Amongst the stash of a gazillion miniatures, was this wee bottle of John Barr.
Now, I’d heard of this brand before. Reading through the section on Distillers Company Ltd in the fabulous Schweppes Guide to Scotch by Philip Morrice, as preparation for some of my tours, I remembered his notes on the EEC Commission ruling of 1977 which put a stop to the system of dual pricing used by the DCL at the time. Essentially, that meant that the DCL couldn’t charge a higher bond price to UK trade customers if they bought DCL’s brands to resell in other EEC countries rather than to sell them in the UK.
Obviously, it’s more complicated than that. So have a wee google or grab a copy of the book and discover all about it. But, to cut a long story short, the DCL then decided to withdraw Johnnie Walker Red Label from the UK market and John Barr, the brand, was created to fill the gap.
It looks remarkably similar with its square shaped bottle and signature across the cap. Whereas the name Johnnie or John Walker is known the whole world over, this got me thinking. Who even was John Barr? Was he even a real person or just some made up name for marketing purposes? And is this whisky, which bears his name, actually any good?
Although this miniature is from the 1970s, the John Barr range still exists today. However, it’s currently owned by Whyte & Mackay which is why you’ll see the date 1881 on today’s John Barr bottles. That refers to the date when the company was founded and not to John Barr himself.
Because, the answer to my second question is yes; John Barr was an actual person and not some made up entity for the purposes of marketing a new product.
John Barr Cumming, as far as I can find out, was born in 1895 in the Speyside town of Mortlach. His father was also called John Barr Cumming (you can see how easily these things become confusing) and his mother was Elizabeth Simpson Cumming nee Cowie.
Now, this is where is gets interesting. Elizabeth Simpson Cowie was the daughter of a certain George Cowie, who became the sole owner of Mortlach Distillery in 1865. And in 1978, it was George Cowie & Sons, then a subsidiary of the DCL, who launched the John Barr brand in the UK.
Now, this raises two further questions:
Firstly, does the John Barr on the label refer to John Barr Cumming Senior or Junior? My initial thoughts were that it must be JBC Jnr as a) it’d be more likely to name a new brand after the company’s founder’s grand-son rather than his son-in-law and b) JBC Snr was a minister and that probably precluded naming a Scotch whisky after him.
There are, however, records of other John Barr Cummings resident in Mortlach at that time so the brand itself may be named after someone else entirely!
The second question, and possibly the most important, (well done if you’ve managed to get this far!) is: does this whisky taste like Mortlach? Or is it actually good? ;-)
Here are my thoughts:
Nose: a light sherry note comes through initially; more fresh plums than dried fruit after a while in the glass; notes of red apples and fresh blackberries; not overly complex but inviting nonetheless.
Palate: huge whack of spice from the outset; very peppery with notes of fresh ginger; perhaps a much higher grain to malt ratio than the nose suggests?; the texture is quite creamy but that afterburn leaves you reaching for the Gaviscon.
Overall: the nose was lovely; the palate not so. I remember reading somewhere that this wasn't so well received when it was launched. Now I understand why.
Cheers John Barr, Whoever you are!*
* This made up slogan probably highlights why a career in Scotch whisky marketing never beckoned.
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