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Article: Making Johnnie Walker Green Label

Making Johnnie Walker Green Label

Making Johnnie Walker Green Label

Green is a label

These stories reflect some of the bonhomie and inspired moments I have enjoyed across over the years and countries, with some very talented, amusing folk in the world of whisky. This is the saga of the origin of Johnnie Walker Green Label.

Green is a label for a certain attitude to life”. I only wish Annie Lennox had written that a bit earlier, it would have come in mighty useful when building a persuasive argument for a malt whisky in the Johnnie Walker stable!

Johnnie Walker Portfolio

You really have to bite your tongue at times, as this was coming from the guy that took the Walker logo off both Cardhu & Talisker a number of years earlier. Times change and I thought it would be a good idea to leverage the power and pull of the Johnnie Walker brand to introduce a malt whisky into the venerable house of Walker. At first, it didn’t quite get a reasonable hearing… the reaction from ‘corporate’ was akin to farting in church!

It's about Blended Whisky not malt Whisky

Inscribed in stone on a biblical tablet handed down from on high were the words: “Johnnie Walker is about blending, not about malt whisky”. Well, I confess I’ve never been one to listen too hard to the word “no”, so I took that tablet of stone and turned it on its side (or would that be on its reverse?). My logic was that if the Coffey still didn’t come into play until 1830 something then all whiskies sold by Johnnie Walker before that time would have been blends of malt whiskies.

Concept Images for Johnnie Walker Malt Whisky

Concept development options for Johnnie Walker Pure Malt

The Eureka moment

That realisation around the Coffey still was a bolt of lightning, or a “Eureka” moment. With that being the case, then easy peasy - we will make it a blended malt. Now the only problem with that was the word “blended”. It was, and arguably still is to a number of folk, not a popular term.

Blended Malt becomes Pure Malt

To get round this issue we decided to use the words “pure malt” on the carton box, as well as listing all the distilleries that made up the whisky. By taking this approach on the gift carton and the literature, we aimed to convey the story without using that dreaded B word. Pure malt as a descriptor had previously been used on Glenfiddich, which was the pioneer of branded malt. This was an apt nod to their early work. 

At the design stage, we experimented with a number of options on bottle shape, glass colour and label options - all drawing on Walker heritage. In the end, we played it safe going for a new version of the square bottle and green as the predominant colour. At the same time as making these changes, we simplified the overall design. Interestingly some of the other design elements would come to be used many years later.

Johnnie Walker Pure Malt advert

Launch material for Johnnie Walker Pure Malt

Great balance and structure for the whisky

Four distilleries were carefully chosen to make up this malt whisky: Talisker to give power and structure, Cragganmore to provide the heart, Linkwood for finesse, and Caol Isla for a touch of Islay magic. The result was a really individual whisky with a great balance of mellowness and complexity, ending with a superb finish.

Despite a lukewarm reaction from ‘corporate’, this new release rapidly gained traction and Johnnie Walker Pure Malt started to get a very loyal following. It was, and still is, an amazing whisky.

Perhaps we should have learnt from the launch of Johnnie Walker Oldest which, after a very short time, was then called Johnnie Walker Blue Label. Well, history repeats itself, and folk wanted us to change the name of this Pure Malt expression to “Green Label”. Quicker than you can say Abracadabra it had, as requested, morphed into Johnnie Walker Green Label.

Johnnie Walker Green Label and Pure Malt Whisky

The change to Johnnie Walker Green Label from Johnnie Walker Pure Malt

The Coke Classic Moment

History repeats itself... after some 10 years of successful sales some marketing genius (only joking) decided that it didn’t quite fit the new vision and it was decided to withdraw the Green Label brand from all markets.

The ink wasn’t half dry on this decision when customers revolted. Not quite on the original Coke Classic scale but sufficient to see the smoke and smell the burning rubber as the marketing ‘genius” did an emergency u-turn. So peace was restored to about 1.5 million folk around the globe who, a bit like Annie Lennox, thought that Green Label reflected not only their attitude but their taste in good whisky.

I am often asked if the new Green Label is as good as the original. It’s close but it’s a bit like listening to your favourite album as an original master record or streamed through a digital set of speakers… it's a personal choice. And, that's a good thing.

This story represents another fork in the road on the whisky journey taken by the Firkin Whisky Company founder Mike Collings. You can read more of his stories here, and find his new Firkin whiskies here.

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