J&B Whiskey has a long and varied history. It begins with Giacomo Justerini, the nephew of an Italian distiller, pursuing his sweetheart to London in the 16th Century, bringing with him his uncle’s liqueur recipes. It includes royal warrants bestowed upon the fledgling wine company, and the wealthy man of means Alfred Brooks who bought it in 1831, renaming the firm Justerini and Brooks. From its London base J&B made its name in the States after the abolishment of Prohibition, then took on new life in Europe, especially in Spain during the 1960s.
It’s a drink with a literary endorsement. Charles Dickens enjoyed a J&B between masterpieces and Truman Capote made it his booze of choice, only ever referring to it by its full moniker, and promptly departing from any establishment whose bartender did not immediately click that a Justerini and Brooks was the same as a J&B. Though it was, in fact, Capote who first put J&B on film in Breakfast at Tiffany’s it’s the slightly less respectable Giallo (Italian for yellow) movie genre, popular in the ‘60s and ‘70s, that made me want to track it down.
Giallo movies are not for everyone; they’re a niche chapter in Italian filmmaking—some may say a blight—but they hold a very special place in my heart and on my DVD shelf. Named after the lurid yellow-covered pulp fiction paperbacks they often took their narratives from, they promoted the two mainstays of exploitation cinema, sex and death, and wrapped them in a highly stylized, gaudy sheen that blazed from the screen. Sample titles include The Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Red Queen Must Kill Seven Times, Death Walks In High Heels, Blood and Black Lace, and, my personal favorite— most effective when shrieked in deranged befuddlement—What Have They Done to Your Daughters?
A murderer (usually suffering from some sort of psycho-sexual trauma) will, most often than not, be doing away with beautiful women. Modeling agencies, fashion houses, photography studios and all-girl schools are the lurking ground for leather-gloved killers brandishing straight razors, knitting needles and spiked clubs. The couture of 1970s Italy is paraded on screen in all its ridiculousness (with nudity never far behind) to the tune of sleazy music, gender equality is non-existent and there is always, always a bottle of J&B plunked down on the table of some fabulously shag-rugged apartment.
It took me a while to procure a bottle. Sizes range from minuscule to enormous and finding a happy medium took me all over Brooklyn and Manhattan—at one point I was questioned by a vendor why I would want something usually “just for Jersey mobsters”. Whiskey aficionados are not kind to J&B, and it’s easy to see why. Much like the movie genre they so often pop up in, there’s absolutely no subtlety; it’s a garish flavor that grabs your throat with a burning violence and each sip made me die a little. I couldn’t be happier. WILL M.