Tag Archives: bulleit

Jim Beam Black

Surely, one of the first bourbons I ever tasted was Jim Beam – probably the white label variety and probably with more attention paid to the effects of the drink than its characteristics, sadly.  This is a classic brand that has maintained its status as the standard for Kentucky bourbon for many years.  As a result, it’s difficult to look at a bottle of Jim Beam Black with a fresh and critical set of eyes.

Presentation:

JBB is aged 8 years – twice that of the white label and one year short of Beam’s Knob Creek.  The packaging strays little from the design of the mainline variety, sporting the familiar signature, family tree, red seal, and typeface.  The marketing copy on the side is relatively understated in both its description of the product as well as in the coy humility inserted at the end: “…we know a little about making exceptional bourbon.”

All in all, the packaging is what you expect from Jim Beam, it is one of the standards against which other whiskeys judge their appearance.  The grabs at nostalgia here seem more genuine than fetish-object: the signature at the bottom was introduced decades ago as a hedge against trademark infringement (forgery carrying a higher penalty than the infringement itself).

What can one really say about this bottle?

Tasting:

There is nothing overpowering in the nose of Jim Beam Black, nor is there anything overly complex.  Notes of floral sweetness, oak, and fruit present themselves and quietly retreat.

On the palate Black is much more assertive.  Immediately the corn-driven sweetness is prominent at first, followed by something akin to berries, fresh legumes, and char.  The finish is largely clean with a hint of lingering spice.

Over all:

The similarity between Jim Beam Black and Knob Creek is certainly clear, yet it seems that Knob Creek’s extra year in the barrel made significant difference in the product.  Black is punchier than Four Roses, more interesting than Bulleit, but falls short of Knob Creek in terms of depth and complexity.  Regardless, with the lower price, this would be a good buy.

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American Whiskey’s Nostalgia Fetish (and Bulleit Bourbon)

The American whiskey industry’s fetish for nostalgia marketing: it baffles me. It really does. It’s not as if Scottish whisky is branded too differently, but American brands have gone to great lengths to manufacture a – largely imagined – distilling past that involves rugged mountain men hewing a nation out of raw nature.

Sure, it’s romantic, and I’m just as susceptible to these narratives as the next guy, but ultimately this strikes me as a destructive practice. We are in the midst of an unprecedented moment: an explosion of variety, techniques, and interest combined with competitive pricing in comparison to Scottish product and a market hungry for innovation. In my mind, brands should be highlighting characteristics that feed this unique postion for American whiskey.

Look at Old Potrero and Buffalo Trace. Both are active in driving American liquor production to new territory, actively tweaking and expanding upon tradition to create exciting, new offerings. Yet, at the same time, both brands’ flagship products are painted with a thickly nostalgic brush. They should be coming out and trumpeting their innovation to the broader market, rather than the Malt Advocate crowd alone.

This leads me to this week’s tasting: Bulleit Bourbon.

Presentation:

At first glance, Bulleit leans heavily on nostalgia. From the serrated label, to the blocky font, to the medicine-flask bottle, they would have you believe that they dug this out of old Augustine Bulleit’s grave. In fact, none of the copy on the bottle speaks to what the product inside might be like – it is entirely devoted to convincing the consumer that this whiskey has a long history and has never changed.

The most telling indication of the nostalgic reliance is in the labeling of the product as “frontier whiskey” – as if this bottle was produced in the days of nascent American whiskey production.

Tasting:

Upon first opening the bottle is a gentle, sweet nose with a not-insignificant corn presence. Goes with their “frontier whiskey” claim, certainly.

The full nose is not too different from the initial impression: sweetness, corn, some latex. I was a little surprised by the lack of charcoal and post-rain freshness to it.

Upon drinking, Bulleit is largely unassuming. It begins and ends quietly, with a clean sweetness throughout. There is less corn on the tongue than in the nose and there is a noticeable flash of not-altogether unappealing must in the middle.

Over all:

This is certainly drinkable, but all in all is a little boring.

Clearly, Bulleit has focused all effort on making their product fit into the correct nostalgic category. They would be better served focusing on what they fill the bottle with, rather than what misleading narratives they print on it.