From the editors

The West Wing and transparency

  • I loved The West Wing mainly, I think, because it should have been boring. Lots of badly-dressed people walking the corridors of a mocked-up White House talking at breakneck speed about politics? Hardly the sexiest proposal ever to cross a commissioning editor’s desk.

    What made it was the vision of creator Aaron Sorkin that the machinations and dilemmas of White House senior staff could make gripping television. Hell, it was so good that I even forgave its annoying habit of descending periodically into misty-eyed, flag-hugging patriotism. Americans, huh?

    Scotch has a minor moment in The West Wing. In a flashback sequence, chief of staff and recovering alcoholic Leo McGarry recalls a moment on the campaign trail when he fell spectacularly off the wagon – thanks to the lure of Johnnie Walker Blue Label.

    What follows is a lyrical description of the pleasures of drinking, undercut by the character’s addiction and its potentially disastrous impact on his career.

    The words aren’t the script’s finest, but I’ll repeat a few of them here:

    ‘Good Scotch sits in a charcoal (sic) barrel for 12 years; very good Scotch gets smoked for 29 years; Johnnie Walker Blue is 60-year-old Scotch.’

    Except that, of course, it isn’t. According to James Espey, who developed Blue Label precursor Johnnie Walker Oldest in the 1980s, the concept was born when a small amount of 60-year-old Scotch was blended with a much larger volume of 15-year-old. The label proudly proclaimed that the liquid was ‘aged 15 to 60 years’, and you can still occasionally find these old bottles for sale today.

    Several years after Oldest’s launch, the law was changed so that producers could only mention the youngest part of any blend. The Blue Label, er, label was amended and the product has remained without an age statement ever since.

    But. But, if you Google Johnnie Walker Blue Label and 60 years old, you’ll find plenty of people perpetuating that sexagenarian myth. There are even EU-based online retailers still advertising the product explicitly as a 60-year-old whisky.

    Lesson? Never underestimate the power and longevity of a marketing message, nor its ability, with repetition, to turn incorrect information into ‘fact’.

    In this context, it’s easy to see why a change in the law was needed to protect the consumer. But, ironically, that very change makes it now impossible to put the record straight and tell that same consumer the full story of Blue Label’s blend.

    Legislators did not foresee a world of single malt shortage where age statements would be largely cast aside, leaving the consumer without even the vague reassurance of a number to help navigate the category.

    Nor did they envisage the possibility that a brand owner might want to react to that situation by giving their consumer the complete truth about a whisky – the age and origin of its components, plus their proportions in the blend – to satisfy their thirst for knowledge about what is in their glass.

    The example of Johnnie Walker Blue, and Leo’s passionate, if erroneous, description of it, tells us a lot about how we got to where we are in terms of whisky law, age statements and transparency.

    Now the question is: where do we want to go next? Ultimately, that’s up to the industry to decide.

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