Inspiration and tips


News / Johnnie Walker Team / Fri, 24 May 19 11:06:11

Increasingly used in cocktail recipes but often misunderstood, smoke is a versatile and valuable element to use in cocktails and especially with whisky bases.

We look at how the team at Johnnie Walker impart the celebrated signature smoke characteristics to their whiskies and consider how best to use smoke in cocktails.


Smoke is a deeply misunderstood flavour, both in whisky and in cocktails. Here, we consider the elements of this great entity, how it’s imparted to Johnnie Walker whiskies and how to best use it in cocktails at your bar.

To best illustrate the influence of smoke through whisky, and then whisky cocktails, we’ll be focusing on the world’s most loved Scotch whisky, Johnnie Walker Black Label


Johnnie Walker has access to the largest reserves of maturing Scotch whisky in the world, well over 10 million casks and this diversity of selection allow for Johnnie Walker to select whiskies from the four corners of Scotland.

Drawing from this extensive selection handpicked from across the four corners – the Highlands, the Islands, Lowlands and Speyside – allows Johnnie Walker to deliver unparalleled complexity and a flavour profile which is truly expressive of the land of its origin.

Today, continuing John Walker’s famous legacy is the team of Whisky Masters based in Scotland. A small team of 12 led by Master Blender and one of the whisky industry’s most respected figures, Jim Beveridge.


The role of the Whisky Masters is so much more than just blending the Johnnie Walker range. They approach their blends not as a fixed recipe, but as a flavour profile and blending whisky is all about balance.

Johnnie Walker Black Label is a blend of over 30 different malt and grain whiskies and when that many components are blended together, they must unite seamlessly. There can be no rough edges, no dominating flavours – all elements must be in perfect harmony. 


There are 4 distinctive flavour camps Whisky Masters will focus on:

  • FRESH FRUITflavours come from Speyside and Lowland malts such as Cardhu, Linkwood and Strathmill.
  • TROPICAL FRUIT flavours come primarily from the Highland malts, but some Speyside malts, like Royal Lochnagar and Mortlach, contribute to them as well.
  • CREAMY VANILLA notes come from the Grain whisky from Cameronbridge. This also acts as a flavour enhancer, drawing out other flavours from the Single Malts that wouldn’t be found otherwise.
  • SMOKY flavours come primarily from Caol Ila, a classic example of a peated Isla malt.


Smoke is very much the signature profile of Johnnie Walker whiskies; ever present, it’s the thread that is woven into their very fabric, taking a role at the back - always present but never dominant.

However, it’s incredibly difficult to make a blend where the smoke is integrated, not dominant. Often, smoke is used in whisky as a ‘blunt instrument’ – there for power and effect, all PPM (parts per million, the term used to measure phenol molecules in barley) with no finesse. In Johnnie Walker whiskies, it is perfectly integrated into the blend and used to pair with and complement other flavours. This is vital when we begin to consider using smoke in cocktails.

The other element which we should consider at this point is that smoky whiskies aren’t just smoky. They have a wide range of complexity themselves. In blending therefore, the smoke in Caol Ila (for example) is important but so is its sweetness and oiliness, and the same goes for Talisker’s fruitiness. 

The important point is that ‘smoke’ is not a separate ingredient that we add to whisky – there is no actual smoke in whisky. There are, however, phenols that adhered to the barley that make it all the way through fermentation and distillation.


In blended whisky, it’s not necessarily about adding more, it’s about highlighting the smoke through the involvement of other ingredients. Jim Beveridge states that to bring out more smokiness, you don’t add more Islay malt - you add more grain whisky. Now this may seem counterintuitive but think of it like adding a splash of water to a whisky and how it ‘opens it up’, releasing characteristics that were not apparent previously.

By lowering the intensity of flavour in a blend (by adding grain whisky) the Whisky Masters can uncover hidden complexities that wouldn’t normally be apparent.

As we can see, lowering the intensity of one or several components can actually add more complexity to a spirit, or in our case, a cocktail.

As Dave Broom points out, "smoke adds weight, length and texture to a whisky. It adds dryness as well, which means it can obscure sweetness, so again the most important thing is balancing smoke - in a blend, in a malt and in a drink.” This is a great way to approach using smoke in our cocktails.

When we think of a ‘smoked’ cocktail, the image of a cocktail beneath a smoke-filled bell jar generally comes to mind. While this method still has its place for the theatre and sensory effect, we should also approach smoke as we would any other ingredient: with care and consideration for how its flavour profile interacts with the other ingredients.


To fully understand how to pair smoke flavours in cocktails we must establish what smoke tastes like. We generally describe all smokes as tasting like, well, smoke. But there are so many different variants of smoke and Dave Broom highlights the following that can all be found in Scotch whisky:

Smoke elements; wood smoke, bonfire, hickory, burning heather [moor-burn], spent fire, smouldering fire, soot, lapsang souchong tea

Phenol elements: creosote, tar, bog myrtle, smoked fish, smoked ham

Marine elements: rockpool, oyster shells, brine, seaweed, fresh fish

We can see that there are variations to smoke and it is a powerful ingredient, but it’s one which is at its most effective when used with a delicate touch.

The Highball is a great example of the theory about lowering the intensity of components; with its light profile and effervescence it’s quaffable and refreshing yet has the potential for vast depth and complexity. 


This highball showcases how we can explore smoke flavours through suggestion and enhance the smoke notes in Johnnie Walker Black Label through a thoughtful flavour pairing.

The smoky wood notes in the lapsang souchong complement the layers of smoke in Johnnie Walker Black Label, teasing earthier notes to the fore. Maple syrup, while not being smoked itself, is so often paired with BBQ style smoke to conjure up sweet, hickory flavours while drawing on the natural smoke in the whisky. 


  • 50ml Johnnie Walker Black Label
  • 50ml Lapsang Souchong
  • 10ml Maple Syrup
  • 75ml Fever Tree Soda Water


  • Add large clear ice cubes to highball glass
  • Add Johnnie Walker Black Label, Lapsang Souchong and maple syrup
  • Stir
  • Top with Fever-Tree and garnish
  • Serve. 

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