the latter is important now. Not being much of a film geek, but enough that I know the value of true Hollywood history, I was thoroughly enjoying just BEING at Jim Henson’s Studios. That alone is worthy of note, but more importantly, is that a bit prior to becoming Henson Studios, the same lot and studio buildings were known as Chaplin Studios. Yes, THAT Chaplin. So not only were Raz and I geeking out over Jim and his Muppet magic, but also over being in the same location where the late great Charles Chaplin worked. (Pictures should be forthcoming once Raz gets the cable he needs to download them off of his camera.)
We queued up after a small handful of other people began arriving. We didn’t need to be FIRST in line, but also didn’t wish to be last either. Turns out this strategy worked well for us, as we were ushered over to deposit our required donation, and then directed towards one of the Walker girls who was ready to check us in. No muss, no fuss, no line either! It was this point in the night were we first saw our friend Dirt (who as you will recall, we met at the WoW expo last March, and who was kind enough to put forth the invite to us and our group). I chatted up Dirt as Raz checked in, and came to find out that we had chosen the best night and time to take part in the tasting. As 3DC luck would have it, Thursday night’s 9pm ‘show’ was to be attended by members of ‘tu Ciudad’ an up and coming Latino magazine for Los Angeles. The best part being that after the tasting, ‘tu Ciudad’ would be hosting an open bar after party where the entire Johnnie Walker line would be flowing freely! I attempted to impart this knowledge on Raz, who was a bit too busy making Leroy laugh behind us to really let it sink in…
Within minutes, the velvet ropes were drawn back and we were handed our token for a drink during the cocktail gathering prior to the tasting. I really have to say this setup was a perfect idea. Each guest was limited to one drink, to ensure their palates wouldn’t be ruined prior to the tasting event, but at the same time, we were given drinks which woke up our palates and got us in the mood to taste. As Raz staked out a table for us, conveniently next to the bar, I got us both a Johnnie Black label neat (as they were only serving Black and Red label at the beginning). Sitting at the bar-height table, we continued our people watching and noted at the diversity of the crowd. There was a good mix of nationalities as well as gender and age. While the average age was probably about 26, there were indeed a few older ones who obviously were experienced tasters. The whole vibe for the night was fairly youthful though, from the music to the types of drinks being poured for the guests. I noted quite a few whisky sours, ginger-ales and whiskies, as well as typical whisky on the rocks. Very few whisky neats were seen, Raz and I being two of them. The mix of people and drinks began to give me a good idea as to what we were in for.
Before we get into the tasting proper, Dirt makes his way over to us with a friend of his whom we “have to meet”. Ian Stewart (or Stuart, not sure of the spelling, sorry lad!) is introduced to us as a gent who will be making a name in the industry. While he doesn’t have a job quite yet, word has it he is poised to be part of a reputable Speyside organization, with promises to let us in on exactly which one upon confirmation of getting the job. After a bit of chatting and learning that his father recently retired from work at the famed Cardhu distillery, we are happy to say that Ian is indeed a true friend of the 3DC! Raz had a chance to bend Ian’s ear a bit more, as we were ushered into the tasting and the two sat next to each other snarking away during the presentation. I would have been annoyed if I hadn’t immediately enjoyed Ian’s company and stories. Plus he seems to “get” whiskies like we do, which is always a good thing in my book! (By the by, he lives up in the Bay Area, so Fergus should get into contact with him for future events…).
Which brings us to the core of the event; The Johnnie Walker Journey of Taste.
We were escorted to our seats (just behind the VIP section, not a bad turn of more 3DC luck!) which were white pleather bench seats with a bench in front to act as our tasting table. Each bench was imprinted to appear like a card with the standard 5 glass tasting layout, though specific for Johnnie Walker’s products of course. As a visual aid, I was able to find a picture of the tasting setup (courtesy of Johnnie Walker’s site: http://www.journeyexperience.com/ )
From this visual alone you get the feel that the entire night was geared more towards a vibrant, edgier crowd than we are typically part of. All the seats were configured in a square with an open center for the presenter. Behind each of the quadrants were three large projection screens displaying the ‘Striding Man’ logo which Johnnie is known by. (GREAT marketing by the by! The logo is memorable, classy, and easy to reproduce on damned near anything!) Over the course of the tasting, as an introduction to each label, mini promo spots were projected with loud music and minimal narration in quick successive images and moving pictures reminiscent of the MTV style of television/commercials nowadays. Truly, Johnnie is marketing to a younger generation now. The entire atmosphere was a bit too “hip” and trendy for my tastes, but still I was impressed at the balance between trendy and the presentation of a proper tasting.
Steve, the Johnnie Walker Ambassador for our showing, began to walk us through the tasting. Note that the opinions below are my own and –not- necessarily what was presented during the show. The actual tasting and presentation was designed to point out the various odors on the nose and tastes on the palate of the different expressions and teach some of the people new to tasting how to do so (as a typical guided tasting should do)…
First up was the Johnnie Walker Black label… and then continued in order…
• Johnnie Walker Black Label — this is a perfectly drinkable blend of as many as 40 whiskies, each aged at least 12 years. At the heart of Black Label lies the 12 year old Cardhu. I was quite surprised by this expression, as I had it in my mind that ANY JW label was inferior to my beloved single malts. As blends go, this one is quite enjoyable as an everyday dram. Not exceedingly complex or refined, but as good a whisky as any blend I have enjoyed.
• Johnnie Walker Red Label — a bold combination of spicy and smoky malts (the core being Talisker), designed to be mixed. Not a complex drink by any stretch, but rather full of simple and bold flavours which will punch through any mixer of your choice to reveal a distinct whisky drink. Presented with both Pepsi and Ginger-Ale in carafes to mix with; this particular expression seemed to sit well with Raz, while I found it a bit too overstated for my palate at the time. I may need to revisit this whisky to really nail down an opinion on this. Either way, it mixes as well as John, Mark and Robbo’s “The Rich Spicy One” (which for the price point would be my choice over the Red Label).
• Johnnie Walker Green Label (a.k.a. Pure Malt) — a vatted malt whisky that consists of approximately 15 individual single malts, the core malts being Talisker, Cragganmore, Linkwood, and Caol Ila. All malts in this particular blend are aged 15 years or older. Amazingly beautiful nose on this dram. It brings a woodsy heather and cedar along with the greenness of a newly cut lawn. The nose on this is so pleasing that it could be used as a cologne or aftershave. But that’s where this dram ends. The palate is disappointing at best with a heavy iodine taste completely divergent form the woodsy nose. That being said, I’d buy a bottle just to nose, but never drink.
• Johnnie Walker Gold Label — a blend of over 15 single malts which has at its heart the very rare Clynelish malt. Served at freezing temperatures, this whisky is lost to the cold. While interesting to drink as a novelty (really, who drinks whisky like a vodka?) this is actually better warm, but not by much. As it turns out, the cold masks the inferior nose and simplicity of the whisky. A fun drink to try, but this will never become one of my staples.
• Johnnie Walker Blue Label — at the heart of Blue Label is Royal Lochnagar a malt distilled near Balmoral. Now this is what I call a complex blend of rare malts. This expression has everything a high-end blend should have: a complex palate which tells a story that lasts for a good 30 seconds, a smoothness which whispers refinement and dedication to getting the palate just right, and a viscosity which gives a slightly thick mouthfeel letting you know there is more here than water. As enjoyable as this was, I am still partial to the Midleton Very rare expression as put forth by the Jameson’s Distillery for around the same price point. I will still, however, come back to this dram a few times “just to be sure”.
At the end, Steve invited all guests to hang around and enjoy the after party put on by the good people at ‘tu Ciudad’. Well, who were we not to oblige? Gods forbid we turn down and open bar pouring Blue label! With that, we adjourned back to the cocktail area where the bar tenders were waiting, bottles in hand. After getting our initial pours, Raz and I split from Ian and walked around the place chatting and generally just enjoying ourselves. At one point well into the night, we made our way outside where we happened upon Leroy, the good gent who had taken so kindly to Raz mocking me (in the sardonic way which Raz mocks me) when we were queued up for entrance at the beginning of the night. Come to find out Leroy and Raz share the same middle name, which they bonded over for a brief time. We met Leroy’s lady (whose name escapes me, but her necklace proclaimed “Mercy”) as well as Leroy’s mother, who also seemed to be fully enjoying the drams of the night. By the end of these conversations, I think there may be another 3 people looking for us at the Whiskies of the World expo come this April! (We already know that Ian will be there assisting Steve and Dirt in some fashion.)
As the night was winding down, we found ourselves back inside since it was warmer and less crowded than earlier. We headed back to the bar for one last drink, where we discovered that the earlier announcement that they had run out of Blue was not actually the case. When we got to the bar, the tender happily poured us two last snifters of Blue with a smile on his face, almost as is he had held some back just for us. Now, I wouldn’t delude myself to think that was the case at all, but rather, that’s just how it came off. In either event it was once again good to be 3DC.
By this time, we had commandeered another table around which we held closing court. Ok, again, not really, but given that everyone we had met earlier came by and chatted with us, it kind of felt like it. To top off that feeling was watching security begin moving people out so they could clean up and go home. As they swept by our table, they looked around made eye contact with Raz and myself, nodded at us and said, “You guys are good”, and moved on, leaving us to continue our conversations and finish off our drinks. Once again, the 3DC close out a bash with only the hosts around. Remember, make friends with security at the beginning, it WILL come in handy at the end!
We did hang around a bit longer, mainly to use the restroom and to drink a bit more water (and another red bull) before heading home. Or, I should say, before heading to dinner. I was hungry, and so was Raz, plus we both had Friday off and so we recapped the evening’s events over dinner and breakfast at Norm’s. By this point I was stone cold sober, but Raz was still enjoying the lasting effects of Johnnie Walker Blue, and continued to do so well past the point when I dropped him off at his door I am sure. I made it home by 3:15am, and was dead asleep by 3:30am. A long day to be sure, but well worth the sacrifice of sleep if for nothing else than to pimp the 3DC in style once again!
It seems at every event we attend, we meet some astounding new people and this was no different. We walked away, not only richer from the experience and enjoyment of the tasting, but from the friends we made along the way. Friends, whom I am sure we’ll be seeing again soon… and that, my friends, is the way of the 3DC. It’s not the whiskies, it’s the people you meet because of the common love for life!