Friday, August 22, 2014

It's Time for Jim Beam to Drop the Number One Bourbon Claim


I like the Beam Suntory company very much. I like the people and most of their products.They are an outstanding operation. They do things the right way and they are very successful. They are truthful and reasonably open. They have been a leader and innovator and respectful participant in the bourbon business, and you know how much I love bourbon.

It is because I have so much respect and affection for them that I am making this suggestion.

Please stop claiming that Jim Beam is the world's #1 bourbon. It's not. You are bragging about a technicality. It's embarrassing.

As most readers can guess, I'm saying this because Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey is bourbon in all but name. It is made like bourbon and tastes like bourbon. Even their acclaimed charcoal mellowing really just jump-starts the barrel aging process. It is a point of difference but not a very big one, objectively. It has more to do with marketing than with the product itself.

Jack Daniel's is the world #1 bourbon and trending toward becoming the world's #1 whiskey, spilling Johnnie Walker from that throne.

Although they were fairly close in sales for many years, Jack Daniel's has pulled away from Jim Beam decisively. Daniel's sells about 60 percent more whiskey than Beam. They're not even close. Beam is doing fine. It has grown and is growing, and is an equally dominant #2. Evan Williams is third.

As people around the world discover American whiskey they will drink Jack and Jim and find them very similar. They will ask, "what's the difference between bourbon and Tennessee whiskey?" We will sound silly when we try to explain. The least silly explanation is the truest one. It's a marketing thing. Tennessee whiskey is bourbon that's made in Tennessee. They don't call it bourbon because bourbon is so closely associated with Kentucky.

This matters because bourbon is competing for share-of-mouth against a wide variety of beverages, alcoholic and not, but it competes most directly against other whiskeys. Classifying whiskeys by their place of origin works because each country, for the most part, produces a different style of whiskey. Among whiskeys, bourbon is the most distinctive because most other nations make whiskey from malted barley in a style that inevitably resembles scotch. The other exception would be Canada, which takes elements from both the Scottish and American styles. Japanese whiskey has emerged as a distinctive style, although it is still very close to scotch. Irish whiskey still struggles to distinguish itself from scotch, which is not to say the Irish don't make fabulous whiskey.

I don't expect Jim Beam to suddenly start crowing "We're Number Two." Nor do I expect Jack Daniel's to claim its primacy, except perhaps to say it is the world's most popular American-made whiskey, which doesn't have the same zip. I just want Beam Suntory to think about it, and maybe look for something else to hang their hat on, realizing that the cat is out of the bag.

27 comments:

EllenJ said...

>> "I don't expect ... Jack Daniel's to claim its primacy, except perhaps to say it is the world's most popular American-made whiskey, which doesn't have the same zip."

If using the term "whiskey" instead of "bourbon" doesn't have the same zip (and I agree with that view", then why doesn't Brown Forman simply use the term bourbon - even Tennessee Bourbon - on Jack's label and be done with it? My guess is that no matter what their marketing department claims about its production (as if they cared), it can't use the term "bourbon" because it ain't. Despite unfounded claims to the contrary (and promoted by spirits writers who should know better), it's also not STRAIGHT whiskey, Tennessee or otherwise. Maybe Suntory should INCREASE the "We're No.1" schtick by simply saying, "We're the No.1 straight bourbon whiskey in the world". Which they are, and which they will probably remain until Jack Daniel's actually has TTB documentation that qualifies it as straight whiskey.

By the way, George Carlin used to say that back when we were in school No.1 and No.2 were NOT things one wanted be called :))

Rob K said...

Jack tastes like sweet maple soot to me, not like bourbon.

Anonymous said...

What are the rankings beyond the top three? I would guess maybe Wild Turkey and Makers Mark.

Jeremy said...

If Brown Forman uses a different descriptor for Jack Daniel’s for marketing purposes, isn’t it basically “all in the game” for Jim Beam to use “#1 bourbon” for marketing purposes?

Anonymous said...

I thought the Lincoln County Process was considered adding flavor, violating the requirement that Bourbon have no flavor addition. True?

Sam Komlenic said...

I don't find it embarrassing at all.

Until Jack Daniel's label includes the word "bourbon" I am perfectly satisfied with Jim Beam calling itself number one in that category.

I'm also not sure why you feel it's your place to be calling Beam out on this. Shouldn't it be a matter for Brown-Forman if they feel Beam is misrepresenting the issue? Have they ever said a word on the subject?

If so, it's their problem and they'll surely handle it. If not, I'm content to let sleeping dogs lie and not try to provoke a dogfight neither is interested in.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I expressed an opinion, Sam, same as you.

Anonymous said...

Chuck,

How could Beam drop this from the label without customers misunderstanding? People will think that they lost the rank.

Michael

Chuck Cowdery said...

I do not expect Jack Daniel's or Jim Beam to change anything. Mostly I'm trying to explain that, really and truly, the number one bourbon in the world is Jack Daniel's.

Anonymous said...

But, the first step in Jack is draining it through charred MAPLE wood. Think maple syrup comes from maple trees and i.s sweet. Split maple wood smells good and way different than split oak. Nerver heard of oak syrup. So Jack will alway have a way different flavor from bourbon given it picks up maple syrup flavors ab initio.

Mike in western NY said...

Jack Daniels went out of its way to differentiate its product, and doesn't want the bourbon label. I think that as long as Jack Daniels refuses to acknowledge that it is bourbon Jim Beam should feel more than justified in its claim as #1.

Oliver Klimek said...

Jack Daniel's may be filtered through maple charcoal but in the end it is just charcoal. Any charcoal tastes the same, regardless what wood it is made from: of nothing. Try licking a piece when you light up your next barbecue.The point of charcoal is to have carbon in the purest possible form. And charcoal filtration is not about adding something but about removing something.

Anonymous said...

If Jack Daniels doesnt use the term 'straight whiskey' does that mean it isnt?
Could Jack Daniels be using colors, flavours etc in its product?

I have no idea, just wondering.

Chuck Cowdery said...

No and no. Jack Daniel's is made exactly like straight bourbon in every respect.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I suppose JD could do certain things because it doesn't call itself straight bourbon, but it doesn't, and now it really can't because of the law Tennessee passed in 2013. Now JD is required to meet all of the standards for straight bourbon, as is every other product that wants to call itself 'Tennessee Whiskey.'

Anonymous said...

Every time I read when someone writes that Maple Charcoal is adding flavor and therefore causes Jack to be something other than Bourbon, I want to hit 'em in the face with a shovel... Chuck's smooth face shovel

Chuck Cowdery said...

Education is a job that is never finished.

Anonymous said...

I believe Prichards was grandfathered in....and is exempt from the 2013 Tenn law.

Chuck Cowdery said...

That's correct.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Now Prichard's can proudly proclaim that it is the only Tennessee whiskey that isn't a Tennessee whiskey.

Chuck Cowdery said...

But is it a bourbon?

Mark Fleetwood said...

"Now Prichard's can proudly proclaim that it is the only Tennessee whiskey that isn't a Tennessee whiskey."
Priceless!

Chuck Cowdery said...

Our good friend down under, Chris Middleton, had trouble posting this comment so I am posting it on his behalf.
____________

Technically, charcoal filtered bourbon is rectified whiskey.

Even Harvey Wiley, the architect of the Pure Food Act, those family was Indiana distillers described charcoal filtered whiskey as artificially rectified back in 1903. He wanted ‘redistilled whisky’, ‘rectified whisky’ and ‘neutral whisky’ to be called ‘imitation whisky’. Until the Taft decision in 1910, this issue was not satisfactorily resolved.

Jack Daniel’s whiskey has never been described as bourbon, never will be, nor should be. Before Prohibition, it was sometimes called straight whiskey to differentiate it from blended whiskey that dominated the market. Wiley would have been surprised by this claim. From 1941, it was permitted to be labelled Tennessee whiskey as the charcoal rectification process was deemed by the Government analyst in Washington DC to be a significantly different in the production process resulting in a discernible difference in ‘organoleptic qualities.’ This sensory differentiation is something the State committee investigating Tennessee nomenclature should bear in mind as being a historical and substantial attribute of what has defined Tennessee whiskey in America and globally.

Always whisky , Chris

Anonymous said...

Isn't Evan Williams Black Label charcoal filtered?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Many brands put 'charcoal filtered' on their label, in imitation of Jack Daniel's. Jim Beam Green Label is another one. Is it true? The whiskey is indeed filtered through a medium that includes charcoal, but it's a very different process. The Tennessee process involves a huge amount of charcoal and happens before aging. What Evan Williams does is chill filtering to eliminate harmless substances that cause chill haze. Jack Daniel's does this too as do most whiskey producers. Only a little bit of charcoal is involved but it's still charcoal filtered. This is another example of how most producers try to mislead you, at least a little.

Bob Papadopoulos said...

But wait. Doesn't the legal definition for bourbon say that bourbon's only flavour additives are those that come from being aged in charred oak barrels? Jack Daniels, on the other hand, is dripped through maple charcoal. Seems like if anything it's the bourbon makers' rules that put up the potential wall.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Filtering is a subtractive process, not additive, and not prohibited by the rules that define bourbon. Although the process isn't exactly the same, most bourbons are charcoal filtered too.