John Barr Reserve Blended Scotch

The whisky boom has had an interesting effect on dead and delinquent brands. Soaring whisky interest and demand has led to old, defunct, abandoned, or simply languishing brand names and trademarks to be reinvigorated or downright resurrected in an effort to grasp at some of that overt demand. This has lead to extinct American whisky brands like Bomberger’s Declaration and Michter’s to be re-launched (although under different ownership and without access to the original distillery). It’s also led to the rebuilding and relaunching of closed Scottish distilleries, such as the recently-announced Brora, Port Ellen, and Rosebank projects. Other brands, once relegated to the dustbin of consumer apathy, are being dusted off and re-launched with much fanfare. John Barr, once a DCL (Diageo) underperformer and now a Whyte and Mackay label, is one of those.

Created in 1978 to compensate for a legal skirmish that took Johnnie Walker Red Label off of UK store shelves, it failed to recapture even a portion of that lost market share. The label was quickly sold off during the Guinness acquisition of DCL that created Diageo in 1986, to Whyte & Mackay (via Invergordon Distillers) of Dalmore fame. Whyte & Mackay master blender and celebrity whisky personality Richard Paterson re-formulated the recipe, likely a necessity since the blend now needed to be composed of whiskies available to W&M instead of the full Diageo stable. In early 2017 the brand was re-launched with new packaging, under two expressions: John Barr Finest and a premium blend containing older malt and a smokier profile called John Barr Reserve. These are still intended to compete directly against Johnnie Walker Red Label and Black Label, respectively.

This review was suggested by a reader. I apologize in advance if I didn’t like this as much as you did… if I had not noticed the specific off-note on the finish, I probably would have appreciated the whisky a lot more considering its excellent price-point.

NOTE! This review is of the “old label” (pictured). I can’t find solid information online about whether the 2017 relaunch and new labeling is accompanied by a different blend recipe or not. If anyone has tried the old and new labels side-by-side, I’d be interested to hear your impressions!

Nose: Very slight peat (more fungal than smoky), over a mildly sweet vanilla malt. Faint rock candy and a touch of caramel. Not obviously grainy.

Palate: Mildly syrupy body. Sweet and malt-forward, with loads of baked goods (scones), caramel, and a hint of black pepper. On the tongue the grain elements are revealed, with a twinge of young grain that comes across as glue (rubber cement).

Finish: An ugly twist of industrial solvent (acetone) ruins an otherwise middling experience. The whole of the finish is swallowed up in shudder-inducing paint thinner and charcoal. Blech.

With Water: A few drops of water muddle the aroma, releasing some nondescript fruit notes but confusing the rest. No real change on the palate or finish. I would avoid the water with this one. (Also avoid ice – it does NOT help.)

Overall: Apologies to the reader who suggested this one. It has a mild, promisingly inoffensive aroma and a middling palate marred by a very common (for this price-point) grain-whisky-induced glue (or vodka-like) note. The whole thing goes down the proverbial tubes on the finish, which is entirely overwhelmed by raw grain alcohol notes and acetone. One really shouldn’t expect very much from a $23 scotch, even one blended by legendary blender Richard Paterson, but a side-by-side comparison with Bank Note (which has an actual age statement) leaves no doubt about what can be achieved even at this market segment of razor-thin margins. Maybe the $50+ “Blue Label” from John Barr is better, but I cannot in conscience recommend this one when Bank Note and even Johnnie Walker Black Label exist.

John Barr Reserve Blended Scotch
43% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $23
Acquired: (750ml bottle) Total Wine & More, San Jose, CA, $23

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9 thoughts on “John Barr Reserve Blended Scotch

  1. No offense taken. I had not actually tried John Barr when I recommended it in the comments here. A friend of mine got a bottle of this, and spoke favorably of it. But he’s something of a tightwad, so the price point probably influenced his report more than it would have for other people.

    Once I did get to try a dram, my impression was much the same as yours, with the exception that I found the experience significantly improved by the addition of water. My dram was the last one from my friend’s bottle, so perhaps some exposure to oxygen softened it to a degree.

  2. Blended scotches present a conundrum for the liquor connoisseur/reviewer. The grain whisky component makes most of them basically undrinkable neat, except for in the very highest price ranges (at which point most of us are NOT going to be shopping for blended scotch). It’s not an apples to apples comparison.

    Nonetheless, they are so popular and ubiquitous that you can’t really ignore them either – since that prized single malt you fell in love with may not always be available (or affordable). So you have to at least be familiar with the major offerings. And it looks like Whyte & Mackay are betting heavily on John Barr, since it’s become so widely available in so many places so quickly.

    1. I think Jamie’s first paragraph (“Blended scotches present…) is very well put, and I think it puts the lie to the idea that most blends “aren’t worse, just different” – which is one of the few areas where I have serious disagreement with Ralfy. I guess I understand “blend marks vs. malt marks” in the sense that the two are different products, and differently constituted, but so are Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig and we compare them all the time. I think it’s pretty telling that you can easily improve most blends by adding single malt, but that improvement is seldom even attempted the other way around. I’ve tasted many a blend and thought “this needs more malt” but no malts and thought “this needs more blend”.

      1. I really wish it were possible to know the ratio of malt/grain in blends. My hunch is the Johnnie Walker Black is around 40/60 at most. I’d be surprised if John Barr Reserve was greater than 20/80.

      2. We agree on this point. I’ve had a number of really very good single-grain whiskies, but they were all “old” (for grain), ditto for blended-grain whiskies (like Hedonism). I’ve also had a number of very good blends, but the vast majority of them are either high in malt percentage, or contain old grain. Even my “go to” example of a good blend: Bank Note 5-year likely has a higher-than-normal-for-the-price malt percentage. The rule of thumb seems to be: If you need to add young (cheap) grain whisky to your blend in order to hit your target price-point, you’re necessarily reducing the quality of your product.

  3. Ah, so that’s the story with this thing! I was wondering why it was suddenly on the shelves everywhere.

    I tried to order a JW Black at a tavern the other day, thinking it’d be the best whisky I could expect them to have. Their answer: “We don’t have that, but we have another one that’s equivalent. John Barr.” My decision: “Thanks, but I’ll just have an IPA.” Sounds like that was a good decision.

    1. I predict that W&M will sell a lot of this, since they’re making a lot of it and pricing it competitively. Will be interesting to see if they actually succeed in taking a significant bite out of Johnnie Walker’s enormous global sales volume.

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