American Whiskey has been on an explosive growth path and it’s not just rye whiskey that’s getting a tremendous amount of attention. The demand for premium bourbon so outstrips supply that it has created a virtual frenzy around brands like Pappy Van Winkel, George T Stagg, and Parker’s Heritage. The problem with many of these premium brands, aside from the fact that they’re impossible to get, is that they are all monster whiskies. The premium bourbon category is often defined by whiskey that is high proof, with monster oak and explosive flavors. So what if you’re looking for something special in the whiskey space but don’t want a high proof monster whiskey?
One of the reasons why Jim Beam is so popular (it’s the biggest selling bourbon on the planet) is that it’s a lighter style bourbon. As a company, Jim Beam has been involved with the premium bourbon space almost since its inception. Booker Noe helped establish the big, bold, high proof, premium bourbon category with his Booker’s and Baker’s line of whiskey. It’s no surprise then to see Jim Beam enter the premium bourbon space with their own brand, and an offering that reflects the lighter, easier style of Jim Beam.
Jim Beam Signature Craft 12-Year (86 proof / 43%, $39.99) – the first of two offerings in the Signature Craft series is a 12 year old “small batch bourbon.” It may be hard to see anything that Jim Beam does as small batch, but they do indeed have several scales of production in their facility including a smaller craft area (see our Behind the scenes of Jim Beam). The smaller scale production line is where Jim Beam producers Booker’s, Baker’s, Basil Hayden’s, and Knob Creek. Dark amber in color, it’s clear that the Jim Beam Signature Craft 12-Year has spent a good amount of time in oak. Unlike many of its 12 year old peers, the nose on the Jim Beam Signature Craft is softer and sweeter. Oak notes are clearly there, but they’re well integrated with vanilla, marzipan, and cinnamon. The entry is much lighter, softer, and sweeter than you’d expect with vanilla and light oak leading the charge. In the midpalate the oak intensifies and is joined by cinnamon and light caramel. The midpalate is flavorful and spicy without being overwhelming. The oak spice is the star of the finish which is medium long and slightly dry.
While there are some solid flavors in the Jim Beam Signature Craft 12-Year, nothing about it is going to knock you on your ass. The oak is assertive but well in balance with the sweeter elements of the whiskey. This combined with a slightly dry finish and moderate heat make it an extremely approachable spirit. Whiskey enthusiasts looking for a monster whiskey will be disappointed and may see this Signature Craft as a little thin and simple, but that would be missing the whole point of the release. Jim Beam has established a very defined style of spirit, and this Signature Craft does a superb job of following in those footsteps. This is a premium bourbon for someone who loves Jim Beam and is looking for something a little special. Jim Beam also priced this whiskey right, keeping it just at the $40 mark. It’s appropriate for the age and release without getting overly greedy.
Jim Beam Signature Craft Rare Spanish Brandy (86 proof / 43%, $39.99) – there’s no age statement for this release of Jim Beam Signature Craft other than “extra-aged.” While its color is similar to the 12 year, we’re banking that it’s a slightly younger whiskey (and gets a lot of that color from the Spanish brandy). When it comes to finishing whiskey, both bourbon and scotch whisky producers frequently turn to sherry barrels to add flavor and character to their spirits. Actually adding another spirit, in this case Spanish brandy, is far less common. Brandy is not such an odd choice, though, as brandy and bourbon can be pretty comfy bedfellows (we actually like our sazeracs done with part brandy and part whiskey). While we prefer to have our bourbon finished in a barrel, it’s interesting to see Jim Beam play with finishing a bourbon with Spanish brandy. You can clearly pick out the brandy notes on the nose – unlike a sherry cask, there’s less jammy fruit there and more spice. In addition to oak there’s ginger, vanilla, cinnamon, and a subtle white flower note. The entry for the Jim Beam Signature Craft Rare Brandy is much more flavorful and complex than the 12 year old release. The Spanish brandy is there right at the start with some rich, lush tones including raisin, cinnamon, and ginger. In the midpalate there’s a light floral quality to it that complements the oak spice that emerges. The light floral notes linger on the finish which is slightly spicy and less dry than the 12 year old.
Brandy notes go well with bourbon, but we prefer skipping the middle man and going straight to an American brandy like Paul Masson VSOP which sells for about a third of the price and does a better job of integrating some of the American oak notes along with grape distillate and french oak. The Jim Beam Signature Craft Rare Spanish Brandy isn’t bad, it just leans too heavily on the Spanish brandy for flavor and complexity. While the 12 year delivers something that is distinctly Jim Beam, the Rare Spanish Brandy is less so. Either way we’re excited to see Jim Beam make a mid level play in the premium bourbon space at a price point that won’t break the bank, and with offerings that Jim Beam fans will enjoy.
Both the Jim Beam Signature Craft 12 year and Rare Spanish Brandy will hit store shelves in August 2013.