I Used to Be a Single Malt Snob. This Affordable Blended Scotch Is My New Go-to Whisky


During my 12 years as a bartender at the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Hollywood, I poured countless glasses of Scotch. But I didn’t begin to understand Scotch until I started writing about it. 

Early on as a spirits writer, I went straight to Scotland’s leading whisky expert Charles Maclean, who authored more than a dozen books on Scotch whisky. Within an hour of my first email, he kindly hopped on a call with me, generously sharing his wisdom on the subject. One of the first lessons I learned from Maclean, and one of the most important, had to do with blended Scotch. 

Blended Scotch whisky combines one or more single malt Scotch whiskies with one or more grain Scotch whiskies from different distilleries. Single malt Scotch, on the other hand, is made at one distillery, exclusively from barley. Blends make up the majority of Scotch sold, but most self-professed connoisseurs are vocal about their preference for single malts.

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“Those who become converted to Scotch malt whisky become very snooty about blended Scotch,” said MacLean, “and that is absolutely daft.” Maclean described himself as “a great fan of blended scotch.” Of all the blends, he named Johnnie Walker Black Label as his go-to, calling it, “a very good blend and excellent value.”

I laughed with him, but the truth is that I had been guilty of the exact sin he was calling out. My prior show of discernment was actually a sign of my ignorance, and it was humbling. Not only had I been ignorant about single malt, but I was also among the under-informed masses who refer to Johnnie Walker colors like they’re simple rankings: “Oh, Red is okay, Black is decent, Blue is great.” When, in fact, they have different personalities. Black Label is moody, woody, and peaty, while Blue Label is unpeated, delicate, and floral. Meanwhile, Red Label has a rounder butterscotch flavor that makes it excellent for cocktails. Grading Johnnie Walker colors simply as ‘good, better, best’ is the equivalent of pronouncing that filet mignon is simply better than ribeye, or scallops are better than shrimp.

I accidentally finished my bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label before taking a photo for this article. Luckily, it’s so widely available that I picked one up from a local liquor store to snap this picture.

Stinson Carter

So, I decided to give Black Label another try—and it was a completely different experience after Maclean’s endorsement. I learned something not just about whisky, but about myself. For many years, I took it as a given that I liked bourbon better than any other whiskies. I was born in the deep South, and bourbon, Southern food, and Southern Gothic literature were the only Southern things that I cared to hold onto. I held firmly onto that belief through my entire time as a bartender. It wasn’t until I started writing about booze and tasting my way through hundreds of drams for round-ups and as a spirits competition judge that I discovered that my favorite whisky is actually lightly peated Scotch. But they’re expensive and can be hard to find. Luckily, Johnnie Black is balanced and sippable while giving elements of my favorite subtly-peated single malts. It’s also affordable and almost always on the store shelf or the back bar, whether you’re at an ABC store in rural North Carolina or at a Fairfield Inn lobby bar in Florida.

But even after rediscovering Black Label, I still didn’t know where its personality fell within the Johnnie Walker range. To get a better handle on that, I reached out to Ewan Morgan, the luxury ambassador of Johnnie Walker’s parent company Diageo, to ask how he looks at Johnnie Black.

“When people ask me what my favorite Scotch is, I always reply, ‘The one I drink the most is Johnnie Walker Black Label.’” He loves the flavor, which he describe as having a “bold, deep richness of character delivering fruit cake covered in unctuous vanilla custard from some of our Speyside distilleries like Mortlach Single Malt Whisky [and] citrusy, sweet smoke provided by Caol Ila Distillery on Islay.” He also finds Black Label far more practical than any other Scotch. “When I travel, as I do around 85 percent of the year, there’s a very high chance that the bar I’m in, no matter where in the world, will have it,” he said.

As a case in point, I was supposed to photograph a full bottle of Johnnie Walker Black for this very article, but I drank it—not realizing my oversight until I was at my I was at my in-laws’ house in small-town South Carolina with a deadline looming. But because of what it was, I knew the nearest bottle shop would have it, and they did. Ten minutes later, I poured a glass for myself and another for my father-in-law. As a lifetime Scotch drinker, he had an entirely new experience, too. “I never realized it was peated,” he said, savoring it quietly amidst the cacophony of football games and grandchildren.

I learned a lesson on the power of perception. Charles Maclean gave me permission to give Johnnie Walker Black Label another try in a different light. And when I did, it was like realizing the book you’re dying to read is already on your shelf. From where I’m sitting now, I can see one thing clearly: that bottle of Johnnie Black on my mantle is not long for this world.

Johnnie Walker Black Label

Courtesy Image

$30 at Total Wine

Related: The 15 Best Scotch Whiskies of 2024

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