Johnnie Walker is one of the most well-known and highly regarded blended Scotch whisky producers in the world.
The brand’s namesake John Walker established the business that would later become Johnnie Walker at the young age of 14. Following the death of his father and the subsequent sale of the family farm in 1819, a very young John Walker (born on 25th July 1805) set up a grocer’s shop in the thriving Scottish town Kilmarnock where he would later blend his own whisky.
The arrival of the railway in 1843 substantially boosted Walker’s business. By 1850, Walker was bottling whisky and successfully selling it in his shop. Disaster struck two years later when a flood destroyed the family’s entire stock, leaving the business on the brink of closure.
John Walker’s son, Alexander (Alec), was instrumental in the success of the business, taking over when his father died in 1857. Alec had a modern vision and was able to significantly scale the business with the arrival of the 1860 Spirits Act which permitted large-scale whisky blending from more than one distillery.
By 1865, Alec had created and copyrighted one of the earliest known whisky brands, Old Highland Whisky, which would later become Johnnie Walker Black Label. The iconic slanted label and square bottle were introduced two years later – designed to make the bottles stand out on a crowded shelf.
Walker made the first of many distillery purchases in 1893 when he acquired Cardhu in a bid to protect stocks of the whiskies used in his blends.
By 1906, Walker produced three main brands: Old Highland White Label (five-year-old), Special Old Highland Red Label (nine-year-old) and Extra Special Old Highland Black Label (12-year-old). Two years later, Alec’s sons Alexander II and George enlisted the skills of leading illustrator Tom Brown to sketch the now iconic striding man figure. The whiskies were renamed after the label colours and the brand as we know it started to take shape. The company’s slogan “Born 1820 – still going strong” was also penned by Managing Director James Stevenson around this time.
In 1915, John Walker & Sons became a shareholder in their second Speyside distillery, Coleburn. One year later, the company also secured shares in Clynelish distillery and Dailuaine-Talisker.
By 1925, John Walker & Sons was amalgamated into Distillers Company Limited (which later became Diageo), and the company was granted a Royal Warrant in 1934.
Today, the Johnnie Walker core range consists of Black Label, Red Label, Double Black, Gold Label Reserve, Green Label and the most expensive and collectable in the series, Blue Label.
At the end of 2021, Dr Jim Beveridge retired after more than 40 years at Diageo – 20 of which he spent as Master Blender for Johnnie Walker. He was succeeded by the first female Master Blender in the brand’s history, Dr Emma Walker (no family relation to John) – who had worked alongside Beveridge for 13 years.
The Master Blender has a library of more than 10 million casks of single grain and single malt whisky to draw from. Johnnie Walker Black contains at least 40 single malts including Talisker, Cardhu and Lagavulin.
As part of a substantial £185 million investment programme, Diageo is in the process of improving four of the key single malt distilleries that are used in the Johnnie Walker blend: Glenkinchie, Caol Ila, Clynelish and Cardhu. Johnnie Walker Princes Street, an eight-storey brand home in Edinburgh, was also built.
Some of the most expensive Johnnie Walker bottlings have been limited-edition releases. These include the Johnnie Walker Blue Label Anniversary (£2,750), Johnnie Walker Baccarat Crystal Decanter (£2,250) and the Diamond Jubilee (released in 2012) for £100,000.