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Johnnie Walker celebrates its 200th anniversary — and still feels modern

We tend to think of scotch as very old — and with good reason, because any scotch of serious merit will have spent years sweating and steaming in a wooden barrel in a warehouse somewhere in Scotland before we get around to tasting it.

Now Johnnie Walker is of course extremely old: the whisky is currently in the throes of celebrations to commemorate its 200th anniversary. But two centuries of history is particularly remarkable for Johnnie Walker, compared with other scotches. Because compared with other scotches — and perhaps more than any other whisky — Johnnie Walker is decidedly modern .

Back in 1819, Johnnie Walker was a boy of 14 living on a farm in rural Scotland with his family. When his father passed away suddenly, the family farm was sold, and from the money a grocery shop was purchased in the town of Kilmarnock, which young Johnnie was to run. Now the interesting thing about Johnnie Walker’s grocery is that, in addition to selling the various single-malt whiskies that were ubiquitous across the land, Walker also sold a whisky of his own — one made by mixing together many of the single malts. This simple but radical idea inadvertently placed Walker at the forefront of the field.

His thinking was that single-malt whiskies, while often very good, could just as often be very bad, and seemed to vary widely from bottle to bottle. He wanted to remove the variation and so concocted a very precise, easily replicable blend. This proved enormously popular with the residents of Kilmarnock.

It also proved prescient: the blended whisky would emerge over the next century and a half as one of the world’s defining spirits, and Johnnie Walker, unsurprisingly, remains to this day among the most popular blended scotch whiskies anywhere. Blending is the modern way, and a hallmark of contemporary whisky production.

The crucial distinction is exactly what Walker was after all along: consistency. Where other scotch whiskies — including many of the very finest — depend to some degree on factors as miniscule as the gradations in the wood of the barrel, Johnnie Walker is expressly designed to be identical from one bottle to the next, batch after batch, year over year.

Naturally, there is something to be said for the organic element of surprise inherent in single malts — there is a reason many scotch drinkers swear by single malts alone. But when the calibre of the product is so high — as it is in, say, Johnnie Walker Black — that consistency can always be depended upon, there is no reason to doubt Johnnie Walker will last another 200 years.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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