There’s an undeniable allure as a spirits drinker, and even as a professional spirits writer, in knowing that you’re sampling a liquid few others will ever get to taste. It’s the basis behind the appeal of “ghost” releases—the slow drip of those rare barrels from distilleries that are no longer in operation—that you are getting an opportunity to taste something that is both a novelty and a journey into the past. As such, you expect to pay a price for that kind of opportunity … but the liquid in the bottle still has to justify the price on its own merits, beyond the novelty of its origin.
Some scotch whisky ghost releases, such as this year’s Forager’s Keep from Orphan Barrel, make a strong argument despite a hefty price tag, advocating for their status as indispensable and worth the splurge, assuming you can somehow drop $400 on a bottle of scotch. Others, like the brand new, rather clumsily titled Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost & Rare Glenury Royal, are fine products on their own merits, but are tougher to rationalize as luxuries.
This is the third entry in Johnnie Walker’s series of “Ghost & Rare” releases, following Ghost & Rare Brora in 2017 and Ghost & Rare Port Ellen in 2018. This time around, the distillery of focus is the defunct Glenury Royal, established in 1825 by Captain Robert Barclay MP, described as “gambler, pugilist and the first man to walk 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours.” The distillery had a tumultuous history, being destroyed by a fire only a few weeks after its initial opening, before being rebuilt. It earned a “royal” suffix due to Barclay’s friendship with King William IV, becoming one of only three Scottish distilleries with a royal title, but was closed for good in 1985. Its single malt contributions to this particular blend of Johnnie Walker Blue Label are described as “rich and fruity,” although this particular bottling also includes ghost and rare whiskies from distilleries that include Cambus and Pittyvaich—itself the supplier of the aforementioned Orphan Barrel Forager’s Keep, owned like Johnnie Walker by Diageo. And of course, being that this is a blended scotch whisky, there’s an array of other malts and grain whiskies represented, including Glen Elgin, Inchgower, Glenlossie, Cameronbridge and Glenkinchie. It’s bottled at 43.8% ABV (87.6 proof), and hits store shelves in October.
Now, let’s get to tasting and see how this Ghost & Rare release measures up.
On the nose, Johnnie Walker Blue Ghost & Rare Glenury Royal (I won’t be writing this full name again) is light and not extremely expressive, with delicate suggestions of shortbread, toffee and fruit (apple, stone fruit), followed by light baking spices. Like most older Johnnie Walker releases, the smoke/peat present in younger variants is much more delicate and subtle here, giving way to richer and fruitier malts.
On the palate, this whisky proves itself to be nicely balanced, but perhaps not quite as assertive in terms of volume of flavor as some consumers would hope, given the price. Buttery shortbread and toffee form the base, with moderate residual sweetness and nicely dialed in heat—just enough to be respectable, but still very easy drinking. Dark, buckwheat honey combines with golden syrup and apricot fruitiness to form a very pleasant mid-palate, which segues into subtle earthiness and wisps of smoke and peat on the back end, with hints of baking spices (nutmeg, candied ginger).
Overall, the word here is “balance.” This expression of Ghost & Rare has elements of richness (toffee, honey), fruit (apple, apricot), peat and spice that all work in harmony with one another—but it lacks what you might call a little bit of verve, especially in a bottle bearing a $350 price tag. Perhaps a higher proof is all this bottling would have needed to break through to its next level, but the result is an approachable, moderately complex blended scotch that is a fun dram, but perhaps not as decadent as was desired.
Distillery: Johnnie Walker (Diageo)
Style: Blended scotch whisky
ABV: 43.8% (87.6 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $349.99 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.