TW is not a big fan of Jack Daniels. http://zuluwhisky.com/i-dont-know-jack-but-i-know-what-i-like/ captured some of his negativity as he kept running into fans of the Tennessee whiskey on his way to Estonia. Another whiskey bro, ND, gave his bottle of Jack away on a trip to the islands. On the other hand, TW likes Johnnie Walker Black Label. In fact, Tarzan and I purchased a whiskey book for him and had it signed by (the) Michael Jackson (the one without the glove). In it he inscribed “enjoy the Johnnie Black”. Johnnie Black was even a major contributor to TW’s Zulu Whiskey Club event named Double Fisting,(http://zuluwhisky.com/double-fisting/ ) where we compared whiskies two at a time, starting with Johnnie Black. We came back to the Black on each flight. “An everyday whiskey” is how TW describes it.
On a recent trip to paradise, I found myself with basically two whiskies consistently available: Jack Daniels and Johnnie Walker Black Label. From the small hole in the wall side street bar to the luxury accommodations of The Blancaneaux Lodge, virtually every drinking establishment (with one exception) had some combination that contained Jack and Johnnie Black. The top shelf at Blancaneaux (above,) a jungle retreat owned by Francis Ford Coppola had Glenfiddich 12 yr, Glen Morangie 12 year, Glen Livet 12 yr, Jim Beam, Jack and Johnnie Black. The grocery store in San Ignacio had many dusty bottles of rum, a few vodkas, Jack and Johnnie Black.
At my cabana on Blancaneaux, overlooking the Privassion Creek, I relied mostly on Talisker, which I packed in with me. One night, I celebrated the arrival of evening with a generous pour from the flask and a Cohiba robusto to welcome the first stars which sparkled brilliantly in the Mountain Pine Ridge sky unencumbered by ambient, earthly light. While I love Glen Livet and Glen Morangie, they are not the best paired with traditional Belizean fare so, I consumed mostly cocktails with dinner at the resort.
From the western border, we drove across the country to catch a Tropic Air flight from Belize City to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. After arrival, I checked out a few bars, grocery stores and The Liquor Box for the whiskey selection. Once again I found the same situation. The Road Kill Lounge known for the Panty Ripper had Chivas, Macallan, Johnnie Black and Jack. The grocery store had a whole bunch of rum, some Jim Beam, Jack and Johnnie Black. In a liquor store called The Liquor Box the usual suspects were joined by Johnnie Walker Gold and Red Label some J&B, Cutty Sark and a few other Canadian whiskies. The Black was $ 175 BZ while the Gold was $195 BZ which is only a ten dollar difference and much more than in the states. No matter where I looked, there stood Jack and Johnnie Black like a pair of foot soldiers defending against the total domination of the shelf by demon rum, gin and vodka.
I understand why whiskey is not as popular as rum in Belize. Actually, the UK and Belize share many things: both are part of the British Commonwealth, both have a mainland and significant land mass from islands and each have the queen on their currency. But the climate differences are significant. Cold, wet climates are good for peaty, smoky drinks while the intense sun of the Caribbean is more ideal for the sweetness of rum. I get it! But why is this pair of whiskies so consistently available? In many conversations with store keepers and bartenders I was told the same thing: “that’s what customers want”!
Inspired by my curiosity, I decided to do a taste test. My wife planned to finish yet another book on the beach. I set out to find a cigar shop and a place to conduct a taste test. My first stop was The Rum, Cigar and Coffee shop. Inside the shop was dark. Fans circulated the hot humid air. I’m not sure Belize needs humidors, as the whole country is humid! We entered the humidor and through dim light I could see cigars standing like palisades in rows on the shelves. I never saw cigars displayed like that before. I am not an expert on Cuban cigars. I actually prefer Dominicans, but the storekeeper had Cohibas, Montecristos, and Romeo y Juliette’s. I asked for a Belinda. “They don’t sell very well. I get them in and they sit for months” the shopkeeper informed me. “But, I will have some in on Monday”. I made my selection which he quickly took to the counter and offered to cut and light it for me. I got the burn going while parrying with him about my need to take home some of his “homemade rum concoctions” that were designed to go with cigars or ice cream? As I stepped out into the bright light of the midday sun on Ambergris Caye, I began to inspect my cigar. I’m not sure this Cuban was from Cuba. It was kind of a soft roll. Other Havana sticks I’ve smoked were nice and tight. The red on the band did not seem quite as bright as other R y J’s I’ve had. Could this be the reason for the dimly lit environs of the shop? At least the price was Cuban… and it was a short walk to the Sail Away Café where I planned to do my taste test.
At dinner in the Sail Away the night before, Lionel was our bartender and did a fantastic job. I wanted a mojito and they did not have mint. Instead of making excuses he slipped out the back to The Three Brothers Grocery Store up the street, purchased some mint and proceeded to make a great mojito for me and a kick ass margarita for Little Eddie. I noticed the omnipresent Jack and Johnnie Black on the shelf and decided that the Sail Away Café was as good as any other location to conduct my taste test.
I entered the café with my cigar. Several patrons were sitting at the bar having coffees or early afternoon cocktails. Daniel, the day’s bartender assured me that smoking was not a problem….not a problem anywhere on the island. I ordered a Johnnie Walker Black Label, neat with water on the side.” You want it with coke?” “Nope, just neat”. “You don’t want ice cubes in it?”, he asked. ”No, just water”. “OK” he said as he turned to retrieve the Johniey Black from his post. He placed the JWB on the bar with an ashtray and a glass of water. I placed my note card and pencil nearby and put the glass up to my nose. This was a blend that I never really paid attention to, but, I recognized the smell; soft, kind of woody. The bartender and the other patrons were watching me. I took a sip. It was mellower than I remembered. I tasted a little fruitiness. The other eyes in the café watched my movements as I added a little water and re-nosed. Daniel approached me. “ Is it OK?”, he asked. ” Oh, its fine”, I said as I took another sip. With the water just right I got the silky mouthfeel and little hints of caramel or toffee. I smiled to my audience as I enjoyed the long finish.
“Now I need the same thing only with Jack Daniels”, I stated. He promptly removed JD from his perch and dispensed another full pour. The gallery grew more intent as they gazed at the gringo preparing for the next taste with long draws on his cigar. I gazed at the color in the glasses. The Jack was a little more orange and a little less amber. Once again, I took a deep smell from the glass. Actually, I was pleasantly surprised. The nose was similar but not as intense. After adding water I noticed the wood. I don’t know if it is from the charcoal filtering or the new oak barrels but the woody aroma is there. My first sip was unexpected. JD is a whiskey I thought best consumed by doing shots. But here, in the Caribbean, with a “Cuban”, I found this whiskey smooth and smoky with a hint of corn syrup sweetness. The mouthfeel was not as rich as the Johnnie Black and the finish not as enduring. But, this whiskey was enjoyable and not contemptible as my colleagues have expressed.
The onlookers eventually lost interest as I went back and forth from the Johnnie Black to the Jack. Then Jack first, followed by Johnnie Black. Sometimes, I punctuated tastes with long draws from the Romeo y Juliette. As the cigar burnt to the band, my taste test was over. Even though Jack Daniels hails from my home country, I have to go with the Johnnie Walker Black. The aroma was a little richer. The taste was fuller and more complex. The mouthfeel of the Jack seemed a little thin compared to the Johnnie Walker. I think a useful analogy would be like listening to early Allman Brothers with only 1 drummer and 1 lead guitar. It would still be great music but without Jaimoe or Dicky would you still get that driving, resonating, blended, jazzy, southern rock sound that became a genre’? The Jack is not bad. But the Johnnie was just a little better.
Jack Daniels is a quintessential American brand. Old No. 7 has been produced in Tennessee since 1866. The distinctive square bottle is recognizable and JD is the 8th best selling whiskey brand in the world. Johnnie Walker comes in various labels: Red, Black, Double Black, Green, Gold and Blue. Recently the Green and Gold were replaced with the Gold Reserve and the Platinum. The Striding Man is recognized worldwide. The labels are placed on the bottle at the angle of 24 degrees to help them stand-out on the shelf. They definitely stand out: the Johnny Walker family is the best selling whiskey brand in the world.
On my way out of Belize, I stopped at the duty free stores in the Philip S. Goldson International Airport. In one of them, a young man was engaging a customer in a discussion of which whiskey was better than another whiskey. I didn’t hear the whiskies they were discussing but it started to get heated. The customer did not agree that the brand the salesman was promoting was better than the whiskey he usually drank. He left the store empty handed. When the customer left, I engaged Ahlaa, the salesman, in conversation. He was of Lebanese descent but was working in Belize selling whiskey! We chatted about whiskey and our personal favorites. I offered my theory that whiskey is an individual taste and the bottle that one man gives away because he doesn’t like it may be the whiskey another man savors. I showed him zuluwhisky.com and we chuckled as we read I Don’t Know Jack. Now, I do know Jack! Another customer entered the store as I was leaving. Ahlaa approached him. “We got great buys on Johnnie Walker Black and Jack” he said with a big grin on his face!
Bonus Question: In the text of the post I mentioned that one one place did not have Johnnie Black and Jack. Here is a picture that was shot through the window of the golf cart dispatchers office at Ramon’s Village. The bottle is nearly empty! Can you identify the whiskey? Submit your answers before April 30. All the correct answers will be placed in a hat and a winner will be drawn. Winner will receive a perceived high value gift!