Sunday, May 5, 2013
How Craft Is the New Jim Beam Signature Craft Series?
About 20 years ago, Jim Beam came out with a bourbon called Jacob’s Well, named for family patriarch Jacob Beam and the spring at his first Kentucky distillery. In advertising, they said it was, "the First Micro-Distilled Bourbon."
Jacob’s Well Bourbon was made in the same big stills at Jim Beam as white label and everything else. Maybe you could call it ‘micro-bottled,’ because they never sold very much of it, but calling it ‘micro-distilled’ wasn't just an adroit turn of phrase, it was a lie. They could, conceivably, have made it on a small still, but they didn’t. There was nothing ‘micro-distilled’ about it.
Someone took to the then-very-small online bourbon community, on a service called Prodigy and another called CompuServe, and blew the whistle. Beam was very angry at the whistleblower, who was estranged from Deerfield for many years. Today, everyone who was there then is gone. By their nature, big corporations have short memories. It’s better for business.
A few years ago, Beam was suddenly bitten by the new products bug. Beam recently unveiled its Global Innovation Center near the Jim Beam distillery at Clermont, Kentucky, where they develop new Beam company products for the world. Two such products for the U.S. market were announced last month, although they won't be in stores until late summer. They represent the debut of an ultra-premium Jim Beam line extension called Jim Beam Signature Craft. (Previewed here in February.)
Much as the word ‘micro-distilled’ was used 20 years ago to remind people of the then-nascent micro-brewing industry, the word ‘craft’ is meant to evoke the currently-nascent craft distilling industry. This time, Beam isn’t being so clumsy. You don't have to be little to be craft, they argue. Big producers can do ‘craft’ projects too.
So how craft is Jim Beam Signature Craft?
The first two products in the new line are a 12-year-old, 43% ABV straight bourbon, and a 43% ABV straight bourbon finished with Spanish brandy. As ultra-premiums go they're a good value at about $40 a bottle. Both are to start appearing in stores in August. Assuming it sells, the 12-year-old will be a permanent product while the brandy-finished bourbon is a one-off. The plan is to debut a different one-off in August of 2014, and so on. The ‘signature’ of the title is Fred Noe’s.
Noe and company have done an excellent job choosing and managing the barrels they reserve for the 12-year-old. The whiskey is not a bit over-wooded. It is right where a 12-year-old bourbon should be, wood dominant on just the right side of the tipping point; rich with caramel, vanilla, and oak; but without much soot or smoke. Here the ‘craft’ is primarily in wood management and barrel selection, both of which are done exceptionally well.
The brandy-finished bourbon is unusual because it is not, as one might assume, brandy barrel finished. It is finished by the addition of a very small amount of actual brandy. Beam has long sold a product in Australia that is a bourbon finished with port. This is the same idea. It works very well. Much like the wood finish used for Maker’s 46, the brandy provides a grace note. Although it is an added flavor, it doesn't overpower the whiskey like the cherry flavoring in Red Stag arguably does. The craft here is in the finish itself, selecting the brandy and adding just the right amount, and in selecting the best bourbon for the pairing. Again, it’s a job well done. The stuff is delicious.
Beam got the packaging right too. The bottles are very sensual in the hand and I commend Beam for going with a simple plastic screw cap instead of cork. Corks have become ubiquitous in high-end spirits, even though they confer not a single benefit and are inferior in terms of seal, plus they can break down and taint the whiskey. Corks and high proof spirits just aren't a good combination, but there will be dopes who will complain that Beam ‘cheaped out’ by going with screw caps. They'll be wrong. It is a bold, elegant, and appropriate choice.
Beam also deserves credit for saying, in their promotion materials, that both products should be enjoyed neat or on-the-rocks. They declined to provide any cocktail recipes. They can't hold out forever, the cocktailian pressure is too great, but we appreciate the sentiment.
Another iconic Kentuckian, Muhammad Ali, famously said that, "the man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life." Wise man. Whiskey fans love whiskey because it’s real. It has real flavor and real history, and it’s a sturdy enough platform to support wild experimentation. Marketers will always find reasons to spin. They just have to remember that bourbon drinkers are (mostly) grown-ups. We can handle the truth.