Category Archives: Bourbon

Gateway Series #2: Jim Beam Black

For part #2 in our Gateway Series, we’re looking at the next tier in the Jim Beam family.

Jim Beam Black 8yo Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
43% ABV/86 Proof
Available just about everywhere

What the distillery says:
Elegant.  Smooth.  Refined.  That’s what eight years of aging will do to a bourbon.  Until it’s sweet like caramel.  Meant to be sipped.  Savored.

It’s not bragging if you can back it up.  And the Beverage Tasting Institute of Chicago gave Jim Beam Black the highest rating among leading North American whiskeys in 2003.  We knew that beforehand.  But it’s nice to have some confirmation.

What Richard says:
Nose: More complex than the standard white label.  There’s a lot of caramel
with a herbal almost medicinal under current.
Palate:
More robust than the white label in flavor but still plenty of
kick.  It continues to be rough around the edges but you can taste the
improvement of age.  There is a sweeter center to the palate but it’s
still peppery with a good bit of alcohol.
Finish:
It goes down smoother than the standard expression but that’s not
really hard.  It is still one of the rougher 8 year old bourbons that I’ve
had.
Comments:
Black label is something that stands up well in cocktails.  Much
more so that the standard white label expression.  You actually get some
bourbon flavor instead of just alcohol content.  That said, this still
isn’t something I’m going to sit and sip neat.
Rating: In cocktails: Average, Neat: Probably Pass

What Matt says:
Nose: More pleasant than the White Label.  Lots of caramel.  With water, the sweetness turns to floral with overtones of nail polish remover.
Palate: A boatload of oak (too much) and much mellower than the White Label.  The sourness present in the younger expression is still there, but sits further back and smooths out.
Finish: I’m with Richard on this one.  Rougher than most 8yo bourbons but much less burn than the White Label.
Comments: Good in cocktails.  While whiskeys like Jim Beam White Label give bourbon a bad wrap, Black Label takes it up a notch (not a big step though).  Again, I’m with Richard.  Not something I would voluntarily drink neat.
Rating: In cocktails: Average, Neat: Probably Pass

Overall Rating:  Probably Pass unless it is for a cocktail

It’s Derby Time

The Kentucky Derby is this weekend. You know what that means… Mint Juleps. This year, Early Times Mint Julep is the official drink of the Kentucky Derby (even though Woodford Reserve is the official bourbon). There are a few Mint Julep recipes out there. The ingredients are all the same, but the mixing and ratios often vary. The ingredients are bourbon (of course), sugar, water (some recipes use simple syrup instead of sugar and water), mint and ice. I’m going to break down a few methods for you.

Advanced:
The official Early Times Mint Julep calls for 2oz. Bourbon, 1 tbsp simple syrup, 1 tbsp water, mint sprigs and crushed ice. What makes this one ‘advanced’ is the simple syrup is infused with mint. To make the simple syrup, boil 1 cup of sugar with 1 cup of water for 5 minutes. Pour the simple syrup mixture over a bunch of of mint leaves. Gently crush the leaves into the mixture. Chill, strain, and chill some more.

Crush mint leaves into the bottom of an 8 oz glass. Fill the glass with crushed ice. Add 1 tbsp water, 1 tbsp simple syrup (our mint infusion), 2 oz. bourbon and stir until frost forms on the glass. Garnish with mint.

A little easier:
If you can’t be bothered to make your own simple syrup, you can also muddle 2 tsp water with 2 tsp sugar and 6-8 mint sprigs. Add bourbon and ice and you are good to go.

For the truly lazy:
Early Times makes a premixed Mint Julep Cocktail. Serve it over ice with a mint garnish.

Some Trader Joe’s stores also carry simple syrup for a hybrid of the recipes above.

I’m not a big fan of Early Times bourbon, so I’ll be making my Juleps with Buffalo Trace this year. I recommend using something good but not very expensive. The flavors of the sugar and the mint complement the bourbon, but they do cover up some things. Do not waste the last of your Woodford Reserve Four Grain on one of these.

Drink well. Drink responsibly.
-Matt

Gateway Series #1: Jim Beam White Label

In honor of the Kentucky Derby, we have decided to kick off our “Gateway Series” with Jim Beam “White Label.”  The gateway series is an attempt at preparing the neophyte for a trip to the average (or below average) bar.  We will be reviewing the most common “well” whisk(e)ys and other easy to find drams.

Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (it’s the one with the white label), Aged 4 Years

40% ABV/80 Proof
Available just about everywhere

What the distillery says:
Constant.  Guaranteed.  Like gravity.  Sunsets.  Taxes.  But a hell of a lot more satisfying.  The same bourbon.  Made pretty much the same way.  By the same family .  For 213 years.  Sweet.  Satisfying.  Seductive.  This is the world’s #1 bourbon.  For a reason.  Or several.

Seven generations of craftsmanship go into every bottle.  Ingredients:  Corn, rye, barley malt, water, time and pride.

What Richard says:
Nose: Honey and fresh cut wood.  With water lighter vegetal notes start to creep out.
Palate: Spicy black pepper with the slightest, and I mean slightest hint of sweetness.  It’s very harsh with a lot of alcohol sting.
Finish: This stuff goes down rough.  All pepper, fire, and burn.
Comments: This is the bourbon most neophytes think of when they think of bourbon.  It’s sweeter than scotch but harsh as hell.  Not something I would reach for by choice.
Rating: Probably Pass

What Matt says:
Nose: Rubbing alcohol, vanilla, and something sour at the back (vaguely reminiscent of the excrement of an infant).  With a little bit of water, it opens up to grape lollipops and the sweet smell of decay.
Palate: Big Red chewing gum and wood smoke.  There’s also something hard to place that rolls around at the back of the tongue.  It’s almost like drinking the beer from the sour mash straight.  With water, the palate disappears.
Finish: Burns all the way down, comes back up and wraps around the edges of the tongue leaving traces of that sour smell.  With water, the finish tastes like a three day old wet cigar butt.
Comments: I don’t want to sound like a snob by saying that I would rather drink just about anything than this.  There is a reason it is primarily used as a mixer.  If you want a Beam and cola, that is fine by me.  I would not recommend this either neat or on the rocks.  This Jim Beam expression desperately needs something to mask the taste.  If you want a good sipping whiskey, this is not the one.  There are other whiskeys in the Beam family that would be much more appropriate.  Remember, Booker’s, Baker’s, Basil Hayden’s, and Knob Creek are all part of the Jim Beam line and more and more bars are carrying these in addition to regular old “white label.”
Rating:  Probably Pass

Overall Rating:  Probably Pass

Fad Focus 3 – Barrel/Cask Strength

It’s that time again. It’s time for me to highlight another growing fad or trend within the whiskey industry. We’ve discuss rampant peating levels of scotch and the explosion of wood finishes across the industry. Today I want to talk about strength. Not strength of character but rather the alcohol strength at which whiskeys are bottled.The level of alcohol content in a bottle of whiskey is measured in one of two ways. The most straightforward is using “ABV” or “alcohol by volume” measures. If a whiskey states that it is 43% ABV that means that 43% of the liquid content of that bottle at the time of bottling is alcohol. What’s the rest? Mostly water.

“Well then, what’s this ‘proof’ I see on some of the bottle?”

The term “proof” comes from 18th century Great Britain. The idea being that a “proof spirit” was the minimum level of alcohol in a particular spirit that would sustain combustion of gunpowder. The term originated when the rations of rum to sailors were “proofed” by seeing if gunpowder would still light when doused with the rum. This made sure the rum wasn’t watered down. In today’s terms the proof of particular spirits is twice the alcohol by volume. For example, a 90 proof spirit contains 45% ABV.

Originally, whiskey was sold by the barrel. You’d go to your local merchant and fill up your bottles from the barrel. The whiskey you get then was always barrel strength. (Unless the merchant water it down!) Over time distilleries and merchants began bottling the whiskey themselves. For the larger part of the 20th century whiskeys on both sides of the Atlantic were commercially bottled near 40% ABV. Mostly because this was the minimum legal alcohol content allowed if you wanted to call your product whiskey. If you’re trying to maximize your profits then you want the least amount of alcohol in the bottle as possible. That way the alcohol coming out of your barrels will go farther, thus allowing you to sell more bottles and make more money. There were some obvious exceptions to this. Wild Turkey 101 is probably the most well known.

In the last 15 years or so we’ve seen this trend change. More and more bourbon, and scotch distilleries are bottling at higher and higher strengths. They’ve determined that the flavor profile loses something in the process of watering down. This varies by whiskey. Some lend themselves more to higher strengths than others. The most prevalent example in my mind is George T. Stagg. Stagg is an uncut and unfiltered barrel proof bourbon that is part of Buffalo Trace’s annual Antique Collection releases. It’s never hit the bottle at less than 64% ABV. Despite the high alcohol content this stuff is scary smooth. Matt bought a bottle of Stagg for me a few years back and he, my wife, and I dusted off half the bottle that night. It didn’t seem like much at the time but the next morning we were all feeling it.

While Stagg is quite wonderful, if you look at the numbers, it can be pretty scary. The lowest proof release was in 2004 at 129 proof/64.5% ABV. There have been four releases that topped 70% ABV. These were referred to as “Hazmat” releases. They were called this because anything 70% ABV or higher can’t legally be brought on commercial flights and is deemed Hazardous Materials. The Hazmat releases culminated n the 2007 Hazmat IV release. It was bottled at a whopping 144.8 proof/72.4% ABV. That’ll wake you up!

Unfortunately, not all whiskey is George T. Stagg. I’ve found none that are as smooth at that strength. In my opinion, bourbon tends to hold up better at higher proofs than other whiskeys. Scotch, Irish, and Japanese seem too subtle and delicate of flavor and balance in most cases to drink above 50% ABV. So what do you do? You add water. Which really gets us back to the 40% or so ABV that the whiskey used to be bottled at. There’s nothing wrong with bottling at 40% to 43% ABV. Some of my favorite whiskeys are bottled in that range.

There are arguments both ways. On the one hand I like being able to pour something from the bottle and drink it. I don’t like having to monkey around with water to get it to an enjoyable balance. On the other hand, you get more for your money when you buy at higher strengths. The whiskey lasts longer.

Then there are those that want it at cask or barrel proof for the “purity of the spirit”. The easiest example I can think of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. They buy and store their own barrels and always bottle uncut and unfiltered for their members. More power to them. It’s just not my thing.

It’s really up to you to decide what you prefer. If you like to drink it from the pour like me, then the ever escalating proof can be annoying. If you want the value or the barrel purity then it’s a boon for you. Either way, you should drink, enjoy, and proselytize.

Slainte,

Richard

Char No. 4 Redux

The ceiling at Char No. 4 (pic by Tamir Karta)
The ceiling at Char No. 4 (pic by Tamir Karta)

Back to Char No. 4 with some of my Brooklyn peeps. Like my last trip, I looked at the menu online to

prepare. This time, we sat at the bar and our lithe bartender, Charlotte, repeatedly broke my heart as I rattled off a litany of whiskeys from my online research only to find out that they were out of each one. Battered, but not beaten, I settled in to studying the whisk(e)y list. Although not planned this way, this trip to Char No. 4 became an exercise in inexpensive (mostly) American whiskeys.

I started with the A. H. Hirsch 16yo straight bourbon. I’ve been wanting to try this for a while. This bottling is the very last of the whiskey from the old Michter’s distillery in PA. I don’t really know the history of the distillery, but I cannot believe that they failed due to inferior product. It is always harder for an “off-the-slab” whiskey to compete against the Kentucky bourbon giants, but this whiskey really stands up on taste. The nose is complex and delicate with distinct notes of corn, nuts (cashews?), and Christmas spices. The palate delivers on the promises of the nose and adds some extra sweetness and a little salt. Overall, this is a very balanced whiskey and I encourage you to look for it (not one of the cheap ones though).

Next, we decided to do a little experiment. We ordered some Rebel Yell and some Rebel Reserve for a comparison. Rebel Yell is a wheated bourbon that smells terrible and luckily tastes like nothing. It makes me think of drinking distilled water in the desert sun (wet and tasteless that evaporates the moment it hits your tongue). However, the Rebel Reserve is very drinkable. Rebel Reserve is also a wheated bourbon, but it is made in small batches with a different recipe. The nose is like a lady’s perfume on fresh linen. The palate is smooth and sweet. You can definitely taste the wheat influence. I would not put this in the same class a some of the really high end bourbons, but is definitely stands up to some whiskeys that are twice the price. A very good every day bourbon and an unbeatable price (around $20).

We followed with the mouth numbing Old Weller Antique (107 Proof). With a little water or ice, this is very nice. Plus, it’s almost like getting two whiskeys for one (and for $20!).

Ezra Brooks Single Barrel (12yo) was next on the list. The palate is buttery and sweet with hints of rye and spice. This whiskey doesn’t stick around long, but the finish is pleasant without much burn. The price won’t burn you either (around $30).

I had intended the night to end with the Ezra Brooks, but one of my compatriots insisted on treating me to a dram of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 23yo. Who would say no to that? This was a great whiskey (not cheap). However, the consensus around the table was that the 20yo is better. The extra three years smooths the edges a little too much.

I know that most people don’t have access to a place like Char No. 4 in their neighborhood, but I encourage you to seek out some of these cheaper whiskeys and let me know what you think.

BTW – I think I figured out the pricing at Char No. 4 (I have complained of gouging before). The selection was built on the owner’s personal stock. Therefore, much of the pricing is collector pricing that has little to do with the list price of the whiskey. You may find things there that you can’t find anywhere else, but you will pay dearly. But what’s money compared to a once in a lifetime dram? That’s for you to decide.

Drink well and drink responsibly.

-Matt