The setting is brightly colored and postcard-ready. Al Pacino’s Tony Montana approaches Elvira Hancock, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, ready to make his move, ostensibly seducing her into a glamorous life with him. “Why don’t we have a couple of drinks, act normal and just take it easy, huh?” he says. She doesn’t budge, staying in her lounge chair, disinterested. “Come on. I like Scotch,” he says, and with that Elvira gets up and pours two glasses of J&B on the rocks, with the bottle a perfect complement to her emerald green one-piece swimsuit.
There are few cinematic depictions of decadence and masculine performance more wildly memorable than “Scarface,” and that bottle of J&B, which may at first appear to be of relatively little importance, places the film in a surprising pantheon. In fact, once you start noticing J&B bottles onscreen, you can’t unsee them. The green bottle with its yellow label and red text has long been one of the most ubiquitous onscreen brands, used to telegraph everything from slightly seedy luxury to down-and-out desperation.
J&B’s ubiquitous presence in the onscreen liquor cabinets of seducers, murderers and posturing sophisticates has not gone unnoticed by eagle-eyed cult film fans. A blog, aptly titled “J&B in the Movies” features over 300 such occurrences spanning decades. Iconic films like “Shampoo,” “Moonstruck,” “M.A.S.H.” and “Goodfellas” are represented, but there’s also a sizable selection of films in the blog’s “Erotica Sleaze Cannibals” category—a ragtag group of mostly European cult titles filled with gore and questionable sexual politics. If a film from the 1970s featured gratuitous nudity and stylishly tacky décor, there’s a good chance a J&B bottle might’ve been found somewhere onscreen.
The pulpy Italian thrillers of the 1960s and ‘70s, known as giallo films, have also been identified as J&B hothouses. “There have been blog posts and fan jokes for years and years about J&B in giallo, almost like a running gag,” says Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, a writer and academic specializing in cult and horror cinema. As is often the case in fandom, some giallo enthusiasts have taken to cataloging their niche observations. A user on the film-rating site Letterboxd, for instance, compiled an extensive list titled “The Ever-Present J&B in Giallo Films,” featuring such deliciously garish titles as “The Perfume of the Lady in Black,” “Strip Nude for Your Killer” and “Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key.”
While the bottle has come to symbolize adult tastes, the blended Scotch itself belies any luxurious notions. Tony Sachs, a spirits writer for the Huffington Post and Robb Report, says, “To modern-day palates, certainly, it’s a pretty lousy whisky.” While it’s still around today, and remains the fourth most popular blended Scotch in the world, per its website, J&B’s appeal is of a particular time and place. Blended whiskies are no longer as popular as they once were, and even its appearance in 1970s Italian films harkened back to an earlier era.
“There may have been other whiskies readily available when the gialli were made, but they would not necessarily have had the same connotations for the audience as the ubiquitous J&B brand,” writes Mikel Koven, in Revisiting Space: Space and Place in European Cinema. The lifestyle suggested by J&B in the 1950s—masculine and stylish—has long had a potent hold on the imagination. Koven notes that not only does J&B suggest sophistication but also a connection with “consumerist reality”; it might seem fleetingly glamorous when captured onscreen, but it’s also something one could easily go out and buy.
Since the giallo era, J&B has been featured in a wide range of films. It appears throughout the stylized thriller “Blow Out” (between this and “Scarface,” it must’ve been a staple in director Brian De Palma’s liquor cabinet) and as Kurt Russell’s drink of choice in John Carpenter’s 1982 adaptation of “The Thing,” its placement so obvious that Christian Nyby, director of the original “The Thing From Another World,” derisively called the film “a terrific commercial for J&B Scotch.” Patrick Bateman drinks it straight in “American Psycho,” continuing the drink’s frequent association with both violence and swaggering style, and it even shows up on the small screen, in both “The Sopranos” and “Mad Men.”
This is all just the tip of the cinematic J&B iceberg, though. A comprehensive list of all the films featuring J&B may well be impossible to compile, given its propensity for turning up in obscure cult films and classics alike, and its often fleeting onscreen appearances. But there’s no denying that it’s a bona fide phenomenon. In fact, film scholar Gary Needham summed it up best when he called J&B “the most plugged product in the history of European cinema.”