Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Johnnie Walker: Tastes Like Scotland

Over the weekend I took part in a unique and special event--at least for me. My friend Jessica sent me a VIP invitation to a free Johnnie Walker tasting. Now, I am not the biggest fan of whisky and it's not my go-to choice when it comes to liquor. Still, who was I turn down an invitation to such a fun event, plus, it was free! So, I signed up for the Saturday tasting at 10 p.m. (because that was the only one Jessica could make it to).

Since it was a later time, we decided to make a night of it and experience a few different cultures. We started out in Greek Town, situated in Chicago's West Loop neighborhood. We enjoyed a great meal of traditional hummus, moussaka, chicken kabobs, roasted vegetables and numerous flaming plates of Saganaki. (Just to clarify, we didn't have numerous plates, but plenty of people around us did, and it was quite a show.) After we couldn't possibly eat one more bite--and the wine was all gone--we went to catch the bus to take us to the tasting, which was at some remote studio somewhere on the West Side. When I say West, I mean Garfield Park, not exactly the best place for two young girls to be late at night, and I would have to say the most exhilarating part of the evening was walking the five blocks from where the bus dropped us to the studio. (Note to Johnnie Walker and your marketing team--pick a different location next time!)

When we arrived, a line was already forming outside the gates, where a man stood with a clipboard preparing to check off our names--very exclusive. Our two other friends, Amanda and Sam joined us as we entered the premises and filled out a quick survey about our drinking preferences--just a way for the company to track consumer tastes, habits and trends (there's my research marketing side creeping in). We received our free drink token, and, after a few more minutes waiting outside, were allowed to enter the studio. The room was subtly lit with pale blue beams, with golden spotlights aimed at the bar and food table. They presented us with a spread of cheeses, crackers and fruits, while a few waiters carried around trays of beef wellington pastry puffs and elk sliders.

My crew and I headed straight for the bar, where we had a choice of three drinks to try. Since I don't usually drink Johnnie Walker, I went for the safe bet and picked the Whisky Ginger--just Blue Label and Ginger Ale. Amanda opted for the Old Fashioned, which was pretty much Black Label over ice with a cherry--I definitely couldn't handle that. I glanced around the room and saw the timeline of Johnnie Walker projected along one wall and a Twitter feed along another. They certainly got points for presentation. We sipped our drinks, slowly, and wandered around the room, glancing at the bottles of whisky on display in glass cases. Then a black curtain was pulled back and we were told to enter another room with couches arranged in a horseshoe shape, surrounding a small stage. Each seat had three glasses, a dropper, water and a "walking man" pin in front of it, and there were also carafes of ginger ale and orangina. When everyone was seated, the tasting began.

We were first shown a short film featuring actor Robert Carlyle as he told us the history of Johnnie Walker. Now this I really appreciated, because I really got a feel for the Scottish heritage and family influence of the brand, and I realized how little I actually knew about it. A spokesman for Johnnie Walker came out and gave us a quick overview of how the tasting would go, and then we dove right in.

We started with Black Label. He told us to hold it up to the light to examine the color, swirl it around in the glass and then smell it. What did it smell like? Whisky, of course. That was my first thought. But then people started yelling things out--vanilla, malt, oak, a bit of smokiness. I was starting to pick up the scents, appreciating the subtle grains that went into this blended whisky. We were then invited to take a sip, and that's when I remembered why I don't drink this stuff. The flavor was sharp, bitter and the liquid burned as it trickled down my throat. It was all I could do not to cough, and I kept wondering how people drank this straight. We took our droppers and added a little water to the whisky, and then we smelled and tasted again. Can you taste the difference? No! But the nodding heads and smiling faces around me suggested we could, so I followed suit.

Moving on to Blue Label, the one meant for mixing. Now this was more my style. He asked us to mix it with either orangina or ginger ale, and then sip it as we liked. I added generous amounts of both to my glass, and magically that made it easier to drink. He didn't spend much time on Blue before moving right on to Gold Label. The Johnnie Walker girls emerged with trays of samples and handed us each a glass. This one we were meant to drink straight again, or with a small ice cube--which I opted for. While I thought I could sense small traces of differences from Black, I know I'm no whisky expert, so I just accepted that they were different and went on sipping my Blue Label mixture.

Finally, the girls brought out the Red Label, which I guess is a favorite for a lot of people, though I hear Blue is more rare and expensive, but what do I know? The whisky was presented in a small sifter, rather than a standard glass like the others. Once again, we looked at its color, smelled its scent and went in for a taste. I had to admit it was a bit lighter than the others, not as intense, but still way too much for me to handle. And even though we were only taking small sips, I was starting to feel a small buzz--after all, these are all 80 proof.

As a few questions were asked and the final comments were made, I found myself drifting to the land of Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, Scotland, the home of Johnnie Walker. I imagined it to be similar to the landscape in the film we had seen, with hills of green grass covered in eerie fog and no paved roads in site. It seemed like an exciting place, and I found myself mentally adding it to the destination list. And even though I still cannot manage to take a straight sip of Johnnie Walker without coughing or gagging, that doesn't mean I don't appreciate the art of creating blended Scotch whisky. So why not visit the place where it all began?

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