Over at The Peak of Chic, my blogging friend Jennifer Boles’s recent posts on The Duke and Duchess of Windsor had me scurrying to the bookcase to dig out the Duke’s fascinating memoir, A Family Album.
Jennifer’s post featured rare colour photographs of the Windsor’s country retreat, Le Moulin de Tuilerie, a rambling eighteenth century stone Mill house, twenty-two miles South West of Paris. Read the comments on both posts and you’ll find much hand-wringing amongst the interior design aficionados, upset by the country house clutter, dodgy furniture, relaxed technicolor mish-mash, liberal mix of styles and that infamous fitted tartan carpet. Actually, I have no shame in declaring to cyberspace that I’m rather taken by The Mill, and would have been more than happy to have been invited there for a pampered and comfortable Friday to Monday.
And the Duke’s favourite tipple? J & B Rare Scotch Whisky. Which is a good thing, as it also happens to be The Greasy Spoon’s house whisky of choice- and makes a regular appearance on the drinks tray. If you’re going to serve whisky to your guests, I would suggest stocking up on two styles. A decent single malt like the smoky, peaty Laphroaig (a favourite of the current Prince of Wales) which I would drink more or less neat, but with a splash of mineral water as an after dinner liqueur, and a more affordable, lighter blended whisky such as J & B or Cutty Sark for mixing cocktails and everyday drinking.
The history behind J & B and Cutty Sark is fascinating. Both are products of two distinguished rival British wine merchants, Justerini & Brooks (founded 1749) and Berry Brothers & Rudd (founded 1698). Both, I am delighted to report, can still to be found- almost directly opposite other in St James’s Street; and I would recommend that you take the time to enter Berry’s hallowed and panelled portals, as much for their attractive, unstuffy approach; where a timid buyer, looking for a modest bottle of white to go with their curry, will be given as much courtesy, thought and advice as the knowledgable high-roller, brandishing a black Amex and looking to stock their humidity-controlled cellars with rare cognacs, champagnes and expensive burgundies.
Both J & B and Cutty Sark were developed in the early 1930’s in direct reponse to the ending of Prohibition in America. Cocktails became fashionable as a way of disguising (and possibly hiding) bad moonshine. Or so at least, is the theory. Although I have a feeling that cocktails, like ragtime, flappers, bobbed hair and Picasso, came into being in the years just before the First World War. Anyway, the big idea was to create a light, peppery whisky, specifically for the export market: a perfect mixer in cocktails. And so the new blended whiskies enjoyed a great success abroad.
J & B became a great hit in the United States, especially when it became widely known that the Duke of Windsor drank the stuff. It’s blended from 42 different whiskies, including Knockando, Auchroisk and Glen Spey. By 1963 they were selling one million cases a year.