My friends think I’ve been brainwashed.
Before researching this feature, I was a single malt man. I liked Scotch whisky and didn’t mind all the stereotypes and received wisdom about how you should and shouldn’t drink it. I’d been hiking in the Highlands and enjoyed drams in high-backed armchairs in front of log fires, surrounded by shades of brown. And I knew that didn’t appeal to everyone, but I thought, ‘that’s OK’. I presumed that a blended whisky was somehow hiding the sins of bad single malts. I presumed you get what you pay for – that more expensive whisky is generally better.
Now, I’m a Johnnie Walker Black Label advocate. Having spent three days being immersed in the brand in Scotland, I love it. I’m fully aware that its 200-year heritage of marketing is playing me, sucking me into a story that sells the brown liquid. But I don’t care. I understand the brand now and I can see how carefully constructed it is.
Like the drink itself, Johnnie Walker Black Label’s brand is delicately concocted from many elements. And just as you might want to drink the over 29 single malts that make up the famous blend individually, here, I will walk you through each way it’s possible to experience the Johnnie Walker Black Label brand, in ascending order of accessibility to people around the world… because there’s a lot to learn.
Living with its advertising
Wherever you live in the world, you’re likely to have absorbed some of Johnnie Walker’s advertising. “What is remarkable about Johnnie Walker is, if you look at the work today and then you look at the work from 200 years ago, there are consistencies in how the brand has been built over time, which I don’t think many brands can say,” says Chris Goddard, Johnnie Walker’s global marketing director.
“The way that we operate as a global brand is we make global advertising and we expect that work to be consistent and coherent all across the world,” he says. “And for a brand like Johnnie Walker, we’re in 180 countries around the world. That’s no mean feat, but what our advertising is able to do is to provide big, global, iconic fame and consistency.”
‘Keep Walking’ is a slogan that’s so interwoven with the brand that it’s hard to believe it was only introduced in 1999, by the iconic work BBH did with Harvey Keitel. 2004’s ‘Fish’ interpreted the slogan through the lens of human evolution, before 2009’s unforgettable ‘The Man Who Walked Around the World’, a one-shot film starring Robert Carlyle – advertising that imprints itself on your soul.
“We’re now 20 years into ‘Keep Walking’ being our philosophy — two words that ultimately stand for progress,” says Chris. “I think there is something magical about a brand that for two decades has held the same philosophy, even though progress has changed over those 20 years. What it does for our creative partners is it gives it a real foundation and bedrock. You don’t move off that, that’s not up for grabs. But how you bring that message of progress into the world is absolutely up for grabs. I know the agencies really respect playing with something that’s so valuable.”
Thanks to decades of advertising like this, the whisky’s brand heritage is with you, and it all comes back as soon as you see that bottle on the shelf.
Buying a bottle and drinking it
Before you even open a bottle of Black Label, the brand is there on the glass; an experience unto itself.
The bottle itself is square – a distinctive shape that derives from founder John Walker realising that he could transport more around the world for the same cost if the bottles stacked better. The label is slanted to maximise the size of the logo. And then there’s the striding man emblazoned on the packaging – a 19th-century dandy doffing his cap to us, suggesting the character of the person who drinks this whisky. He’s neither a Scottish stereotype, nor a picture of the archetypal whisky drinker. He’s not sitting in front of the fire or propping up the bar at the local boozer. He’s heading off somewhere with purpose, and it looks like he’s looking forward to it.
Crack the lid and you get to the liquid itself – the core of the Johnnie Walker brand, as it must be. The flavour is there, a balanced combination of single malts from across Scotland, each drop aged for at least 12 years (another detail that the bottle won’t let you forget).
Then you can drink it the traditional way – neat, in whatever glass you have, with a drop of water, or maybe (if you don’t mind purists’ disdain), on the rocks.
Drinking the single malts that go into it
More than 29 single malts go into the blend that makes Johnnie Walker Black Label, but the brand likes to simplify those flavour components down to the ‘four corners’ of Scotch, each with one distillery pushed forward in parent company Diageo’s marketing strategy as the hero for that quarter of the nation: Lowland (Glenkinchie), Speyside (Cardhu), Islay (Caol Ila) and Highland (Clynelish).
If you wanted to understand the blend, you could try a whisky from each of these distilleries – all with their own characteristics, from smoky to fresh, rich to creamy. And, of course, their own brands and brand histories. Even looking at these bottles and liquids alone, there are immense depths of branding that Johnnie Walker draws some of its own character from.
Drinking it in a bar
This is where Johnnie Walker Black Label diverges from what less forward-facing Scotch whisky brands might suggest. Ask your bartender to make you a drink with it. Johnnie Walker has put great focus in recent years on ensuring that Black Label is the approachable Scotch whisky that won’t judge you for wanting to drink it in some way other than a neat dram. In fact, it’s putting great emphasis on ensuring bartenders know and love Scotch-based cocktails (and that they reach for the bottle of Black Label when they’re making them).
“We walk into bars around the world and often don’t know what we want to drink,” says Chris. “You look to bartenders to provide great recommendations. I think bartenders are the ultimate advocates for Johnnie Walker.”
One bartender who’s played a key role in promoting the brand is Tim Philips-Johansson, who’s had an illustrious career as a mixologist. He’s worked at London, New York and Sydney’s premier cocktail bars, and was even named ‘Diageo Reserve World Class Bartender of the Year’ in 2012. As global brand ambassador for Johnnie Walker he’s travelled the world, educating bartenders and customers about Black Label and its use in cocktails, showcasing the versatility of the whisky – within the blend there are notes to riff on in any given direction: smoky, fresh, creamy, fruity, spicy and even tropical flavours. Tim’s always experimenting with innovative recipes to highlight that balance of flavours.
“People will always enjoy Scotch whisky, whether it’s neat, with a cube of ice, or with a dash of water,” says Tim, speaking to me on a bus passing through the stunning scenery to the west of the Cairngorms National Park. But he adds that in recent years the serve strategy of Johnnie Walker has put a focus on cocktails. “The biggest recruitment tool for getting people to try Scotch is highballs. That refreshing, lighter style of cocktail that really kind of fits the zeitgeist. Spritzy, carbonated, fresh, and always with the whisky’s characteristics in mind – leaning into spice cues, floral cues, freshness or peat. The fun bit for me is trying to show bartenders and consumers that Scotch is a really compelling and magnetic cocktail ingredient. When we think about a traditional whisky cocktail like an Old Fashioned, Whisky Sour or a Mint Julep, it makes an amazing ingredient because of its natural characteristics. But even more exciting is the fact that Johnnie Walker Black Label can be used in lower alcohol serves. Because we take such a long production and big steps for a bold flavour, a little bit goes a very long way.”
He’s created countless Black Label-based drinks as recipes, but Tim’s role is largely about removing any fear people might feel before reaching for a bottle in the first place. “It’s about giving consumers and bartenders the confidence to be able to do it themselves,” he says. “And don’t be intimidated about mixing Scotch with whatever you want to mix it with, and play around with it. Let’s start breaking the rules. Now Scotch is enjoyable.”
Tim’s influence can be felt at bars the world over. Whenever someone asks a bartender for a whisky cocktail, and they reach for the bottle of the 12-year-old blended Scotch with the square bottle, Tim knows he’s been doing his job right.
Visiting the distilleries
Now we’re getting to the experiences for those who want to drink deeply from the cask of Johnnie Walker’s brand.
There are over 29 distilleries making the whisky that goes into Diageo’s famous blend. Strewn across the varied landscape of Scotland, each ensures its unique character is captured in its single malt products.
Looking out the coach window at the dramatic scenery, Tim reflects on this aspect of his job. “One of the most thrilling and beautiful things is coming to Scotland every month for the past year and a half and seeing parts of the country like this, feeling that connection, and understanding the distilleries that we have over the four corners of Scotland.” Although he concedes it would be pretentious to speak about the ‘terroir’ imparting flavour like some might discuss wine, he insists that a sense of place permeates the beverage. “The place and the time and the people – every single drop that’s made has a personality and feel to it. When you pick up a bottle of Oban in Uzbekistan, or a bottle of Tallisker in Tasmania, you can taste that essence of where it’s from. It’s an incredible category because of that breadth of flavour, but it’s not until you come to Scotland and you see the variety of land that it makes perfect sense. No two areas are the same in Scotland.”
So, if you want to understand the land that the Scotch whisky you love comes from, you have to go there. See each stage of the distillation process in action, touch the cold stone walls of the warehouses and try not to touch the hot copper mash tuns! You can stick your nose in different kinds of casks – each of which imparts something to the whisky inside, whether they previously contained Spanish sherry, Californian red wine, or Kentucky bourbon. You can speak to people whose families have been in the business of making whisky even since before John Walker decided to buy their product and carefully blend it into something else in his Kilmarnock shop.
Visiting a cooperage
If you’ve smelled the casks in which the spirit sits and matures, you can even go somewhere like the Speyside Cooperage to witness the manual labour, skill and speed that goes into making and restoring barrels of American oak, using hammers, rings, steam and even reeds. It’s baffling how so little of this work has been automated, and how the materials used have largely gone unchanged for hundreds of years. In seeing the work that goes into the casks, you gain an understanding of another dimension of the labour and craftsmanship that goes into a bottle of Scotch.
Visiting the brand archive
An even rarer privilege than visiting the distilleries and cooperages that contribute to Johnnie Walker Black Label is the opportunity to see the Diageo archive in Menstrie, Clackmannanshire. With over 5,000 square metres of storage chronicling the history and heritage behind Diageo’s spirit brands, it’s possible to pore over original documents such as John Walker and his son Alexander’s business records, notes, early photographs and Victorian newspaper advertisements, watching the whisky’s brand story unravel over 200 years.
Part of the archive is the Liquid Library, an exclusive room filled with over 5,000 bottles dating from the 1880s through to present day. You don’t need to be a beverage or marketing nerd to be overwhelmed by its beauty.
Visiting the archive is something that Chris makes a habit of doing, as well as UK creative agency Anomaly, who work frequently with his team on Johnnie Walker’s advertising. “Whilst we are trying to portray the future of the category in the brand, there is a lot that you can dig out from the archives that helps us think about where we go next,” he says. “It’s a treasure trove of opportunity and ideas.”
One principle Chris loves – documented there in Alexander Walker’s handwriting of 1887 – reads: “We are determined to make our whisky, so far as quality is concerned of such a standard that nothing in the market shall come before it.” And it’s something that’s always kept in mind through the drink’s marketing. “This unrelenting commitment to quality is at the core of Johnnie Walker’s success,” says Chris. “And it was like back in the 1880s. That obsession is something that I think we’ve retained, and we’ll continue to retain.”
The other principle that Chris is always struck by when delving into the archives is the notion of trying to make the brand and the category of whisky accessible to as many people as possible. “I think sometimes the category can be not that accessible. It carries some connotations and baggage,” says Chris. “Alexander Walker made it a mission to give his bottles to all the ships’ captains. So, whenever these captains were out on their ships going around the world, he’d make sure there was a case of Johnnie Walker on board. He was trying to open the brand up to as many people as he could. It’s another principle that we carried through all of those centuries.”
The archive itself is not accessible to the public, although far from a dusty repository, it’s clear that the Johnnie Walker brand we experience around the world draws deeply from the heritage contained in its vaults.
Visiting the lab where they blend it
Another perspective from which to view the expertise that goes into making Johnnie Walker is through the lab, also at Menstrie, where master blender Dr Emma Walker and her team work to maintain the balance of flavour in Black Label – a mind-bogglingly complex task when you consider that every drop in every bottle must be aged at least 12 years, and that no two barrels of whisky are precisely alike. Buy a bottle of Caol Ila, Clynelish, Cardhu and Glenkinchie and try mixing them. While you’ll have all four corners represented by high-quality single malts respectively, it won’t taste like Black Label.
Above: Johnnie Walker master blender Dr Emma Walker
Understanding the delicate balance of flavours that needs to be maintained as stocks in the many distilleries change requires a deep scientific knowledge of what factors impact the final taste. If something slows production from Clynelish this month, for example, where will those particular notes come from in the flavour of Black Label 12 years from now?
Tim, who’s relished each time he’s visited Emma and her lab, loves the insight this gives. “I think what it does do is it helps kill that stereotype of this clandestine approach to blending whiskies. Like we’re hiding poor whisky in our blends. It’s just not the case, it’s just – bad whiskey makes bad blends, and you only have to sort of taste that to realise we can’t get away putting bad whisky in blends. You just can’t hide it.
“We’re victims of our own price,” Tim adds. “I still think it’s amazing that anyone in the world can walk into a store and essentially pick up a bottle of something that’s been aged for a minimum of 12 years, with the quality of whiskies that go into it, for £30. It’s incredible value.”
Visiting Johnnie Walker Princes Street
It was one of the highlights of 2022 for me to experience the Johnnie Walker brand in all of the above ways. I was extremely lucky to have the chance to travel around Scotland and fall in love with this whisky in every way possible. But there’s a way you can do it in just 90 minutes.
At Johnnie Walker Princes Street – the brand’s flagship site – you can take a 90-minute tour: the ‘Johnnie Walker Journey of Flavour’. Introduced in late 2021, the experience is intended to educate people on the complexities of whisky and turn them (like it did me) into lifelong brand evangelists for the drink.
Refitting the old Binns department store building on central Edinburgh’s main shopping strip, Johnnie Walker Princes Street is an eight-floor visitor experience that goes far beyond a bottle shop and a couple of bars.
On the ground floor, visitors answer a digital questionnaire to try and understand what sort of whisky most suits their palates. Depending on the results, they receive a wristband of one of six colours to represent one of the six major flavour profiles present in different whiskies.
Then the journey commences – a beginners’ guide to whisky – ushering you through the entire whisky-making process, alongside the compelling story of John Walker and how he built a global brand from his shop in Kilmarnock.
Don’t expect a lecture. It’s a full sensory experience using dynamic stagecraft, technology, vapours and lighting. It’s no surprise that some visitors have nicknamed it ‘Malt Disney’. You’re guided through a series of rooms like an episode of the Crystal Maze, each zone enlightening you on the whisky-making process, detailing how Dr Emma and her team carefully blend the various liquids from across Scotland to keep Black Label’s flavour consistently worth its reputation. The tour helps you to understand what the four ‘corners’ bring to the balanced flavour: Cardhu, Caol Ila, Clynelish and Glenkinchie. Familiarise yourself with these single malts and you’ll start sounding like a whisky nerd in no time.
There are two chances to stop for a drink. One is a cocktail room where highball machines automatically dispense cocktails into colour-coded glasses that correspond to your wristband. The second bar presents a chance to try more cocktails that suit your tasting profile – or you can go more traditional and have a dram from Johnnie Walker’s range of blends.
After that, you’ll emerge into the gift shop, of course. Having drunk deep of the Johnnie Walker brand, it will be hard to resist indulging in a bottle or two of something special – a chance to start a lifelong obsession with Scotch, showing off your newly attained knowledge whenever you pour a glass for someone.
Ride the lift to the top floor where there are another two bars: the 1820 Rooftop Bar, with commanding views of the city and, of course, a range of whisky-based drinks to suit every taste; and the Explorer’s Bothy, which offers the most sought-after whiskies from across Scotland, with over 150 special bottles and one-of-a-kind cask editions on offer.
As Chris says, Princes Street combines the essence of 200 years of the Johnnie Walker brand into a single experience. “It’s this lovely blend of deep history and heritage, as well as really looking forward in terms of how the category and the brand can be. It’s a nice reflection of that mix. It’s critical to how we want consumers to experience Johnnie Walker. It’s visceral. It’s got a great use of technology. The work it does with AI to understand people’s very personal individual flavour profiles and palate is a new standard for how experiences can be. I think it plays a really integral role.
“As you walk around through various experiences, it does feel very future facing, in a category that can often be seen as more traditional,” he continues. “And I think that can effectively get people to think differently about Johnnie Walker and the category.”
Looking at the audiences who’ve come through the door, one thing that has surprised and delighted Chris is the fact that it’s introducing new people to Scotch. “More than half the people who have walked through [the tour] have not experienced whisky. That’s a fantastic thing for the category and for the brand.”
Looking out for digital Johnnie Walker experiences
With over 40,000 people having visited Johnnie Walker Princes Street, that’s almost 40,000 lifelong brand advocates, I’d predict. But Chris knows that like Alexander Walker’s cases on ships, this experience needs to reach from Scotland the furthest corners of the world. “How do we push that experience out to all the millions that can’t go? A lot of what we’re doing at the moment is how we can use technology and digital experiences to try and provide something similar to those that can’t actually be there in person. I think our job as marketers is never to interrupt or disrupt consumers’ precious time with what we’re doing. But I think the success that we will have in getting our experience through technology and digital channels is by adding some proper value, doing something that is of great interest rather than pushing advertising on them.”
You don’t need to go to Disneyland to become a Disney fantastic. And you don’t need to visit ‘Malt Disney’ to transform into the lifelong Black Label drinker I now am. Every layer of the Johnnie Walker brand contributes to its formidable reputation, and it will be fascinating to watch as the world gains more access to each of them.