Whisky and Words Number 71: Sub-Jackson Blends: White Horse vs. J&B Rare (and Ballantine’s)

J&B, a practically ubiquitous blend. Note light color.

In previous posts, I compared in the Battle of the Sub-Jacksons* the blends Cutty Sark, Duggan’s Dew, Grant’s Family Reserve and Ballantine’s Finest. That is a very popular post (well, for this modest blog) garnering a few hits per day. But the sub-Jackson (under $20) category has other entrants that bear review. Today we’ll take on White Horse, a Diageo brand, and J & B Rare, another Diageo brand, and throw in Ballantine’s Finest ($19.95 locally) as a benchmark from the first sub-Jackson battle.

First off, why two Diageos? Well, they’re separated by a whopping $2, J&B being the pricier one here in Oregon at $19.95. We’d have three Diageos but Johnnie Walker Red is another $2 and breaks the Jackson barrier. Diageo really have the blended market saturated. And they have a couple 12-year blends too. More on those in a later post.

White Horse as an independent LLC was dissolved in 2010, and at this point, do not even have their own web page. If you click on the logo at the Diageo brand explorer, it goes nowhere. Not much love there. But it’s a pretty good whisky. Various sources report up to 40% of its blend is Lagavulin (though not 16 years old!) and that’s a good start. Probably some Caol Ila in there as well.

The White Horse – deep color, but likely a dose of e150 helps that.

J&B has its own website and its brand explorer page has some useful info. There we read of Giacamo Justerini (the J) and his move to the UK where he met Brooks and together with some bloke in Edinburgh, created the first commercial blended whisky. Enough of that. The key info is that J&B Rare is a blend of 42 malt whiskies, which is pretty typical of blends (for consistency). According to Diageo, it is the 4th most popular blended Scotch in the world. Diageo should know, their Johnnie Walker Red is #1. But Wikipedia says Grant’s is number 4.

The number two selling blended Scotch is Ballantine’s Finest, another reason to use it as a benchmark.

By the numbers!

We’ll start with White Horse. It has a decent nose: red apple, malt, a little smokiness, some earthy peat and finally wheat toast. It’s decently smooth with toffee and syrup, but not overdone on the sweet end. Just enough oaky tannins for a decent clean-up. The Lagavulin/Caol Isla influence is light but it’s there with the medicinal nature of the latter and also a bit of smoke from the Lagavulin. Although most folks will mix this in a cocktail, I think it’s a drinkable whisky right out of the bottle in a pinch. The finish is not long lasting, but there are some moderate tannins which hang in there for balance, and you get a bit of smoke and phenol. The main fault of this whisky is that it is a little harsh, its tannins rough around the edges. Comparing it straight up against Ballantine’s, it has met its match. Ballantine’s has about as much character (moderately sweet, less peat smoke, oak structure for balance) but it is smoother. Your preference is going to be based on smoothness versus a peatier delivery in the Horse.

The two contenders. What does the sub-$20 bottle offer?

On to Justerini and Brooks’ Rare blend. I’m not expecting much character from a blend of 40+ whiskies, and I’m not surprised. Though this is pricier than White Horse, the nose leaves me unimpressed. Not much there. Mineral peat and maybe a bit of plum? Hard to get anything out of that. On the palate, it’s more lively, leading with a good dose of honey and just short of too sweet. It has some lively pepper and vanilla and the tannins are more forward than on the White Horse. But to me it’s more of a vanilla confection than a whisky and has less character then the White Horse. I would not drink this straight. Comparing to Ballantine’s, J&B loses out again. Ballantine’s has character: a touch of peat and oaky tannins in greater abundance; just as smooth but less sweet and more structure in the oak and peat. And that’s a wrap.

White Horse, Scotch Blend, 40% ABV

Nose: Red apple, malt, a little smoky and earthy peat; wheat toast.
Palate: Fairly smooth, mostly toffee and syrup. Decent amount of oak just short of balancing that syrup. Some medicinal phenols and smoke. A touch harsh.
Finish: Lingering sweetness, remnants of oak, a bit of smoke and phenol.

J&B Rare, Scotch Blend, 40% ABV

Nose: Earthy peat, plum, hints of smoke.
Palate: Honey sweet, peppery but not harsh. Vanilla.
Finish: Hints of oak and smoke but mostly just sweet.

Bottom Line: The White Horse (sorry for this!) was the dark horse coming into this comparison, being the cheapest of the three. But critically, it has about zero advertising budget, no web page…clearly Diageo puts their money into producing the whisky, not the brand, in this case. It’s the winner over the J&B. My wife concurred, saying of the J&B “not much there” but was pleasantly surprised at the White Horse. Her old standby Ballantine’s is a smoother competitor with just enough character and flavor to hold its own against the White Horse.

And the benchmark, Ballantine’s Finest, which held up well in this comparison.

*The moniker comes from the U.S. $20 dollar bill which has the Seventh U.S. President Andrew Jackson as the portrait.

Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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