A closer look at the origins of Diageo’s John Walker & Sons XR21, a drink that upholds a rich history of blending excellence.
Johnnie Walker is the most popular scotch whisky in the world. With over 18.9 million cases sold through 2019 and 14.1 million cases sold through the pandemic year, the numbers solidly reflect public recognition and appreciation of true blending mastery. Every bottle produced is a tribute to the ingenuity of the Walker family. The pursuit of discovering the perfect balance of Scotch whisky has endured through generations, dating back to the 19th century.
In 1805, John “Johnnie” Walker was born in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire in Scotland, to the family of Alexander Walker. His father was a humble farmer who worked hard for an honest living until his passing in 1820. At the tender age of 14, young John Walker had little time to grieve as he assumed his role as head of the family.
Deemed too young to manage a farm by executors, John was encouraged to go into trade. The family sold the land for £417, and subsequently invested into an Italian grocery, wine, and spirits shop on High Street in Kilmarnock. As ports in Glasgow and Greenock opened the doors to trade with the New World, the exciting and exotic world of teas and spices captured John’s imagination. He began to cultivate his blending skills with tea, learning to perfect balance and develop nuanced flavours.
In 1823, The Excise Act relaxed stringent laws on the distillation of whisky, massively reducing the heavy taxes otherwise imposed on the production and sale of whisky. By 1825, John was selling spirits, including rum, gin, brandy, and whiskies from the four corners of Scotland.
In this era, blended whisky was still illegal in Scotland. Combining single malts with grain alcohol was viewed as taboo, thought to corrupt its purity. Though seen as unorthodox, this did not diminish demand among those who favoured blends. John recognised the fault of single malt whiskies was its often wildly inconsistent taste. He sought to apply his newly honed blending skills to create a more refined whisky drinking experience.
John married sweetness and smoke to produce deep, characterful blends with distinctly consistent flavour contrasted sharply against the raw, inconsistent tastes of single malts themselves. This chapter marked the beginning of the Walker family quest to create the finest whiskies with layers of piquancy. He sold both blended malt whiskies and grain whiskies to clients on a made-to-order basis, culminating in a blended malt sold as Walker’s Kilmarnock Whisky in 1825.
In 1837, John welcomed his son Alexander “Alec” Walker’s birth, who would later inherit his business in 1857. In 1860, The Spirit Act legalised the blending of malt and grain whiskies. A master blender like his father before him, Alec introduced Johnnie Walkers’ first commercial blended Scotch whisky dubbed “Old Highland Whisky” in 1865. The official blend stood out within a marketplace that was still dominated by single malts.
In 1869, Alexander Walker II was born to Alec, his third and youngest son. Devoted to take up the mantle of his father and grandfather before him, Alexander II, alongside his brother George Patterson Walker, purchased the Cardhu Distillery. The output from the distillery would become the heart of the Old Highland Whisky, with aged statements evolving into Johnnie Walker White, Johnnie Walker Red, and Johnnie Walker Black Label.
By 1920, Alexander II was an enterprising entrepreneur recognised for his whisky-making craft and leadership. During the First World War, he worked for the Ministry of Munitions as a member of the munition disposal board. In recognition of his noble conduct whilst fulfilling his duty to king and country, King George V bestowed a Knighthood to Alexander II.
On 1 January 1934, King George V also granted a Royal Warrant of Appointment to the Johnnie Walker company. The company retains the prestigious honour to this day, signalling the continued favour and patronage of British Monarchs.
The John Walker & Sons XR21 is a whisky that commemorates the knighthood of Alexander II while celebrating a long-standing heritage of brilliance. It is one of the oldest blended whiskies by Walker that remains available worldwide. The rare spirit arrives in a decanter-style bottle, reflecting a norm from the 1920s known for its gorgeous Art Deco aesthetics. Reflecting the Walker family status as master blenders, each elegant bottle is individually numbered and inscribed with a striking cross that mimics the medal awarded to Sir Alexander.
The XR21 takes inspiration from Sir Alexander’s handwritten blending notes, left to the public company at his passing. The luxurious XR21 comes to life through a rare three-stage blending method. It is a process reserved for only the most exclusive Johnnie Walker Scotch whiskies due to its complex and time- intensive nature. It calls for a selection of rare whiskies, all of which have matured for at least 21 years.
As a label, Johnnie Walker continues to Keep Walking so does the heritage of the Walker family, advancing into the modern age guided by the fascinating hints of blends unfulfilled in Alexander’s notebooks.
(Main image caption: Johnnie Walker master blender Jim Beveridge. All images: Johnnie Walker/Diageo Malaysia)
This story first appeared in the August 2021 issue of Prestige Malaysia. Log into Magzter to read the latest issue for free.