The final preliminary wave before the Cayman finals of the 2014 Diageo Reserve World Class cocktail competition took place April 29 and 30 and focused on Scotch whisky and the reasons why the blended whiskies of the Johnnie Walker brand continue to be the world’s most popular.
When it comes to whisky, there’s Scotch and then there’s everything else. That’s not to say there aren’t good and even great whiskies made in the United States, Canada, Ireland and in several other countries around the world, but none share the same status as Scotch.
“Scotch whisky is the iconic whisky of the world,” said Arturo Savage, the global ambassador for the Johnnie Walker brand.
Savage returned to the Cayman Islands for the second straight year to oversee the fourth wave of the Diageo Reserve World Class cocktail competition, which focused on Scotch whiskey. On April 29, Savage led a Scotch whisky training session and tasting for local bartenders, and then the following day he served as one of the three judges for the cocktail competition.
Scotch whisky is made from various cereal grains such as barley, rye and wheat. There are several classifications of Scotch, including single malt, single grain, blended malt, blended grain and blended Scotch whisky. Grain whiskies usually serve as the base for blended Scotch whisky – the classification of most Scotch whiskies – which usually contains single malts as well.
To be called Scotch, a whiskey must be produced in Scotland. Scotch whiskey is required to be aged in oak barrels a minimum of three years. If an age is indicated on a Scotch label, it must indicate the age of the youngest whiskey used in making the final product.
Single malt whiskies, which are made by a single distillery using a pot still, tend to have more flavor than blended Scotch whiskies, although it has a very basic recipe.
“Single malt Scotch whisky is very easy to make,” said Savage. “It only has three ingredients – spring water, malted barley and yeast.”
Those three ingredients go through four stages of processes including malting of the barley, fermentation, distillation and maturation.
Most Scotch whisky is aged in reused oak barrels that previously held other spirits or wines such as bourbon, sherry, port, Madeira and cognac. Depending on what the cask previously contained, Scotch whiskies aged in them will take on certain flavors, Savage said.
“Seventy percent of the flavors in Scotch whiskey come from the contact between the whisky and the oak barrel,” Savage said. “Flavors of raisins and figs are always related to sherry casks. Vanilla comes from American oak.”
The other prominent flavor in many Scotch whiskies is smoke, something Savage thinks sets Scotch apart from other whiskies. The smoky quality of some Scotch comes immediately after the malting stage when the grains are dried in kilns heated by peat fires. The peat adds chemicals known as phenols to Scotch, which are measured in parts per million in the spirit. Scotch whiskies made in Islay can have phenol levels approaching 50ppm, which are generally regarded as the smokiest of Scotch whiskies. Scotch made in the Lowlands tends to be fruitier and lighter-bodied.
Single malt Scotch is favored by many connoisseurs, but represents only a small fraction of the overall Scotch whiskey produced.
“The question is, if single malts are so good, why do we have to blend?” Savage asked. In answering that question, he said the first reason is that at one time, single malt Scotch whiskies were too harsh for enjoyable consumption, so blending became desired. The other reason involves the limited production capability of the pot stills used for single malts as opposed to that of a continuous still.
“A single malt still can only produce in one year what a continuous still can produce in 15 days,” he said.
As a result, most distilleries – including Johnnie Walker – produce blended Scotch whiskies that contain a portion of single malts combined with grain whiskey.
“Most distilleries use 33 percent singles malts and the rest grain whisky,” he said. “At Johnnie Walker, it’s not less than 50 percent because single malt is what brings the flavors.”
To ensure it has steady and predictable access to specific single malt whiskies for its Johnnie Walker blends, Diageo purchased several single malt distilleries and the whiskies they make are vital parts of the Johnnie Walker blends.
“Cardhu is the heart of Johnnie Walker Red, Black and sometimes Blue,” Savage said. “Caol Ila is the backbone of 90 percent of Johnnie Walker Scotch whiskies.”
Johnnie Walker as a company has been making Scotch whisky for nearly two centuries, and will celebrate its 200th anniversary in 2020. It has become the world’s most recognized Scotch.
“Over the last 100 years, it is the world’s undisputed top whisky brand,” Savage said. “Why is Johnnie Walker so great? It’s about the complexity in the blend. It offers complexity, richness and a wide range of textures and flavors in every drink.”
For the cocktail competition, the eight competing bartenders were allowed to use one of three different Johnnie Walker Scotch whiskies – Gold Label Reserve, Platinum Label or Blue Label. Each has distinctive flavor characteristics.
“Gold Label Reserve has a honey-citrus flavor profile,” said Savage. “It’s about fruitiness; it’s about honey; it’s about a very easy-drinking whisky that was created for cocktails.”
One simple cocktail recommended for Gold Label Reserve is pouring it over crushed ice and serving it with a wedge of lemon or orange, Savage said.
Johnnie Walker Platinum Label has an 18-year age statement, meaning the youngest Scotch in the blend is 18 years old.
“Without a doubt, this is the best 18-year-old Scotch Johnnie Walker has ever made,” said Savage, noting that it has distinctive flavors of almonds and other nuts. Although it was being used in the cocktail competition, Savage said it is recommended that Platinum Label be consumed neat.
Johnnie Walker Blue Label is the company’s most prestigious whisky.
“It uses a traditional Victorian blending style,” Savage said. “It’s about boldness and flavor.”
Blue Label, which is usually consumed neat, offers the drinker several stages of taste experience, with an initial honey sweetness followed by an oily, silky, rounded sense of texture, then a smoky finish.
“If you have a whisky with these characteristics, then you have a great whisky, and that is Johnnie Walker Blue,” said Savage.
Savage said that Diageo had been experimenting with the concept that taste was influenced by other sensory perceptions, including sight and sound. The theme of the competition wave, which took place at Havana Club, was therefore called “Whisky Sensorium” and the bartenders were asked to engage as many of the judges’ senses as possible.
The ultimate winner of the wave, Alex Palumbo of Agua Restaurant, created a drama-like set where he played the bartender of a pub in a small town in Scotland. His drink, called “Family Heritage,” combined Johnnie Walker Blue with syrup made from smoky lapsang souchong tea and various Italian spice liqueurs. It was easily the best cocktail of the afternoon for the judges.
Coming in second place for the third straight wave was Cameron Welniak of Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink. Welniak’s presentation, which he called “Dinner with Friends,” involved a mini-dinner party featuring background music and short-rib sliders. For his cocktail, Welniak did a take on an Old Fashioned, using Gold Label Reserve and Earl Grey tea syrup instead of sugar.
Coming in at a tie for third place were Andy Trattner of the Ritz-Carlton’s Silver Palm Lounge with a cocktail called the “Blue Trail,” which featured fresh blackberry juice and Gran Mariner liqueur, and Simone Pagnozzi of the Sky Lounge, whose drink called “Johnnie the Bitter” included grapefruit juice, bitters and egg whites.