An Evening with Johnnie Walker in Jersey City, NJ

“How many of you have a bottle of vodka in your freezer? Well, pour that vodka down the drain—Welcome to Flavor Town!”

We’re about halfway through the Johnnie Walker Tasting Event at the cavernous Harborside Financial Center, located on the western bank of the Hudson River in Jersey City, NJ, and overlooking sparkling downtown Manhattan over on the eastern side. Our host, whose role for Johnnie Walker seems strangely similar to that of the late Slurm soda mascot Slurms McKenzie, has just introduced Johnnie Walker Gold. It’s served in chilled shot glasses brought out on silver trays by the college-aged Johnnie Walker Girls, all black dresses and caked-on makeup masks. There are 75 or so tasters in attendance.

In an evening unabashedly filled with buzz words—during his pitch for each JW label, Slurms actually says he’s going to “throw out some buzz words” to describe them—we’re told the Gold is an “indulgent” whiskey, a whiskey “made for celebration,” and a whiskey that makes for a better shot than that drab ol’ bottle of vodka in the freezer.

Smooth, smoky, and with distinct hints of honey and berry, the Gold was, indeed, the standout of the evening… even moreso than the much-ballyhooed Blue label, which retails for anywhere from $139 – $500 per 750ml bottle. Why so expensive? According to Slurms, of the 7.4 million casks of whiskey that are aging in Scotland, only 1 in 10,000 are pulled and blended into Blue, which also uses rare batches from distilleries outside the JW family—even distilleries no longer in operation and now just running through what they have left of their product.

Categorically Speaking

The evening began in Williamsburg, where me and three friends were to be picked up and transferred to Jersey City via a limousine service I won on a daily tips email. At 5:30pm, however, our hopes for an extravagant cruise in decked-out luxury were dashed when a mid-sized SUV rolled up and the driver asked if we were ready to go. With all four of us measuring at least six-feet tall, we squeezed into the truck and folded our long legs up like crouching spiders.

Hoping for a stocked mini-fridge, tinted windows, and a booming sound system, for the next hour or so we instead settled for a sweet serenade of staticy Spanish language crackle over the car service’s dispatcher CB radio. Stuck in rush-hour traffic in downtown Manhattan as we inched towards the Holland Tunnel, conversation shifted from waiver-wire strategy in our fantasy basketball league, to this week’s NFL spreads, and finally to the game of “Categories”, in which somebody throws out a category (“Movies that have aliens in them”) and everybody takes turns answering until there’s one man left standing.

Yep, a couple of cool guys out for a wild night on the town. All things considered, as we sat there on Canal Street crammed into the SUV, I’m glad we didn’t follow through on our grandiose idea to wear suits and top hats.

Welcome to Jersey City

We met a Johnnie Walker representative at the Harborside entrance, and were told we’d be given special VIP treatment during the evening’s main presentation. That meant a front-row seat in the makeshift tasting room, which was set up convention-style in a big lobby behind tall black curtains. Long, gray, padded benches were set up facing three big projection screens, with three shot glasses (two containing Black Label and one with Red), a glass of water, water dropper, half carafes of ginger ale and coconut water, and a golden Johnnie Walker pin laid out on knee-high JW-branded tables in front of each seat. After that long ride, I resisted the urge to clandestinely throw one of those shots down before we got underway.

Suddenly, the lights were dimmed and Johnnie Walker propaganda a short film starring actor Robert Carlyle (28 Weeks Later, Trainspotting) began:

Following the film and further marketing speak from Slurms, the tasting began in earnest, starting with the Black before moving on to the Red, Gold, and Blue. We first tried the Black without anything added, then with a few drops of water, and finally with our choice of ginger ale or coconut water; the coconut water was a surprisingly kosher match and one I’ll be trying at home. “Water is to whiskey what oxygen is to wine,” said Slurms, as he told us that there was no right or wrong way to drink Johnnie Walker: plain, on the rocks, or with a mixer, it’s up to each individual connoisseur… just as long as it’s JW that’s in the glass.

Whiskey Glow

After the main event, which lasted for roughly 30 minutes, we were allowed to stick around for a few more cocktails at Johnnie Walker’s makeshift bar since we were late for our event’s cocktail party (there were two tasting events scheduled for the evening). We snapped our photo at the JW booth, drank a few Blacks on the rocks, indulged the spread of cheese, crackers, and vegetables… even briefly met Slurms in person!

The warm glow of whiskey in our bellies, along with a lot less traffic, helped make the ride home much more pleasant. Our driver was happy to crank a mix CD we’d brought for the limo’s booming sound system (DMX! Dem Franchise Boyz!), and as we turned onto the Manhattan Bridge, bound for I-278, I looked out the window at the bright lights of the big city behind us, and was caught up in one of those fleeting “ahhhh, New York” moments. Ten minutes later we were back in Williamsburg.

I’m already a whiskey drinker; will the Johnnie Walker Tasting Event influence my next purchase? Maybe, maybe not. I do know one thing, however: from now on, every time I see a bottle of JW the shelf, or put a glass of JW to my lips, I’ll always be thinking “Welcome to Flavor Town”. Good thing, bad thing, I’m not sure.

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