J&B Rare is a back bar favourite the world over, it’s sold millions of cases over the years and become part of our cultural history. But how did a wine merchant end up creating such a remarkable whisky brand? Master blender Louise Martin joins us today to tell us the story behind the Scotch.
On St James’s Street in London, you’ll find wine and spirits merchant, Justerini & Brooks. Established in 1749, for over 270 years it has been supplying tasty booze to its customers and has the proud distinction of being granted a Royal Warrant by every British monarch since King George III in 1761, including Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
It wasn’t until the 1930s, however, that Justerini & Brooks signature Scotch, J&B Rare, came into the picture. The man we have to thank for that is Eddie Tatham. He joined Justerini & Brooks as managing director after the First World War and “thrived in the era of the ‘bright young things’,” says master blender Louise Martin. “No party was complete without him. Eddie mingled comfortably with both café society and stars of stage and screen including Fred Astaire, David Niven, and Marlene Dietrich. He had good connections in America including the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts”.
The relationships Tatham established took him to the States frequently. While there, he noticed there was tremendous potential as Prohibition was drawing to a close. The watered-down swill that was frequently traded throughout this period created a demand for quality blended Scotch. In 1932, J&B Rare was launched for the first time just before Prohibition was repealed, making it perfectly placed to meet that demand.
From wine to whisky
J&B Rare was instantly a hit, particularly in the US. By 1961 Justerini & Brooks had shipped one million cases of whisky for export and that increased to two million cases just eight years later in 1969. Alongside other notable favourites at the time like Cutty Sark, J&B Rare was instrumental in establishing the trend for blends and changing the perception of Scotch in the US after Prohibition. But how was it that a company better known for its extensive fine wine portfolio was able to create such an impressive Scotch whisky?
Martin says that Tatham recruited right. He brought on board Charlie Julian, who was actually the man responsible for making Cutty Sark for Berry Bros & Rudd in 1923. It was a natural fit. Julian had some previous creating great Scotch for wine experts. “He worked with a wider palate than most master blenders,” Martin says. “Together Tatham and Julian mixed and matched over 32 whiskies to create the first J&B Rare blend. They then perfected the recipe which contained 42 whiskies, 40% of which are malts”. The exact recipe is confidential, but we know that at the heart of the blend is spirit from Knockando, Auchroisk, Strathmill, and Glen Spey, and that J&B Rare holds the remarkable distinction of retaining that same signature blend of 42 single malt and grain whiskies today.
The profile was inspired by the tastes of the new American drinker. That meant light-looking, light-tasting whisky with a higher proportion of malt whiskies to add character. “Julian ensured that the malts that were used were sufficiently aged to deliver a round, fruity, unique, and distinctive taste, which is delicately balanced by grain whiskies. This gives J&B Rare its distinctive and unexpected character”. Martin also said that the maturation process is flexible to account for taste and that the brand uses American or European oak. “I love the flexibility of selecting the flavour when it is right, not working by a number. The right cask at the right time”.
A Hollywood fixture
The secret to J&B Rare’s success, however, is not solely down to what’s inside the bottle. It’s always had an impressive look and that bottle you see today remains virtually unchanged from the 1930s. The striking red and yellow label, and retro design continue to give the whisky standout appeal on the shelves of supermarkets, bars, and retailers. But J&B Rare also became one of those brands that found its way into the limelight via famous fans and notable appearances. Martin explains Tatham’s ability to make excellent contacts in America was a key reason this happened. “J&B Rare had the reputation of being the drink of the influencers and innovators of the day and flourished in America after Prohibition. It was known to be of high quality and from a London wine merchant based in St James’s”.
It’s a whisky with a significant pop culture history. J&B Rare was something of a fixture in Italian cinema in the 1970s and appears in both John Carpenter’s The Thing and in the novel American Psycho. It scored a lucrative association with the Hollywood Rat Pack of the 1950s and ’60s. Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Sammy Davis Jnr all drank J&B, and even John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe counted themselves as fans. Martin says that, by the 1960s, J&B Rare had become “a society whisky, with colourful characters making it their whisky of preference including Hollywood greats such as Cary Grant, Rex Harrison and Truman Capote who always ordered a ‘Justerini & Brooks’ by its full name”.
J&B Rare’s appeal has seemingly always extended to royalty too, as all those warrants demonstrate. Martin says the Duke of Windsor, in particular, was a noted fan. He always travelled with a few cases of J&B Rare in his luggage and would telephone Justerini & Brooks directly to place an order. There was once an amusing mix-up with the girl taking the order, Martin says, as she didn’t recognise his voice. After announcing “Hello, it’s the Duke of Windsor. I’d like to order some J&B Rare”, her response was “I’m afraid we don’t supply public houses directly, Sir.” Martin says that Edward VIII then “graciously explained that he was the actual Duke of Windsor and not a pub of the same name!”
Standing the test of time
Stories behind brands like Famous Grouse and J&B Rare intrigue me because both are so ubiquitous. Anywhere there’s whisky, there they are. It’s a remarkable achievement and it’s one we don’t often recognize. Plenty of blends that were around in the golden age haven’t stood the test of time like the first two whiskies we’ve featured in the story behind the Scotch series. It’s a shame blends like these can still be overlooked by whisky enthusiasts gravitating to the oldest, most rare, and/or expensive bottlings they can get their hands on.
But not only does huge-selling blended whisky still very much power the Scotch industry, but many of them are also responsible for our first moments of whisky fandom. It’s easy to forget that the majority of us began our love affair with this spirit after trying stepping stone blends commonly available in corner shops, supermarkets, and award-winning online retailers (ahem). As we move into the world of single malts, age statements and start to passionately care about things like bottling strength and additional colouring our tastes change. Our palates get treated to a diverse array of whisky. But at no point should we think we’re too good for the backbone blends. And the generation of whisky lovers to come will also need accessible, affordable Scotch to join us in this wonderful world.
For anyone in the market for such a drink, I’ve long been a fan of J&B Rare and think it remains an excellent beginner whisky. It’s light, delicately sweet, and has some really beautiful fruity notes (toffee apples mostly for me). Throughout there’s also a slightly malty, rich note underneath that brings body and depth. It can be a touch immature and brash on the nose, but those rougher edges are easily soothed in an array of cocktails, where this dram really shines. It makes a fantastic Whisky Sour, I love it in Highballs (ginger ale, soda, cola – it all works) and even makes a surprisingly good Mint Julep. To show you how easy it is to enjoy this classic Scotch, I’ve popped a delightfully simple Old Fashioned recipe underneath. You can pretend you’re Frank Sinatra while you imbibe.
How to make a J&B Old Fashioned
Add one sugar cube and the Angostura Bitters to a rocks glass. Crush the sugar cube and add J&B Rare. Add ice cubes and stir, adding more ice as you go along. Garnish with a touch of orange zest and a couple of Maraschino cherries.