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

Reader Request

From one of our readers:

Dear [Whisk(e)y] Apostle,

It strikes me that the epistolary form is not best suited for whiskey proselytization. In the interest of efficiency, you understand, I propose an Event for the spreading of the Gospel.

-Janel

Well Janel, that is a fine idea (and finely phrased). How about it folks? Is there interest in having Richard or I host a tasting event in either NYC or Atlanta? What would be most useful to you if we were to host such an event? Intro to bourbon? Single malts? Irish? Rye? Whisk(e)y in general? Comment or email with your thoughts. I’m down if you are.
-Matt

Georgia and their wonderful Blue Laws

I’m going to try to keep this blog as PG rated as possible.  That said, I’m really pretty pissed off.   Matt and I were talking about our new “Gateway” series of reviews over the weekend and we thought a good way to save money would be grabbing some miniature bottles of some the regulars like Jim Beam, Bushmills White Label, etc.  It seemed more cost effective that going out and dropping $300.  So yesterday I headed out to Total Wine in Dunwoody.  I’ve spoken before about this particular establishment.  It’s well laid out, has a broad selection, and best of all it has a wall of miniatures to buy from.  The selection of these is nice but what I really like is the fact that they aren’t buried behind the counter where you can’t see them.  That’s one of my major pet peeves with liquor stores. 

So I go in last night and notice that they’ve moved things around.  No big deal.  Or so I thought.  By the time I’d walked through the store I noticed that they were missing something.  LIQUOR!  It was all wine and beer.  I asked one of the guys working there and he said that they were told by the state that they couldn’t sell liquor anymore.  The reason?  The way the blue laws are written in Georgia to prevent gas stations and grocery stores from selling spirits is written ignorantly broad.  Apparently, in Georgia if a retail company owns two or more store locations then it is prohibited from selling spirits.  Because Total wine has two locations, they can no longer sell spirits.  How F—–G stupid is that? 

I accept the no sales on Sunday because I grew up here.  I accept that a restaurant has to wait until 12:30 PM on Sunday’s to pour because I figure I can wait.  But this is just stupid.   Maybe one day we’ll pull ourselves out of the dark ages.  Until then, I’d like to formally raise a middle finger to Blue Laws of the great state of Georgia.

Acts of the Apostles

There has been a flurry of excitement here at Whisk(e)y Apostle.  You can now be a fan on Facebook and follow my (Matt) adventures through Twitter (WhiskeyApostle).  Maybe I can drag Richard out of the dark ages for a tweet now and then.  Furthermore, we are hard at work designing a questionnaire to aid our readers in finding the perfect dram.  This should launch in a rather rudimentary version, with each one being handled directly by us, in the coming weeks.  Eventually, we hope to automate the process.  Yes, we know there is other whisk(e)y software out there, but it is much too complicated for a novice.  Our mission is to introduce whisk(e)y to the uninitiated, after all.

To make things more exciting, we are launching our “gateway” series this week.  In this series we will be reviewing some of the most readily available and easy to find whisk(e)ys.  When we started down the road to becoming whiskey apostles, we found it quite irritating that we could find ten reviews of some $100 bottle only available at Duty Free, but never anything we could afford or find.  Therefore, we are going to review some of the “gateway” and “well” whisk(e)ys.  This way, the true novice will have a way to make educated decisions on their first dram.

To top things off, I just found out that we will have whiskies from both India and Australia (specifically Tasmania) here in the US around Labor day.  Both Amrut (India) and Sullivan’s Cove (Australia) have tested well in blind tastings against Scottish single malts.  I read about Sullivan’s Cove a while back and I’m all aflutter with excitement.  The folks from Sullivan’s Cove will also be attending WhiskyFest in both San Francisco (Oct. 16) and New York (Nov. 10).

Matt’s Signature Balvenie

Matt's custom Balvenie Signature 12yo
Matt's custom Balvenie Signature 12yo

Normally, Balvenie is not a brand that inspires me to great oration.  To my palate, the young Balvenies are so uninspiring that I have never made it to the end of a tasting table.  Richard tells me the 20yo is quite nice and I will make an effort to try that in the future.  However, what whisky geek could pass up the opportunity to blend their own single malt?  I approached this event with unadulterated schoolboy glee and I was not disappointed in any way.

The class took place at Astor Center in NYC and was lead by Dr. Whisky (Sam Simmons, US brand ambassador for Balvenie) and David Mair (Balvenie’s global ambassador).  When I take my seat on the front row, I am greeted by a lovely young woman who offers me some prosecco to “get [me] started.”  Then, as I admire the Balvenie branded tasting diary and the various glasses, bottles, and droppers at each station, both Sam and David come over to introduce themselves.  This is already looking like a good event.

Sam starts by telling us a little about Balvenie Signature 12yo Batch #1 (voted “Best Speyside” in a blind tasting for the New York Times, etc.).  We taste Batch #1 (no longer available, btw).  Sam then hands proceedings over to David for a little history about whisky in general and Balvenie specifically.  I’m not going to get too technical, but a few things stand out about Balvenie as a distillery.  First off, Balvenie is the only Speyside distillery that malts their own barley on a traditional malting floor.  Not all the barley they use is from these maltings, but a good portion.  The fuel for these maltings comes mostly from anthracite (smokeless coal), but they add a small amount of peat for flavor.  Additionally, a portion of the barley used is grown on the premises.  Throw in custom copper pot stills and you have a truly handcrafted product.

“So what does it taste like,” you ask.  Patience, my friends.  Sam somehow convinced the master blender (David Stewart for those taking notes) to part with a few bottles of whiskey that he uses to blend Balvenie Signature 12yo.  This was a real treat, since these whiskies are not commercially available.  Balvenie Signature is comprised of three 12yo single malts: one aged in bourbon casks, one aged in sherry casks, and one aged in refill whisky casks (casks that first held bourbon, then Balvenie whisky).  Although from the same source whisky, each of these spirits have distinctive characteristics.

The bourbon cask produces an amber-colored whisky.  I really enjoyed this.  If Balvenie bottled this, it would be my whisky of choice more often than not.  With a heavenly nose of malt, vanilla, and caramel and a palate that replicates the nose plus maple syrup, this is one for the books.  When comparing it to the Signature, I can find where it lives in the blend.  It seems to be responsible for most of the flavor profile.

The sherry cask gives the Signature most of its color.  This whisky is deep and dark, almost a jewel tone.  The nose is complex.  Notes of black pepper, cloves, tamari, bacon, and celery fill the nose along with a touch of sweetness.  The palate is very powerful and tastes of roasted hazelnuts, Christmas spices and sherry (of course).  On it’s own, this one is a bit much, but it sits nicely in the back of the blend.

Finally, the refill whisky cask is very pale in color.  The nose is remniscent of fresh fruit and licorice.  The palate is overwhelmed with licorice.  Unlike the herbal licorice of an Islay malt, the licorice of this dram is more like a classic Brach’s black jelly bean.

After sampling all this, we had the opportunity to blend our own Balvenie Signature.  You can see mine in the photo above.  This was great fun.  We compared ours to Batch #1, but the intent was to come up with our perfect blend not necessarily to match David Stewart’s creation.  I was feeling pretty good about mine, thinking I could be a master blender some day.  Then, Sam brought out Balvenie Signature 12 yo Batch #2 (available in June for $52.99).  I have to bow to the superior skills of Mr. Stewart.  Mine was good, but his impeccable ability to create a multi-layered masterpiece was awe inspiring.  I could taste the elements of the construction.  Even the candy licorice flavor floated across the palate like a thin sheen of oil on clear water.  However, Balvenie Signature is greater than the sum of it’s parts.  I for one, will be standing at the door when this hits the shelves.

In conclusion, this is the best whisky event I have ever attended.  I gained a greater appreciation for what blenders/distillers go through to create all this wonderful whisky.  Thanks to Sam, David, and the folks at Astor Center for putting this together.  I would love to see more classes like this.

Drink well, drink responsibly.
-Matt