Fashions in the drinks world seem to change from year to year. But stalwart Johnnie Walker has maintained its status as the world’s favorite Scotch whisky. Annual global case sales reached 12.3 million in 2005, and two bottlings, Johnnie Walker Red Label and Johnnie Walker Black Label, are currently available in more than 200 nations. All told, some 150 million bottles of Johnnie Walker Blended Scotch whiskies are sold each year.
Not bad for a company that just celebrated its 185th birthday. But the folks at Diageo USA, Johnnie Walker’s parent company since 1997, are still putting him through his paces. Consider this scene: a capacity crowd of nicely attired professionals in their late twenties and early thirties listen raptly to an engaging and elegant woman who is their “mentor” for an evening titled “Johnnie Walker Gold Label: Pleasures of the Palate.” Soon the attendees are abuzz as they taste the award-winning 18 year old blended Scotch whisky, unconventionally served ice-cold alongside a rich chocolate dessert. This is definitely not a Scotch-on-the-rocks crowd; in fact, some of the assembled have never even tasted Scotch whisky—much less Scotch whisky served cold as an accompaniment to fine chocolate. But it’s just the right approach for this young, upscale crowd. For them, the unconventional is good; the unusual works. It is clear from the click-clack of glasses and the participants’ expressions of surprise and delight that Johnnie Walker has made some new friends tonight. And the results are the same at events staged in major cities around the U.S.
This is one of the groundbreaking ways—sponsorship in Formula One racing is another—that the people who market Johnnie Walker introduce the world’s most famous blended Scotch whisky to new consumer audiences nowadays. Says Chris Parsons, vice president for marketing for Diageo’s Scotch whiskies, “The Johnnie Walker Mentoring Program is an effective one-to-one method of getting across the message that Johnnie Walker Scotch whiskies are interesting, top-quality and versatile contemporary beverages that appeal to a wide audience of legal-age drinkers in a variety of ways…even in unexpected ways that buck customary modes.”
But then, old Johnnie never could stand still. Johnnie Walker was founded in 1820 by the then 15-year-old entrepreneur John Walker, whose father, Alexander, had died the year before. The company started out selling fine food, wine and spirits in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, Scotland. As a grocer, Walker blended teas before he turned his keen senses to mixing whiskies. By the 1880s, John’s son, Alexander, and Alexander’s sons, George and Jack, were running the family business. In 1893, Johnnie Walker & Sons acquired the Cardow (Cardhu) Distillery in Speyside to help ensure the supply of malt whisky for its various whiskies. In 1909, Johnnie Walker Red Label and Johnnie Walker Black Label debuted in their familiar square-sided bottles. That same year, artist Tom Browne drew the first version of the Striding Man logo.
Becoming a Corporate Entity
The 20th century saw Johnnie Walker & Sons move from family-owned company to corporate entity. In 1925, the Distillers Company Limited acquired Johnnie Walker, along with several other leading spirits companies. Johnnie Walker was awarded a Royal Warrant by King George V in 1933, making it an official purveyor to the British royal household. In the 1980s, the Distillers Company morphed into United Distillers, through an acquisition by Guinness, the brewing giant. Guinness, in turn, merged with Grand Met in 1997 to form Diageo, and Johnnie Walker came under the Diageo umbrella. In 1999, Johnnie Walker launched its initial worldwide advertising campaign known as “Keep Walking.” Nearly a century after its creation, the Johnnie Walker Striding Man is recognized around the world. Today, as a Diageo property, Johnnie Walker & Sons is owned and operated by the world’s largest drinks company, and is considered one of the firm’s “key” brands.
Innovative marketing successes and institutional pedigree duly noted, the editors of Wine Enthusiast Magazine have named Johnnie Walker Distiller of the Year primarily because of the continued, unwavering quality of the Johnnie Walker portfolio of blended Scotch whiskies. This is true, in particular, with the company’s two “core” offerings, Johnnie Walker Red Label and
Johnnie Walker Black Label 12-Year-Old. These two sibling whiskies represent remarkable value, while embodying quality and sophistication. They epitomize why blended Scotch whisky is the world’s most popular kind of whisky.
The company’s triumphant foray into the superpremium and ultrapremium blended Scotch whisky categories, with Johnnie Walker Gold Label 18 Year Old and Johnnie Walker Blue Label (the latter priced at $190), has bolstered its ranking as the world’s foremost blended Scotch whisky source. The Gold Label has been lauded as one of the top blended Scotch whiskies in the world, while the Blue Label enjoys a reputation of mythic proportions among connoisseurs.
For most companies, this would be enough. But this one recently introduced Johnnie Walker Green Label to the U.S. market. The Green Label is a 15-year-old blended malt whisky, meaning that all the whiskies in the blend are single malts. This class of Scotch whisky is a throwback to the mid-19th century, when the very first blended Scotch whiskies were compositions of several whiskies from malt whisky distilleries. By restoring this old-new concept with Johnnie Walker Green Label, Johnnie Walker purposefully “stretched” its category and simultaneously rounded out its Scotch whisky portfolio in the U.S.
Revolutionary marketing methods that bring the product directly to consumers, savvy advertising campaigns that rise above the competition internationally; and, most important of all, a roster of five whiskies that exemplify all that is Scotland and all that is Scotch whisky. Johnnie Walker leads because it walks the walk—no, make that strides the stride—energetically and with resolve.
See the other Wine Enthusiast Wine Star Award Winners.