Jim Beam does a remarkable job of slicing and dicing the market with their brands. Their core brand, which includes Jim Beam White Label, Jacob’s Ghost, Devil’s Cut, Maple, Honey, and Jim Beam Black, does a superb job of providing a wide range of spirited options for the everyman drinker. With Knob Creek, Jim Beam’s step-up brand, Jim Beam has presented a solid array of options for drinkers who are looking for a slightly more robust whiskey experience. Finally, three brands round off Jim Beam’s premium line: Booker’s, Baker’s, and Basil Hayden’s, all designed for whiskey enthusiasts who enjoy stronger and higher proof whiskeys.
It’s a solid strategy for creating a wide range of products that appeal to a large cross section of consumers, all sourced from the same distillery, but with different brand promises. Last year, Jim Beam began to blur these well-defined lines with the introduction of Jim Beam Signature Craft and Jim Beam Single Barrel, two premium offerings released under its everyman brand. This isn’t the first time Jim Beam has shifted their core brand into another adjunct brand’s territory – Red Stag used to be Jim Beam’s core flavored whiskey line, and while it still exists, Jim Beam has been quietly pulling flavors over to its core brand, including Jim Beam Maple, Honey, and the upcoming Jim Beam Kentucky Fire.
Jim Beam continues to look to breathe life into this new middle ground premium space with another entry in the Jim Beam Signature Craft series, Jim Beam Signature Craft Quarter Cask Finished Bourbon Whiskey. It’s no surprise to see Jim Beam using quarter casks (smaller barrels) to finish their whiskey, as they saw amazing success using the technique with their Laphroaig whisky brand. Laphroaig Quarter Cask was one of the fastest grown product extensions of Laphroaig, and so it was probably just a matter of time before we’d see it pop up with another Beam product.
Jim Beam Signature Craft Quarter Cask Finished Bourbon Whiskey (86 Proof / 43% ABV, $39.99) – a blend of “normal” Jim Beam whiskey that’s been aged for at least five years and whiskey that’s been aged four to eight years in smaller, quarter cask barrels. When you put whiskey in a smaller barrel, you get more impact from the barrel much more quickly than in larger barrels, and that impact is clear on the nose of this whiskey. Oak is the lead note out of the glass, but it’s not overpowering. It’s slightly more pronounced than you’d expect from a four to eight year old bourbon, but not by much. Right behind oak is caramel, cinnamon, peanut, and coconut. There’s a good amount going on in this nose, which manages to walk the line of affability while still suggesting some stronger and bolder aromas.
The entry follows the nose very closely, moderately sweet and fairly tame with sweet caramel corn, cinnamon, peanut, coconut, and oak. The mouthfeel on the entry is pleasant, soft, round, and a little lush. In the midpalate the cinnamon spice and oak intensify as things begin to really dry out. Some of the sweet caramel corn and peanut from the entry sustain to the midpalate, but by the end of the midpalate they really begin to fade. Towards the end of the midpalate there’s also the addition of a little heat, and that drives a fairly abbreviated and dry finish.
There’s a lot of debate over the impact of using small barrels for aging whiskey. These small barrels have become popular, especially among craft distillers, because they create a greater amount of surface area contact for a whiskey, and therefore impart more wood characteristics more quickly. The downside is that small barrels tend to result in whiskey that is often overly dry and sometimes has pronounced unpleasant wood characteristics in the mix. For the most part, Jim Beam has done well with their uses of the quarter casks with the Jim Beam Signature Craft Quarter Cask Finished Bourbon Whiskey. This whiskey doesn’t have any of the unpleasant notes you can get from smaller barrels, but it is a little too dry on the finish. This feels more like a style choice than anything else. The American whiskey market seems to be gravitating towards drier whiskey, although we hope it’s a trend that will ultimately change in favor of more balance.
Jim Beam Signature Craft Quarter Cask Finished Bourbon Whiskey isn’t a bad whiskey by any stretch of the imagination, it’s just isn’t as strong an entry as Jim Beam’s Single Barrel whiskey that was launched this year (and inexplicably costs $5 less than Quarter Cask), or last year’s Jim Beam Signature Craft 12 year old whiskey. The 12 year old offering had much more character and flavor, and the Single Barrel is a higher proof, has better flavor integration, and a better finish. We are left kind of shrugging our shoulders on Quarter Cask. Jim Beam drinkers will surely enjoy it, especially those who like a dry finish, but there’s just not enough here to distinguish Quarter Cask from the sea of Jim Beam’s other offerings.
Jim Beam Signature Craft Quarter Cask Finished Bourbon Whiskey will be available Nationwide starting in September of 2014.