To the John Barr Reserve’s credit: it’s always more fun to drink something with clear highs and lows that averages out to a “meh” than something boring through and through.
The story, as far as I can tell, is that John Barr was historically a blend designed to compete neck-and-neck with Johnnie Walker, Diageo’s famous workhorse of a brand. Right down to the square bottle and labeling, where the black label of John Barr was designed to emulate, err… Black Label. In its heyday, it was never considered anything more than an also-ran kind of product, and it went gently into the night. Sometime this year or last, it got a hip replacement and was brought back in a bottle that still looks suspiciously like Johnnie Black.
What makes John Barr a little more interesting is that one of my favorite scotch guys Richard Patterson apparently had his hand in the making of the blend as part of the White and Mackay portfolio: the outfit responsible for Dalmore, Jura, Pig’s Nose, and Sheep Dip. Four products that really tend to be love-them-or-hate-them propositions.
I’d charitably call the John Barr a “Supermarket” whisky. Meaning you’d pick it as you found yourself in the liquor aisle, hands wrapped around a cart full of coffee, ice cream, cat litter, and frozen gyoza. It doesn’t compete favorably with other scotches—hell, even other blended scotches—but it’s not like you’re going to the Safeway to stock up on Single Malt. Fish tend to look bigger in small ponds.
The bad news first: this smells really strange. There’s a musty, scummy kind of leather scent that comes to the forefront. It’s how I imagine a lady’s purse might smell if left in a wet barn for a couple days.
Thankfully, the taste is rather nuanced and interesting for a blend. At first blush, there’s some copper and minerality that’s odd, but far from bad. As the whisky settles, it opens up into a lot of rich fruit, including dates (lots of dates, in fact) and apricot. There’s enough boldness and presence here that it’s sippable neat.
On the finish, we’re back to talking about this stuff in a less-glowing way. There’s vague fruit as it fades out, along with a creeping sourness that’s generic and familiar enough to be attributable to young grain whisky. At least that’s my best guess. But, give it enough time to sit, and you might get some tastes of clove, white chocolate, and maple.
It’s all up and down with this stuff. Smell it: “ugh.” Taste it: “weird,” then, “oh!” Swallow, and it’s “blah,” followed by “huh.” The John Barr Reserve works well enough as a jack-of-all-trades mixing whisky, and is interesting enough to warrant a price tag of about $20. At that level, I think it’ll gain some converts. That said, I’ve seen it marked as high as $45, which is sheer lunacy.
Would I get it again? I think I would, honestly. It’s too angular and strange for me to blindly recommend it to someone, but for the unpredictable and unexpected highs I’m willing to soldier through the lows. And the lows are familiar enough: anyone who’s had more than a few budget-priced blended scotches will be familiar with the rough edges.
Last note: if this is a direct competitor to Black Label (Johnnie Walker’s peated blend), I’d be remiss not to mention that I didn’t get much smokiness out of this stuff at all—in fact, the influence of some kind of sherry to tip the scales towards those date and prune flavors is far more pronounced.