The crowd gathered around at 7 O’clock and with just a few minutes to spare till the evening begun it was an experience to remember. I was here to attend the Launch of the House of Walker experience in Uganda and it promised to be an evening to remember. The invite had been sent out by email and even though it seemed like a general invite the feel had the aura of a specially selected individual written on it.
The pyramids restaurant was resplendently adorned in light strings that gave the room the air of a far away place. You could have been anywhere in the world, learning about Johnnie walker. Every table seat had five glasses placed in front of it for the five House of Walker brands: Red, Black, Green, Gold and Blue labels. The feel of ambient music transformed the venue to a surreal place.
When Christopher Othieno, House of Walker ambassador, and one of only two men in the region, started to speak the room fell to a silent glowing space with people dressed in all shades of formal and semi formal dress. All eyes were fixed on him. He began by telling of the rich history of Johnnie Walker and the inspirations of the House of Walker brands. What were the differences between a single malt whisky and a grain whisky? Why blends like Johnnie Walker exist.
Basically a grain whisky is a whisky made from maize or wheat. And a single malt whisky is whisky made purely from malted barley that comes from a single distillery.
The idea of blended whisky was made famous by John ‘Johnnie’ Walker who started brewing at the tender age of 15 in his grocery store in Kilmarnorck in Ayreshire Scotland. When he died in 1857 his son Alexander I took over the brewery and, combined with the good teaching his father had given him, the passion he had for the business, the skills and the vigour of youth, he set about brewing a whisky: “Of such a quality that nothing in the market shall come before it”
In 1909, Alexander II released the Red Label whisky. A blend of 35 whiskeys, transforming the original Extra Special Old Highland Whisky into a world class brand that was both sweet and smoky with a dash of spice on the palette. As he sampled the Red Label, Christopher spoke about this drink that is the world’s No.1 selling whisky in over 200 countries worldwide. A drink that introduces the discerning man from other drinks to a league where he can savour his days. In my mouth, unseasoned as it is, the drink left a harsh brash feeling on my tongue and almost a manly sense about it. The feeling you get when you have just been slapped by a man stronger than you and you can still tell he was merciful while he did it.
It takes 40 different whiskies or Scotches (the term is used interchangeably) and 12 years of brewing and ageing to produce Johnnie Walker Black label. The notes that guide the making of this deep amber drink today were made by Alexander I. Each scotch, a unique creation of its climate, region and distiller. Each of these whiskeys must at least be 12 years old. It is deep. I take a sip and I feel my neurons tell my fingers to put the glass down and roll my eyes. My nose catches the whiffs of smoke Christopher is talking about. The earthy peaty undertone is something I guess I will discover as the night goes on, or not because the only peat I will taste will be at the bottom of the pit into which I will fall if I don’t stop drinking this smooth, indecipherable, rich, dark whisky. The roof of my mouth, called in this complex business a palette, manages to grasp onto some fruit and the slightest dash of vanilla.
Christopher says this drink is a statement of elegance, style, mystery. I look at my neighbour whose grin clearly says he is not mystified, he has hit a jackpot high! And he is not coming down! The man next to Mark, as I discover later he is called, has already downed all his drinks and looks at the ambassador with a blank look as he talks about mystery; because his dilemma of tastes just grew bigger. I was beginning to see black.
Then there was a water break at which point Christopher took the opportunity to announce quite smugly that a whisky drinker never gets sloshed. “That’s why you don’t swig it. Those guys who drink beer can get high, you must always have one finger on the ground” I curse under my breath because I sense that he is about to plunge us into another sensory assault. You see, the way to take whisky is not to just put your mouth to the glass, create a tunnel between your lips, and suck. Thats for primordial homo sapiens [read pedestrians]. Apparently, you have to Nose it (use your nose to sense its aroma; the verb smell is vile in whisky tasting), let it hit the palate (taste it; *rolling my eyes at this one) and then as if swallowing is not enough, you have to wait for the finish (the length of time the flavour of the whisky remains. The longer the finish, the older richer and smokier the whisky)
Christopher resumes his ambassadorial stance; stern, unflinching like a man about the training of the planet’s next set of frontier defenders. It is with a deep somber voice that he starts to talk about Green Label. Defined as the “definitive malt whisky”, it is taken from the best malt whiskies from the Scottish Hihglands. With over 500 years of malt history to draw on, the House of Walker produced this 15 year old blend for both deluxe and malt drinkers. After swishing my mouth with water at the break my tongue feels relieved and so this drink hits it with the full floral sensation. I later learn that it is actually the fruits: fir, oranges, sherrywood that give it this zing and freshness. My mind is talking to my hands. I should put my finger in my neighbor’s ear and feel his temperature because I feel like the things about me are all of a sudden in a different world. Everyone looks excited and they are chattering. We are 10 at each table and people who initially sat as strangers have thawed and are talking about why the journalist in the back row has no drinks in his glass, or why Christopher all of a sudden appears like James Bond sharing state secrets.
In 1805, John “Johnnie” Walker was born. In 1995 to celebrate a century of his life the House of Walker released a special blend: Gold Label. A creamy rich blend, this rich gold-hued drink tastes soft, or is it my tongue, am not sure but it slips on my tongue like it is tumbling into my belly with a final mushroom of warmth splashing throughout my stomach when it lands. And almost explodes in my mouth like a gentle splash of raisins, toffee and a light cream. What is interesting to see is how it is served. The gold Label is brewed for 18 years. The perfect serve for Gold Label is to freeze the bottle for 24 hours prior to drinking. Then serve in a frozen glass with the finest bitter chocolate. There is about to be a mutiny of my senses as the chocolate hits my mouth because it feels so rich, like I am indulging and, like my mouth wasn’t built big enough for this job.
Mark has by now started talking; asking about what I do for a living, and golf. I am not going to tell him that this drinking business is for people well out of my league. I am thinking about who on earth deserves to drink this kind of liquid sunshine. Yes, liquid sunshine is what George Bernard Shaw called it.
Then a white man in a kilt appears. I am impressed at the ambassador’s transformation. I lean to my neighbour and ask, “Does Johnnie Walker make you do that?”, I ask almost mutedly. The Johnnie Walker Blue Label is unwrapped complete with its certificate of authenticity. The age of this blend is undisclosed, and the satin lined box in which it lies speaks of a peerless pedigree. Made from the rarest whiskies in the world, it has 16 whiskies and looks dark; fully gold.
“This is it. It is the crème de la crème. It’s what separates the chicken from the peacock. It’s what separates the lizard from the crocodile. This is the ultimate drink,” says Christopher right before he asks us all to rinse our mouths with fresh cold water.
As the gorgeous waitresses clad in gold pass around pouring this most expensive whisky into everyone’s glass, he introduces a man I later learn is called Ivo Buratovich, the Managing Director, Uganda Breweries, to talk. He is in a kilt! Oh now I can see why the ambassador had become the Scotsman. He is a “Keeper of the Quaich”; such a highly respected position among whiskey drinkers because it is the equivalent of the tribal council in that Mel Gibson movie based out of Latin America.
“The Blue” as I fancy it being called by enthusiasts, is taken neat. The experience, sublime.
As I walk away from the grande silhouette of the Pyramids Casino, I have two thoughts in my head, how do you create a legend? And how do I become the man who deserves to drink Johnnie Walker?
The first one I was in no state of mind to contemplate unless I perhaps asked that man in a kilt. The second thought though tickled me. By the time I got home that evening after the 10 minute walk from the taxi stop I knew the answer. If Johnnie Walker was a drink for men who had a passion for excellence, men in pursuit of excellence, men who saw the drink in themselves and not the themselves in the drink, then I would do as thousands of men had done over the years: I would keep walking.