Saturday, March 6, 2010

Johnnie Walker vs. Jack Daniels

Johnnie Walker vs. Jack Daniels

No, this is not like a “Spiderman vs. Superman” post.

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My bottle of Jack Daniels was nearly empty, so I decided to step up to a more sophisticated upper-middle-class adult liquor: Johnnie Walker Black Label. (The higher class of Johnnie Walker is obviously evident from the bottle, which has a sleek and sophisticated urban look. In contrast, the Jack Daniels bottle has a squat shape, and the label screams good old boys from the south getting drunk after a hunting trip or a barbecue. And if we remember our Paul Fussell, anything from the British Isles has higher class.)

Now let’s step back a bit, for those unfamiliar with whiskey (or “whisky” as it’s spelled on the Johnnie Walker label). All brown whiskeys are distilled from fermented grain, and then aged in wooden barrels, where over the course of several years (or decades in the case of super-expensive Scotch), the whiskey picks up a wood flavor, while the wood from the barrel absorbs some of the harsh flavors from the fermented grain distillate.

Jack Daniels is predominately made from corn, while Johnnie Walker is predominately made from malted barley (in other words, it’s distilled beer). This makes Jack Daniels sweeter because corn contains more sugar. Johnnie Walker is a “blended Scotch” while Jack Daniels is bourbon-like though technically not a bourbon because it’s filtered through sugar maple charcoal before aging.

I guess I’ve gotten used to the taste of Jack Daniels. It has a pleasant nose (that’s odor in whiskey-speak), it’s perhaps a tad sweeter than I’d like on the tongue, but the aftertaste is a very pleasant. I understand that it’s now only 80 proof, but the bottle I have is an old 86 proof bottle.

The Johnnie Walker Black, on the other hand, is clearly an acquired taste. It has a smoky flavor—the same flavor you get in smoked cheese. I don’t even like smoked cheese that much, I don’t see the purpose of putting such a flavor into a drink. The other weird flavor is rotting vegetables—that must be the peat. You see, the malted barley is dried over peat fires. The overall flavor is something like I imagine sweaty socks tasting like. Obviously not pleasant. The only positive thing I can say about it is that it's not too sweet.

Is it worth the effort to acquire this taste? It seems like a real rip-off to pay $49 for stuff that doesn’t really taste that good. Maybe I should just save the Johnnie Walker to impress company, and buy another bottle of the less expensive Jack Daniels? Would the guy at the liquor store counter think I’m an alcoholic if I went back to buy another fifth of liquor?