Whisky Review: Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost and Rare

By Whisky Kirk / December 20, 2017

I really like the name “Ghost” that Johnnie Walker has appropriated for its new Blue Label offering. The name is a reference to whiskies from distilleries that have long since closed, a.k.a “silent” distilleries. Specifically, the blend includes casks from Cambus, Pittyvaich, and–last but not least–a Highland single malt known as Brora.

The additional five whiskies in this blend are rare expressions of malt and grains from the existing distilleries of Royal Lochnagar, Clynelish, Glenkinchie, Glenlossie, and Cameronbridge. It’s worth pointing out that the Cambus and the Cameronbridge are grain whiskies, as opposed to malted barley.

When compared with other Johnnie Walker blends, Ghost and Rare is not terribly elaborate in terms of the number of distilleries represented. In my opinion, this makes it all the more intriguing. Truth be told, I’ve never really been one to celebrate the marrying of malts and grains from dozens of distilleries into one bottle. When it comes to blends, less is often more–especially when “less” is of the highest quality.

Jim Beveridge (yes, that’s really the master distiller’s name at Johnnie Walker) has said that he feels lucky to work with stocks from other 30 distilleries from every region of Scotland. In regard to his latest brainchild, he offers the following explanation: “Ghost distilleries are becoming increasingly rare. From our library of irreplaceable casks that we keep exclusively for Johnnie Walker Blue Label, I’ve chosen a few uniquely full-bodied expressions of these precious malts and grains to let people explore, in a new way, the extraordinary richness found in our pinnacle whisky.”

Of course, if you’ve read my past reviews on The Whiskey Wash, then you know I’m a big fan of Brora. This epic Highland distillery was mothballed in 1983, the year before I graduated high school. British beverage giant, Diageo, who owns Johnnie Walker, is well aware that I am not alone when it comes to a fascination with casks from such a quintessentially epic distillery.

Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost and Rare

Tasting Notes: Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost and Rare

Vital Stats: 750 ml; no age statement; 46% ABV / 92 proof; $300-$400 price range

Appearance: Burnished copper in color, this whisky displays irregular but well-formed legs, along with impressively attenuated beading, which is a surprising combination that I rarely encounter. Does that make Ghost and Rare look “spooky” in the glass? Well, er, sort of. . . but not off-putting, in the least.

Nose: Drafty air from a dunnage warehouse greets the nose, along with hazelnut and caramel. A noticeable wood presence comes across as wet oak. I grew up in a grove of oak trees in Oregon, and so I know the scent well. My father cut down the trees quite often for firewood. Guess who carried logs up to the wood stove nearly every day in winter time? That’s right: yours truly. In my glass, there are also scents of dark chocolate, cardamom, wheat grass juice, coconut, raspberry, and dried corn husk. I’m impressed with the complexity.

Palate: Forty-six percent ABV provides an adequate “delivery system” for the flavors in my glass. Chocolate-drizzled hazelnut is all but absent in the mouth. I’m getting an austere note of salted cashew instead, along with stewed plum, stewed pear, dried apricot, agave syrup,  and caramelized sugar. I’m also detecting a very faint hint of hickory wood smoke. The finish is medium in length, with a measured, well-articulated sweetness that finally gives up the ghost bitterly. Let’s call it a “mahogany deathbed.” I welcome this last, bitter, woody note, as it tends to ready the palate for another sip of nectar.

The Takeaway

I've owned a bottle of Brora. Unfortunately, it was a Gordon and Macphail Connoisseur's Choice, which lacked adequate depth, opting instead for sweet trendy scents and flavors. Coal-fueled peat smoke was nowhere to be found. Of course, this was to be expected from a 1982 vintage. Do I regret paying handsomely for my bottle? Oh hell no. As for the dram in front of me today . . . thankfully, it harbors a few "ghost notes" that remind me of peatier Broras, which I had the opportunity to taste at friends' houses.

This Walker blend is very well-integrated. Everything comes together holistically in a way that would please just about anyone who enjoys good Scotch whisky. Smoke is a mere whisper--far less pronounced than sherry notes, or wood esters.

Perhaps Ghost and Rare is the closest you will ever come to drinking a "haunted" whisky. Can it be said, however, that a bottle of rare elixirs, taken from three "silent" distilleries, is worth a price tag of three to four hundred dollars? Good question. It's worth reminding you that there are five other spirits in the blend, as well.

Let me say, first of all, that the hundred dollar window between three to four hundred dollars represents a very wide range of prices. If you feel inclined to purchase a bottle, then do yourself a favor and shop around a little. Personally, I think Ghost and Rare could make for a charming gift to the person who already owns a respectable whisky collection, and yet still values the casks of bygone distilleries.

We're talking about Cambus (and Brora), Pittyvaich (and Brora), as well as  . . . what was the third distillery again? Ha, ha. Even if the person on the receiving end of your gesture isn't acquainted with Brora, most people who earn a good living have heard the name Johnnie Walker Blue. "Like attracts like," as mystics have been known to say. A very special blue, packaged in a handsome box, along with a rather intriguing story, could generate a sense of mystery, as well as interest, on the receiving end of a gift, even if the receiver isn't a whisky fanatic.

Personally, I've never been terribly keen on blends without age statements, or blends with grain. Just last week, I reviewed "Timorous Beastie," a 40-year-old Highland Blended Malt Scotch. No, this whisky doesn't claim to have any Brora attached to its rather silly name, but the bottle contains a damned good blended malt. And that's why I rated Timorous Beastie half a star higher than the more smartly marketed Ghost and Rare. For me, the quality of a whisky is what counts most at the end of the day. But I'm a critic, a purist, an aesthete of magickal broths. As such, I would kill for the chance to taste a few drops of old school, coal-smoked Brora--even if it was poured out of a dead man's boot.

Ironically, Diageo has announced plans to reopen Brora as a distillery. So the old stock won't technically be from a "silent" distillery much longer--although, in my book, original, pre-1984, Brora will always hold 99% of the mystique. This said, it's likely that some old Brora stock has occasionally found its way into Walker blends in the past, without any of the media hype that Ghost and Rare is enjoying. Yes, that's right, I'm thinking of older bottles of Johnnie Walker Green label, "back in the day."

User Rating 3.02 (101 votes)