Reflective Tasting: a Bottle of J&B

There are drinks we try literally only a few times a year if that, one is blended Scotch whisky. Another is mescal or sometimes tequila.

These gain interest for me by being relatively rare tipples. On an ongoing basis I prefer (outside beer) bourbon, Canadian whisky, or a cocktail, often gin-based, or a Manhattan.

But occasionally I will try a Scotch whisky and usually keep one or two bottles. I started to discuss J&B on Twitter but will do a wrap here.

Years ago I investigated the principal blends, and numerous obscure ones, and decided I prefer the single malts. I still do, but bourbon, and later Canadian whisky when better offerings were available, are a more frequent choice these days. In part the price-quality ratio explains this but also a good U.S. or Canadian straight whisky offers a depth of palate I find attractive on a continual basis.

Blended Scotch, and the bulk of Canadian whisky which is also blended, are reliant on a substantial portion of intensively distilled grain whisky, and seem too light for neat sipping. They do well with soda, water/rocks, or a mix, the classic function one might say. Yet, a bottle I have of J&B is particularly good with a rounded, almost silky body and good flavour, light but with a notably smoky edge. The brand was developed some say for U.S. tastes in the wake of Repeal of Prohibition, but unusually for me I’ll elide the history to focus on palate.

Some drinks, although fairly neutral in taste, have a pleasing sensory impact, and this one does, or rather this sample does, as I find each bottle of almost any spirit differs. The variance is not great but enough so a sensitive taster can notice.

We take just a little, an ounce is enough.

Recently tasting this J&B, I was suddenly put in mind of a mescal I like, Leyenda Tlacuache Organic Mezcal. You may view the bottle at its LCBO listing. Of course the signature tastes, Scotch and mescal, differ, with quite a bit of variance in each category. Alba and agave – no obvious connections.

Yet, J&B and the Leyenda share a relatively light body and not dissimilar smoky note. The Leyenda surely is a straight spirit, all distilled I should think at under 160 proof, while the grain whiskies in J&B are high-proof, fairly mild whiskies, but still we note a connection.

I think if I drank them regularly I wouldn’t see this facet of two otherwise quite different spirits. You lose the forest for the trees, to use a well-worn but apt metaphor – very apt in the matter of Scotch whisky at least.

Drinks are less diverse than we sometimes think. Distillation is a technique, originating in China or the Middle East, that became a common patrimony in Western culture. When it started, “spirit” was the object, and classification and types came much later. Infrequent tasting shows up the original links, the common DNA.

In sum J&B proved equable on this outing, at least this bottle of it. When it is finished I will buy it again and hope the next bottle will be as good. Maybe it will be better, and therein lies the piquancy for the reflective taster.

N.B. Contrary to normal practice I selected a British half-pint glass for the whisky vs. a Waterford or other tumbler. One advantage is the thin glass presents the colour well, a kind of canary yellow, highlighted by the product label. This bottle must be 15-20 years old, so not sure of the current labeling.