Johnnie Walker Black – Tiger Snake Canyon
West of Sydney lie the Blue Mountains, so named because of the blueish hue they taken on when viewed from afar. Up close the region is typified by bright orange, light grey and pale yellow cliffs that plunge vertically down from the plateau that forms the range of the Blue Mountains, and by the verdant greens of the wooded valleys and gullies formed by eons of erosion.
The Blue Mountains are one of our favorite outdoor playgrounds with an abundance of rockclimbing areas, hiking routes and deep canyons. This weekend we’re choosing the latter, a lesser known drawcard of this wilderness region.
The canyons of the Blue Mountains are formed from tens of thousands of years of erosion as rainwater gouges deep grooves into the relatively soft sandstone of the Blue Mountains. Some canyons are massive, kilometres long and hundreds of meters wide but today we’re seeking one of the narrower ‘slot’ canyons, where the walls narrow so much that you need to physically squeeze through them and the daylight is a thin strip way above you.
I’m joined by K, a seasoned canyoner and adventurer and we’ve decided upon Tiger Snake Canyon. The name comes from when the first party through had trouble with a venomous Tiger Snake during their journey. Canyon season is normally during the summer months, when the warm temperatures make the icy canyon water and dark recesses less frigid. But since it’s the middle of winter we’ve selected Tiger Snake canyon as it’s one of only a few technical ‘dry’ canyons, with narrow wades and no swims through flooded sections. At least, it normally is.
A few days of rainfall in the preceding days have swelled the pools and invigorated the waterfalls so that as soon as we drop into the canyon from the first abseil we’re drenched. Fortunately it’s a sunny, clement winter’s day, although that doesn’t prevent us from moving fast and efficiently through the wetter sections, rigging abseils and pulling soaked ropes with muscle warming enthusiasm. We work our way downwards and onwards through clear pools, tricking stream beds and over moss covered boulders.
The canyons of the Blue Mountains are fairly similar to the famous canyons of Utah in the USA, except that instead of bare orange stone the Blue Mountains canyons are coated in mosses and lichens and the gullies are thriving with plant life. While these make for very pretty scenery (and handy abseil points) it also makes for a lot of clambering over logs, slipping on moss and tripping on tree roots.
After several hours, multiple abseils, many pools, countless squeals of joy and one incident of a waterfall going directly down the back of my shirt we reach a point where the canyon opens up into a serene, shaded gully, just before our exit point.
Time for some whisky!
Johnnie Walker is one of the most recognisable names in whisky and the Black Label is one of their most popular offerings. A blend of many (around 40) malt and grain whiskies aged for a minimum 12 years it’s one of JW’s few actual age statement whiskies in their large stable of offerings.
I’m neutral trending towards critical when it comes to the Johnnie Walker Black Label. I’m not particularly a fan but I drink it from time to time in bars. It doesn’t excite me, but I don’t hate it and I’ll generally prefer something else neat, although it’s a reliable go to in a highball at a bar with an average whisky offering.
But right now I’m not in a cosy bar, I’m in a chilly canyon, soaking wet, cold, exhausted, bleeding in a few places, and I’ve just had an enjoyable few hours of adventure.
With this in mind, I pop the cap on my miniature JW Black and pour a dram into the crystal glass I’ve carried through several kilometres of canyon country.
Note: There will be two sets of tasting notes for the JW Black: One from when I drank it in the canyon, and another tasting back home.
Canyon tasting notes:
WHISKY! Honey sweetness. Warming. Delicious. Soft, smooth, invigorating. Rich fruit and soft spice mix. Elegant waft of finishing smoke.
At home tasting notes:
Nose: Christmas fruit, toffee/treacle, vanilla, mild nutmeg. Fresh, lively orange. Leather, tobacco and smoke in the background. Complex and well rounded but subtle.
Palate. Hot up front – spice with no flavor, maybe some hot white pepper. A soapy tang. Nuts. A little cereal. Some caramel, but it’s gone before you know it.
Finish: Lightly smoked caramel. Very short, and very mild. No burn at all.
What does it remind me of?
In the canyon it reminded me of good friends, past adventures and every other whisky I have ever enjoyed.
Back home it reminds me of something nice you had on the rocks and let the ice melt on. It’s insipid and watery. I’m wanting more and the more is more abv, more flavor, more character.
In terms of style and flavor I’d say the closest match I can think of is the Dimple 12, although the Black is weaker than the Dimple 12.
What do I think?
This review, more than any other so far epitomises how the where and when of drinking whisky can influence your experience so much.
For a whisky I don’t rate highly to be SO delicious and SO enjoyable is less to do with the whisky and more to do with how I was feeling and where I was. At that point in time I wouldn’t have traded that dram for any other, since I was entirely loving what I was having. It was silky smooth, divinely warming and all the sharp edges were unnoticeable. I stood in a prehistoric paradise and imbibed a spirit crafted with hundreds of years of knowledge on the other side of the world and I was content.
I’m glad I packed that whisky! Picked it instead of an alternative because this miniature is made of cheap plastic (less breakable – the alternative was in glass).
But back home, like most JW whiskies, it’s really a case of feeling like JW could do so much better for an international brand with so much presence, resources, accesses to experience and volume of production. I do also accept though, that what JW about is consistency, approachability and profitability and these are often incompatible with the complex, higher abv crafted whiskies that whisky lovers tend to prefer.
Although JW pitch this is a ‘premium’ whisky it is very much entry level in every way. It’s easy enough to drink but doesn’t stand up to comparison to better value offerings in the same price range.
The abv of 40% is doing the minimum necessary and the flavor suffers for it, but to the novice it make the whisky more approachable and reduces the burn. For the canyoner it does something similar since a cask strength would have set me aflame and I still had a tough, precipitous climb out via a gulley, a rockclimb over a pinnacle and several kilometers of tough uphill hiking though difficult to navigate territory – so 80 proof was fine in this case.
What’s going to be interesting is every other JW Black I have in the future – even though it’s not a whisky I consider to be very good, every time I drink it it’s going to remind me of a fantastic day’s adventure.