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."

It wasn't.

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.


Lazer said...

I wasn't sure if I would put this on my shopping list, but now that I see they made the extra effort to go with the screw cap, I'm putting it at the top of the list. Right next to EC barrel proof and RR single barrel.

Redneck Scotch said...

Thanks for all your work, Chuck. I prefer screw caps because the whole house doesn't have to hear me uncorking another pour. With good ole screw caps, I am the bourbon ninja!

Wade said...

So now Deerfield welcomes me back?

sam k said...

Ninja, that's funny...I've felt the same way myself on many an occasion!

Anonymous said...


Will the brandy-finished bourbon need to be labeled a "blended bourbon" given the presence of other non-bourbon spirits in the bottle?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Blended bourbon is a mix of different kinds of whiskey, or neutral spirit, which is at least 51% straight bourbon. This isn't a blend, it's a flavor additive, so it's classified as "straight bourbon with ..." In this case, the 'with' is Spanish Brandy. It's the same classification as Red Stag or Maker's 46. The difference is one of quantity. In the case of the blended bourbon, the 'other stuff' is up to 49%. In this case, the 'other stuff' is probably less than 2%.

Anonymous said...

Richnimrod said;
Thanx Chuck. I always look forward to your 'new product reports'. In this case, I will also (for the first time since Knob Creek was introduced) eagerly look forward to tasting something new from Beam. Here's Hoping!

Dolph_Lundgren said...

The Spanish Brandy additive is very interesting. At WhiskeyFest, I was roaming around with a distiller and we stopped at the Spanish Brandy table. It was simply amazing - thick mouthfeel, creamy and sweet - amazing stuff (the 12 blew out the 50yr old Cognac on the next table). My distiller buddy also loved the Brandy and I could see the gears turning in his head. I feel like the flavor profile would compliment Bourbon tremendously and I hope this new trend gains some traction. I'm def looking forward to trying the Beam.

Lazer said...

I forgot to mention, if anybody cares, I'm staying away from the brandy and just going for the 12 year old.

Wade said...

On the dark side, I tend to like sherry finished scotches. Recently I purchased a bottle of 21 YO oloroso sherry. I add just a little bit to standard bottling Glenmorangie and voila now I have Glenmorangie LaSanta. It takes very little; like 30 to 1 ratio.

weller_tex said...

I had a couple of bottles of the Port Beam in Oz. It was very good stuff. Will certainly given the new stuff a whirl.

I am really looking forward to the 12 year Beam as well. Sounds like really good stuff.

As always Chuck, thanks for giving a balanced view of beam.

Anonymous said...

I suppose one man's 'balanced view' article is another's 'puff piece'. Brandy finished bourbon is just a cocktail in a bottle. I'll pass. I can make my own concoctions.

Anonymous said...

I guess I’ll go ahead and be the first to say the obvious. Yes, I think Jim Beam did cut corners by going with an insipid plastic screw cap. Do screw caps technically provide a better seal than a cork? Probably, but I really don’t care. The traditionalist in me LOVES to see a corked top on a premium bottle of bourbon. To me, one of the best sounds in the world is the distinctive sound of a cork being pulled from a special bottle of whiskey.

And for the record, one of my favorite places to drink a dram of whiskey is front of a cheery fireplace, which I also know doesn’t provide the most efficient form of heating, but I don’t care about that trivial fact either.

EllenJ said...

I don't know who the two(?) "Anonymous"es are (hey dudes/dudettes, why not identify yourselves?), but I totally agree with both of them.

Anonymous #1: Yup! I have bottles of very good brandy, some of it Spanish. I can't see why I'd mix any of them with Jim Beam white label. I might mix 'em with Knob Creek Single Barrel; THAT would be pretty d@#n good, in fact I'll probably try just that this evening. But that's not what this pre-mixed bottling is made from, is it? I can think of lot's of “bourbon + something” else mixtures that would taste good (certainly better than Beam white label all by itself), and if someone were to gift me with such a bourbon (the only way I'd have one, since I wouldn’t ordinarily go out and BUY one), I think that would be an excellent thing to do with it. In fact, adding cherry brandy wouldn't be so bad, either. But I can't see buying someone else's pre-bottled, but lesser, version.

Anonymous #2: If I wanted the "most efficient" liquor I wouldn't even be drinking whiskey. Whiskey is arguably the LEAST efficient alcohol beverage one could ever obtain. GNS, blended with flavoring agents (uh, can you say "Crown Royal"?) is far more efficient as a drink one can sip. And 195-proof Everclear (diluted to a strength that won't cause mouth blisters and, incidentally, death) will get you drunk a whole lot faster. But what we, as bourbon drinkers, prefer ARE the inefficiencies. That's where the congeners come from. That's where the cross-contamination from wood that we call maturing comes from. And many of us enjoy the more visual and less structural "inefficiencies", such as a lovely bottle, an old-fashioned-looking ornate label, and, yes -- certainly yes -- a cork.

weller_tex said...

"Anonymous #1: Yup! I have bottles of very good brandy, some of it Spanish. I can't see why I'd mix any of them with Jim Beam white label. I might mix 'em with Knob Creek Single Barrel; THAT would be pretty d@#n good, in fact I'll probably try just that this"

Certainly that's your prerogative.
That being said, it does not make Chuck's post a puff piece. He spends the first part of the article pointing out how Beam screwed up..and like I said, believe it or not the Port + Beam is good stuff, and I expect the Sherry + Beam is as well. One may not agree with the statement but it doesn't make this a puff piece.

I bet if BT or Parker's Heritage released something released something like that as part of a limited edition, the whiskey blogs and forums would go nuts for how great and innovative it is..

Carlton said...

weller_tex, you are spot on about BT and Parker's Heritage. For whatever reason, a number of self-professed bourbon experts won't accept the fact that Beam (and Brown-Forman for that matter) can and does make a good product.

I don't view Chuck's post as a "puff piece" in any respect.

EllenJ said...

weller_tex, it was actually Anon#1's statement that "Brandy finished bourbon is just a cocktail in a bottle... I can make my own concoctions" that I was supporting. I certainly DON'T consider Chuck's article a "puff piece". My point (and Anon#1's I suspect) is that bourbon is a stand-alone product, and while there is nothing "wrong" with mixing it with other ingredients as a cocktail, the days of Heublein's pre-mixed atrocities are something from far in the past. Well at least they WERE until recently.

The point that both you and Carlton make is a very good one. That is, “…if BT or Parker's Heritage released something like that as part of a limited edition, the whiskey blogs and forums would go nuts for how great and innovative it is..” and “…a number of self-professed bourbon experts won't accept the fact that Beam (and Brown-Forman for that matter) can and does make a good product”. I hope Carlton wasn’t referring to me, as I am a big supporter of Jim Beam products (Knob Creek, for example) and in fact Chuck and I had a somewhat heated discussion (long ago on a forum far away) about Beam’s Distiller’s Masterpiece and its legitimacy. I took the pro-Beam part on that one. As for BT’s Experimentals or Parker’s Heritage, I totally agree with you as to how the blogs and forums would treat such a thing. That doesn’t mean I agree with it, though. I don’t deny the advantages of adding honey syrup to bourbon to create a product such as American Honey. Nor to adding sweet vermouth, cherry flavoring, and 20% whiskey to GNS and bottling the result as a Heublein Manhattan. I just believe I can make a better Manhattan myself. And I THINK that’s all that Anon#1 said. I don’t think I’d even LIKE a bourbon-sherry cocktail made with Parker’s Heritage; what a waste of a great bourbon that would be. Even the best sherry could only detract from the existing bourbon product. If Beam wants to market a sherry/bourbon cocktail using real bourbon, even three or four year old bourbon, that’s fine. I was (and am) only agreeing with a commenter that I (meaning you) could do better mixing our own with our own ingredients.

Not being of the “cocktailian” mentality, the mere fact that we were inspired to image such a thing says a lot about how effective Chuck’s article was. I would hardly call that a puff piece.

weller_tex said...

" was actually Anon#1's statement that "Brandy finished bourbon is just a cocktail in a bottle... I can make my own concoctions" that I was supporting. I certainly DON'T consider Chuck's article a "puff piece"

Guess I thought you were agreeing with all his apologies. If it is just a small amount of Port or Sherry I really don't see how it is different than MM46 ot other finished products. I really did not know what to expect when I tried the Port + Beam in Australia but bourbon selection is real limited down there..I was very pleasantly surprised.

SKOERPER said...

Hm. The front label of the 12-years-old reads "BOURBON WHISKEY AGED FOR 12 YEARS". Is there any reason why they do not write "KENTUCKY STRAIGHT Bourbon Whiskey", the term they are so proud of?

Anonymous said...

12 yr is not new for beam. They did it extensively in decanters. Even 180-200 months.

Of course it was 35-45 years ago.

Anonymous said...

Let's face it. The spirits industry could care less whether fine single malts or bourbons retain their decades old standards of identity, ergo the marketing of the word "finished" which has no legal meaning whatever. Bourbon per se must be stored (aged) in new charred barrels, period. I know this has been argued elsewhere but any storage - for even a short time - in any wood counts.

The industry came up with clever evasion of trying to promote "finishing" (storage in say ex-sherry barrels) as somehow not being storage as per the law, and somehow different than aging. This bastardization seems to have continued when many consumers - well duped and trained - are now ready to accept the addition of brandy itself (not just the ex-barrel) as still being a kind of bourbon.

In the view of some, this is simply a redefinition of the F-word: finishing now is flavoring, a clever way of selling what should be labeled as "bourbon flavored with brandy", under the regs for flavored spirits.

Such is life. Drink on...

Chuck Cowdery said...

You can't unring a bell. Once it's bourbon, you can't unbourbon it. If you do something to bourbon, then it becomes 'bourbon and' or 'bourbon with.' The bourbon component is still bourbon.