...where distraction is the main attraction.

Monday, February 24, 2014

3 Beams (aka The 4, 6, and 8 year old Beam Bourbon Taste Off)

This past week, Diving for Pearls received some very generous recognition by The Savory.  Thank you, Ross.  To quote Jack Benny, "I don't deserve this award, but I have arthritis and I don't deserve that either."

And how do I respond to an honoring of this Scotch blog?  By posting about bourbon, of course.  Ah, bourbon: the whisk(e)y with which I have the second least experience.  (Canadian whisky, don't you get comfortable either.)

A couple weeks ago, I reviewed a Beam-era Old Taylor 6 year old bottled in 1996.  Since then I picked up minis (always the best representation of a whisky <---sarcasm) of Jim Beam White Label and Jim Beam Black Label.  I was going to do this Taste Off in May, but I was much too excited to wait...

Sorry, I'll stop the sarcasm.  I get very little pleasure out of Beam's American whiskey products.  Beam produces some of the best single malts in Scotland, but I have considerable difficulty unearthing joy while drinking their bourbons.

But I did sort of like the Beam-era Old Taylor 6 year old, so it raised my hopes.  Was I warming up to Beam?  Or is Beam's current bourbon different than their older stuff?  As mentioned, the Old Taylor was bottled in 1996, thus the youngest bourbon in its mix was distilled in 1990.  The White Label was bottled in October 2013 (per the bottle code), so its youngest ingredient was distilled in 2009.  The Black Label was also bottled in October 2013 (per the bottle code), its youngest ingredient would have been distilled in 2005.

Jim Beam White Label (4 years old) - I'm going to shift keys for a moment.  Twelve years ago, someone very close to me died younger than he should have and I have considerable reason to believe that Jim Beam White Label was one of the lead culprits.  So, I have a very primal reaction when I see handles of JB White Label on sale for $19.99.  Whether this has influenced my own very negative opinion of the bourbon itself can be debated.  But it has been a long time since I've tried the stuff.

Old Taylor 6 years old (bottled 1996) - Here's my post from February.  I liked the bourbon.  Had it had any sort of finish, I would have liked it even more and would've felt comfortable recommending it to you all.  Yet, at $4 for a 200mL (if you can find this particular bottling) it's not a stressful expenditure.

Jim Beam Black Label (8 years old) - This is what I drink on planes.  Seriously, United Airlines seems to have this in their carts all the time.  But due to the heavy vibrations, air pressure changes, and low humidity, air travel has kept me from fully experiencing the whiskey.  This is my first time drinking it at sea level.

Here are the fighters:

Owner: Beam, Inc
Brand: Jim Beam White Label
Distillery: Jim Beam Distillery
Location: Clermont, Kentucky
Mash Bill: Standard 15% rye (probably)
Age: minimum 4 years old
ABV: 40% ABV
Bottle year: 2013

Owner: Beam, Inc. at time of bottling, but now owned by Sazerac
Brand: Old Taylor
Distillery: Jim Beam Distillery
Location: Clermont, Kentucky
Mash Bill: Standard 15% rye (probably)
Age: minimum 6 years old
ABV: 40% ABV
Bottle year: 1996

Owner: Beam, Inc
Brand: Jim Beam Black Label
Distillery: Jim Beam Distillery
Location: Clermont, Kentucky
Mash Bill: Standard 15% rye (probably)
Age: minimum 8 years old
ABV: 43% ABV
Bottle year: 2013

All of these were sampled neatly in Glencairns glasses.  As a change of pace, the notes are shown list-style to allow for easier comparison.

Color - Light gold
Nose - Wet clay hits first, then a lot of rye spice.  Then charred oak, tree bark, Bit O'Honey, and stale peanuts.  Gave it some time......minty candy canes and an odd farmy note.
Palate - The clay, stale peanuts, and Bit O'Honey carry right over.  There's a lot of yeast in here.  Then creamed corn, rye seeds, more of that bland peanut thing, and charred corn on the cob.
Finish - Very drying.  Generic barrel char, polenta, and a hint of the Bit O'Honey.  Salty and tart.

Color - Medium gold
Nose - Candied nail polish at first.  Then it recovers with vanilla extract, corn, baked bananas, and young rum.  Then there's butterscotch, caramel chews, pencil shavings, and a hint of maple syrup.  The vanilla and caramel explodes over time.
Palate - Mellow.  Toffee, corn syrup (but not sweet), vanilla, taffy, caramel, and white bread toast.  Some barley too, strong enough to make it seem like there's some blended Scotch in the mix.  That ABV leaves the texture a little on the thin side.  But it's very drinkable.
Finish - Sweetness kicks in more here.  Hint of sea salt, a little of the taffy.  But overall, brief.

Color - Dark(ish) gold
Nose - Bit O'Honey again.  Fresh peanuts this time.  Cherry syrup and corn syrup.  Minty and piney rye notes give way to burnt oak.  A hint of molasses.  The farmy note is more pleasant here than it is in the White Label.
Palate -  A lot of that minty rye.  Bit O'Honey, again.  A little salt, vanilla, hint of lemon, and peanut dust left at the bottom of the bag.  Thoroughly inoffensive.  It's denser than the previous two, perhaps thanks to those extra three ABV points.
Finish - Shortish, though longer than the 6yo.  Oak shows up the most here as char and bark.  Subtle notes of corn, caramel, and vanilla.

But then, a twist...

I fashioned each of these into mini highballs.  Southern California never had a winter after an extensive summer, so I'm always on the lookout for a good bourbon & soda.

As highballs:

JB White Label
Nose - Clay, Bit O'Honey, peanuts. Again.
Palate - Peanuts in caramel.......but then something unpleasant.  Rotten peanuts and plaster?
Finish - Very aggressive, unfortunately.

OT 6 year old
Nose - Maple syrup.  Oloroso?!  Elmer's glue.
Palate - Toffee and caramel.  Vanilla with a hint of citrus.
Finish - Stays plain, but doesn't offend. Though there's something kind of phenolic floating around.

JB Black Label
Nose - Baby powder, sawdust, peanut brittle, and creamed corn.
Palate - Nice and even.  Lightly sweet.  Creamiest of the three.  Vanillas and caramels.  So this is what I'm not tasting on the plane!
Finish - A little peppery spice creeps in to meet the vanilla.


Firstly, the two current Beams are definitely related.  The rye is so much louder in them than the '90ish Old Taylor.  The Black and White have those oft-repeated peanut and Bit O'Honey notes, which are totally absent from the Old Taylor.  Is this due to a change in mashbill?  Beam certainly doesn't leak this sort of information easily, so if anyone knows more, please share.

Next, White Label wasn't as bad as I'd anticipated.  I was ready to exercise the expanse of my 100 point rating system, but that won't be needed, yet.  I'm not a fan of it, but it's still a step better (less sweet, less unbalanced, less stomach turning) than Jack Daniel's.  But it does get rather ugly when hit with club soda.

So then it becomes a battle between Old Taylor 6 and Jim Beam 8.  They are different bourbons, which made this Taste Off more fun.  Once aired out, Old Taylor has the better nose.  The palate is a fight to a draw.  But JBBL wins the finish scrum, because it actually has a finish.  AND, Jim Beam Black Label makes for a decent bourbon and soda.

Overall, I'll give Jim Beam Black Label the edge because of its flexibility and that extra texture in the mouth.  I can't really recommend any of these whole heartedly in a 750mL bottle, but if you can find a 200mL bottle of Jim Beam Black Label for $5-$7 it'll be a good test to see if you want to spend $16-$20 on a 750mL.

If you feel strongly in favor of or against my findings, let me know.  Some of you folks have a longer relationship to Jim B than I.  Has he treated you right?

Availability - Freaking everywhere
Pricing - $12-$18 (750mL)
Rating - 73

Availability - More so in the Midwest, less so in the East and West
Pricing - $4-$5 for 200mL; for the current Sazerac version $12-$15 (750mL), $18-20 (1L)
Rating - 80  (if it had any sort of finish it would be at least an 83)

Availability - Everywhere
Pricing - $16-$25
Rating - 81

Back to the single malts tomorrow...


  1. I stand on the opposite side of the Jack v Jim fence. Only barely as neither are good. But then, I really dislike Beam White...I won't even cook with it.

    1. Honestly, I was shocked I didn't hate Beam White. But I'm no mood to drink it again; life is too short and there's so much better stuff out there, even at its price point. What do you think of Beam Black?

    2. I'm still not a fan. I also tried a sample of the Beam Signature Craft 12 year and didn't care for it either. I haven't spent enough time with either of the longer aged stuff released under the Beam name to give a fair review, but the impressions I had were not positive. Which I find odd as I love Booker's and I'm a big fan of both Baker's and Knob Creek. Which ultimately is the same juice at a different age/proof.

      All I can think is that there must be some damn good barrel selection going on over in Clermont.

    3. Yeah, Baker's tastes a full step better than the regular Beams. As you said, it likely has to do with barrel selection. There are probably warehouse spots (heat/humidity) that generate the honey barrels that get pushed up to Baker's and Booker's. Companies like Beam and Buffalo Trace have this stuff down to a near science: One mashbill, over a dozen different products.

  2. After a bad experience with Jim Beam White in my first year of drinking legally (let's just say I hated the taste so I mixed with Coke), I actively avoided Jim Beam products and went with the other Beams at Heaven Hill (for the price Evan Williams Black beats the other Black). I did recently get a bottle of Knob Creek Single Barrel and I might splurge on Booker's next since both have gotten good reviews. While Knob Creek Single Barrel is pretty good, it might be the WOODIEST bourbon I've ever tasted so it's a mood whiskey. If Macallan Cask Strength was a sherry bomb, Knob Creek Single Barrel is the oak bomb.

    1. I'm not saying I drank before I was 21, but hypothetically if I did I would have done Beam White shots more than I should have. Hypothetically.

      I do have a sample of one of the Knob Creek Single Barrels. But that review is going to have to wait for a bit. This blog has been all Beam all of the time since the beginning of the year. I gotta let some others through the door.

    2. Thanks to the warmer weather recently, I decided to make a change and get a bottle of the Jim Beam Signature 12 year old (I've had a lot of Scotch lately so I felt it was time to try a bourbon). Beltramo's had both the 12 and Quarter Cask (yes, Beam took a page from Laphroaig since they own the place) at $34.99 and I ended up picking the 12 (though I will probably grab a bottle of the Quarter Cask in the future). The 12 year old is very much a woodier version of the Black but there's a refined aspect that reminds me of good Four Roses or Heaven Hill bourbon. However the 43% bottling strength is the biggest issue I have with this. It's simply a bit too watery at this strength and I think I would like it better at 45 or 50 percent.

    3. I've tried a couple of the Beam NAS Single Barrels. Yuck. It's basically a way for them to get people to pay $35 for $12 white label. Thus I don't recommend those.

      I might try the Signature 12, but I agree with you that a 43%abv seems a little lame compared the rest of the 12 year old bourbons out there.