Though there are hundreds of well-known Scotch whisky brands in business today, few have influenced the cultural landscape like J&B Rare. Beloved
Though there are hundreds of well-known Scotch whisky brands in business today, few have influenced the cultural landscape like J&B Rare. Beloved by the Rat Pack during its heyday, the blended Scotch came to be one of the ultimate symbols of glamour, sophistication, and success.
Not only is it adored by consumers around the world, but has enjoyed a very special place in pop culture for decades. As a popular prop in everything from gangster movies of the ‘80s to post-millennium TV dramas, J&B Rare has attracted a significant cult following that is still going strong today.
The History of J&B Rare
The J&B Rare story began with a tale of unrequited love when master distiller Giacamo Justerini fell for soprano opera singer Margherita Bellini, and followed her from Italy to England in 1749. Armed with a number of recipes for liqueurs created by his father, he ultimately didn’t win Margherita’s heart. But he did end up meeting his future business partner George Johnson, forming the wine merchants Johnson & Justerini. In 1831, Alfred Brooks purchased Johnson’s half of the company, renaming it Justerini & Brooks.
The business tasked Andrew Usher, the first person to commercially produce whisky, with creating a new smooth blend. He unveiled J&B Club with the help of his business partner James Anderson, and the pair went on to acquire Justerini & Brooks in 1899.
J&B Rare was created specifically for the American market and developed during Prohibition. The product almost never came to be after the director of Justerini & Brooks, Eddie Tatham, was arrested at Grand Central Station carrying a briefcase full of samples. Upon bail, he met Charlie Julian, a master blender for brands including Chivas Regal. Together they started producing J&B Rare, introducing the whisky in 1936—three years after Prohibition had ended.
Hoping to appeal to US consumers, they took inspiration from American rye whiskey, hence J&B’s straw-gold body and light, delicate character. The fruity concoction is comprised of 42 single malt and grain whiskies, expressing hints of barley sugar and dry wood.
Now, the blended Scotch is one of the top ten best-selling whiskies in the world, shifting a whopping 3.4 million cases in 2017. Outside of the US, the brand is particularly popular in France, Spain, and South Africa.
J&B Rare in Popular Culture
The Rat Pack
The beverage made it into the hands of America’s Rat Pack thanks to distributor Abe Rosenberg, who, with Tatham, decided to move bottles beyond New York to places like New Orleans, Palm Springs, and—most importantly—Las Vegas. Speaking to Master of Malt, writer Damian Barr explained that Rosenberg would send “half a gallon of J&B” to a star’s Vegas dressing room. “Apparently he was trying to give away up to 1,000 cases of Scotch every single year.”
Perhaps the biggest fan was Dean Martin, who is now almost synonymous with a bottle of J&B Rare. So much was his love for a good Scotch, he was rarely seen on stage or television without a glass in his hand. He exaggerated this act by slightly slurring his speech, missing his cues, and occasionally “forgetting” the lyrics to his songs. When J&B Rare became an American favourite, Martin would often have a bottle on stage to top up his glass throughout the show.
Film and Television
It’s thought that this association with the Rat Pack is what drove the brand to be regularly incorporated into movies. In fact, film scholar Gary Needham believes the Scotch is “the most plugged product in the history of European cinema”.
The striking green bottle with its yellow label was most commonly a prop in Italian giallo films of the 1970s, which generally speaking are crime movies with elements of murder-mystery. Being present in at least 40 of these films meant J&B started to become associated with sex, violence, and other adult tastes, and the bottle then cropped up in a number of other genres. The J&B in the Movies blog highlights over 300 appearances, including horror movies like Rosemary’s Baby and Child’s Play, as well as gangster flicks like Scarface and Goodfellas. More recently, J&B has been used in television shows that share similar themes of power and masculinity, such as The Sopranos and Mad Men.
J&B Rare’s Continued Appeal
As well as being a symbol of luxury, Mikel Koven, writer of Revisiting Space: Space and Place in European Cinema, notes that J&B also has a connection with “consumerist reality”. While it appears glamorous on screen, it is also something that can be bought by the everyday consumer and is all the more appealing for it.
Thanks to its initial Hollywood glamour fanbase, J&B is very much seen as a product of a specific time and place that even films of the ‘70s were looking back to. Though blended Scotch is no longer as fashionable as it once was, with single malts now generally more popular, J&B’s allure hinges on its ability to transport drinkers to an era of swagger and sophistication.
Following 21 years of J&B Rare being distributed by Diageo, Justerini & Brooks decided to retake control of its UK distribution in May 2018 in a bid to grow the fanbase to include a new generation of drinkers.