“Bad as Me” is the title of Tom Waits newest CD. Though it doesn’t come out for a few more days (at the time of this writing) I’ve heard a preview of the work by the newest member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Based on the title, it sounds like it would be the biggest, boldest, and, well, baddest CD yet by the gruff growler. And in some ways it is, but not in ways one would expect. For beneath the clanging horns, tinny guitars and old hound dog harmonies (with Keith Richards of all people) there is a subtle beauty running through the entire CD that is entirely unexpected.
Why am I writing about Tom Waits in a whisky blog? For starters, his music screams to be listened to with a whisky in hand. And indeed I do have a whisky in hand, well near hand, as it’s hard to type and hold a dram at the same time. It too is new and also claims to be the baddest expression of a well-known, well-worn and well-loved legend. However, just as Mr. Waits’ new claim of badass-ness is startled away by beautiful subtlety, so too is the posturing of this whisky: Johnnie Walker’s Double Black.
Double Black is allegedly a bigger, bolder and badder version of the venerable Johnnie Walker Black Label. And, at first whiff, with the sparks-flying-in-your-face smokiness of a campfire, it does indeed seem like heavyweight boxer version of Walker Black’s barroom brawler. But, don’t let that chest-puffing stride into the ring fool you. For beneath the double punching fists of smoke are hypnotically feathery feet of fruit, spice and vanilla that dance elegantly throughout the ring, weaving gracefully above the canvas, propelling the action.
(Yes, I believe using Tom Waits and boxing to describe this whisky is a double metaphor, but hey, it’s Double Black; it deserves two metaphors).
I think I am something of a Walker Black (or Black Label, or 12-year old) expert. It is my default drink of choice, on the rocks. Years ago, there was a bartender at The Magic Castle here in Los Angeles who upon seeing me walk through the secret door entrance would always shout out, “Good evening, Walker Black!” as he reached down to start pouring for me. I like how ice doesn’t take away from the smoked wood, chocolate, honey, heather and juniper that I pick up in the blended Scotch. It’s a drink that doesn’t challenge you to think, but you still are aware of its complexities.
When I heard Johnnie Walker was making a Double Black, I was apprehensive. It seems like two-thirds of the time a company tries to market a new whisky the emphasis is on marketing, not on whisky. When I took my first nose of Double Black I was expecting to be punched loudly. Instead, I was hugged and taken back to living in Scotland. Breakfast, to be exact: smoked kippers, orange marmalade on toast, thick cream on oats, fresh apples, and the cracked pepper snappiness found in sausages. It is a fully satisfying, smile-on-the-face, surprise of a blended Scotch. I don’t even want to put it on the rocks, as I think it is lovely as is. Even adding a touch of water, for me, takes away the peat-coated lemon drop finish that I get with it neat.
Double Black isn’t a direct descendent, so to speak, of Black Label, but is inspired by the latter’s flavor profile. The added smokiness comes from whiskies that are naturally smoky (including some lesser-known single malts from the West Coast of Scotland) and whiskies that are matured in deep charred oak barrels. Still, the fruitiness and softness of the collected whiskies manages to shine through.
“I will have satisfaction. I will be satisfied,” Tom Waits sings on his new CD – a record that is wrought with intense imagery, but softened with nuances. I have wonderful satisfaction while listening to it. Sipping a dram of the equally nuanced Double Black also leaves me more than satisfied: it makes me want a double.
Double Black recently became available as a limited release in the U.S. (and is available at Duty Free shops at several airports around the world.) Its price point is less than $10 more than the regular Black Label. The added cost is well worth the added complexity of Double Black. Look for it at your local retailer in the coming weeks if it hasn’t already hit the shelves.