Let me start with a confession: despite my fondness for cocktails, I've only begun to drink whisky in the past year.
It's been an enjoyable start, nudged forward with shots of tutelage from fellow journalists (of course!), frequent flyers and AusBT's resident whisky expert Martin Eber.
The upside of this? I’m deeply into an 'experimentation' stage, not having settled upon any particular brand or blend or country of origin.
That puts a whole world of whiskies at my disposal, not to mention a riot of inventive cocktails.
Every dram is a little discovery all its own, which brings me to Johnnie Walker’s new Blenders' Batch Red Rye Finish.
For starters, it’s an experimental blend – the first in a new Blenders’ Batch line from The Walking Man – so it’s well-timed to fit into my own experimenting.
This golden-hued Johnnie Walker takes whiskies matured in first-fill American Oak casks, and then sends them into casks previously used for maturing rye whiskey.
This paints a sharp patina onto the opening notes and adds extra layers to the overall flavour.
“It’s a common saying that the last thing the whisky touches – the barrel – is the first thing you're going to smell” explains Johnnie Walker ‘ambassador’ and mixologist Sean Baxter (below).
“Rye casks aren't usually associated with Scotch, they’re more American, and because rye is spicy it can dominate and overtake the smoother blends."
That’s where the experimentation kicks in, with Baxter citing “over 50 experiments” involving more than 200 malt and grain whiskies to land on the final Red Rye Finish formula.
“American rye starts big and gets bigger, as a result Red Rye Finish starts big and spicy – the high-proof rye drives home the spicy note – and then softens as it opens up the buttery grain whisky.”
(This approach is an evolution of an earlier Johnnie Walker Select Casks Rye Cask Finish release, which likewise finished blended Scotch whisky in ex-rye whiskey casks.)
The new Red Rye Finish is blended from just four whiskies, opening with a crisp Cardhu single malt which comes through in the initial nose, after which the rich and creamy Port Dundas blooms at the back of the palate.
But this isn't a Scotch for drinking straight.
Instead, it’s a cocktail whiskey aimed at “bartenders and mixologist experimenters” Baxter says, adding that it makes “a brilliant Old Fashioned and Manhattan” – cocktails traditionally built on American rye whiskey rather than Scotch.
It’s a signal of what’s to come under the Johnnie Walker Blenders’ Batch brand, Baxter predicts.
“Each of the Blenders’ Batch whiskies will focus on one stage where flavour can be manipulated and changed.”
“Red Rye Finish is about the finishing cask but you can also work with malting, fermentation and distillation.”
Johnnie Walker Blenders’ Batch Red Rye Finish is now on sale at $60 for 700ml.