Review: Jim Beam Bourbon (White Label) and Black Extra-Aged Bourbon (2016)

JBW_OLD_NEW

It’s hard to believe but we’ve never formally reviewed good old “White Label,” the bottom shelf of Jim Beam but, to be sure, one of the great values in the world of Kentucky whiskeymaking.

Beam recently revamped its bottle and label design — and in some cases the names of its products have been tweaked — which makes 2016 the perfect opportunity to give Beam a fresh review. Also on tap in this review is another look at Jim Beam Black Extra-Aged. Only last year Beam tweaked this bottling, which had previously been an age-stated 8 year old known as “Double Aged,” changing it up to call it XA Extra Aged. With the new bottle refresh, the name has been tweaked again — now it’s just Extra-Aged, losing the “XA” but gaining a hyphen. Let’s call that an even trade. Normally I wouldn’t re-review something we covered so recently, but given the pace of change in the bourbon business, a fresh taste couldn’t hurt. Who knows where it stands now.

Oddly enough, you’ll notice that different bottlings in the line have somewhat different designs. The squared-off shoulders of the Extra-Aged evoke the new Jack Daniel’s bottle (though there’s no risk of confusing the two), while White Label’s bottle sticks much more closely to the original Beam design (the new bottle is on the right in the above photo). Why not consolidate the design across the line? Eh, just drink your bourbon and ponder it quietly.

Thoughts for 2016 follow, as always.

Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (White Label) – No sleight of hand here; the fine print still has the same age statement as ever: 4 years old. Made with a low-rye mashbill — the standard Beam mash. It’s distinctly corny on the nose, its youth worn on its sleeve, but that’s not an altogether bad thing. That caramel corn nose heads into a body that isn’t exactly rich, but which shows off modest vanilla and moderate barrel char. The finish finds some minor secondary tones — nuts and even a hint of coffee — nothing outrageously complex, but enough to give the whiskey a bit of nuance until the corn chip notes make their inevitable return. To be sure, this is a bourbon that’s all about the price point, but, hey, what a price point. 80 proof. B / $13

Jim_Beam_CorePlus_Dynamic_Black_int_F39_0Jim Beam Black Extra-Aged Bourbon – Same mashbill as White Label but, you know, “extra aged.” Extra-aged, got it. This is a clear step up from White Label, with a woody nose that’s intense with vanilla, gingerbread, and cocoa powder. The slightly higher-proof body is rounder and more intense, less complex than the nose might suggest due to a surfeit of popcorn notes, but balanced by caramel, charcoal, and some apple notes. The finish is clean and longer than White Label’s, with more of a warming influence. All told my notes are much in line with last year’s review. While spirits are always evolving in production, I don’t believe anything has changed significantly here in the last year. 86 proof. B+ / $21

jimbeam.com

Review: Knob Creek 2001 Limited Edition

knob-creek-2001

Booker’s Rye isn’t the only special edition whiskey hitting from Beam this summer. Slightly under the radar is another limited edition, a 2001 vintage edition of Knob Creek.

Says Beam: “Started by Booker Noe and now finished by his son, Beam Family Master Distiller Fred Noe, Knob Creek 2001 Limited Edition Bourbon commemorates a significant year for the brand, when the tradition and responsibility of stewarding Knob Creek Bourbon was passed from father to son. This is the first limited release from Knob Creek Bourbon, as well as the oldest expression to-date from the brand.”

This is a 14 year old bourbon — pretty hefty for a brand that is only 24 years old altogether. There are three batches available, each said to be slightly different — batch 1 sweeter, batch 2 woodier, batch 3 somewhere in between. It’s unclear how this is denoted on the bottles, as well as what batch this review sample was drawn from. (As with many limited editions we cover, this is being reviewed from a small press sample, not a full bottle.)

As for this sample, it’s a very lush and lovely whiskey that evokes Knob Creek at its best. As a refresher, rack Knob Creek is 9 years old, but also 50% alcohol — like this 2001 edition. Comparing the two side by side, the 2001 offers a woody nose with hints of cloves, but on the palate it is notably sweeter, with prominent notes of butterscotch, vanilla ice cream, gingerbread, and Christmas cake. More cloves emerge on the finish, which is lightly bittersweet and flecked with cocoa notes.

In comparison, standard Knob is considerably heavier on the wood, with ample winey/Madeira notes. Here those more biting characteristics have mellowed out to let some intense vanilla character really shine through. It’s definitely a whiskey for someone with a sweet tooth (perhaps this is drawn from batch 1?) — but underneath the surface there’s a true depth of flavor to be discovered.

100 proof.

A / $130 / knobcreek.com

Review: Kilchoman Sanaig

kilchoman Sanaig 2016 Btl Box

Kilchoman’s second permanent release, following Machir Bay, has arrived. Sanaig (seemingly pronounced sann-ig) is named for an inlet northwest of Kilchoman, and unlike Machir Bay, which is partially finished for a few months in sherry barrels, Sanaig spends a “significant” amount of time in Oloroso sherry hogsheads — reportedly 10 months of its total aging time. Otherwise, no age information is being released — an unusual move for the normally forthcoming distillery.

Let’s see how it compares to its big brother.

Clearly heavily sherried, the nose evokes lemony, at times grapefruit-like, aromas, with a hefty underpinning of peat smoke. The body offers a nice interplay between these two components and provides a better balance than we’ve seen in some prior Kilchoman releases, its salty, briny elements providing a compelling counterpoint to both the citrus and the sweet smoke. It’s the barbecue-like smokiness that lingers for quite some time on the finish… and which has me hungry for ribs.

92 proof.

A- / $70 / kilchomandistillery.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Usquaebach “Old-Rare” Superior Blended Flagon

usqueabach Flagon-cutout-large

We last covered Usquaebach, a Highland producer of blended whiskies and blended malts, in late 2015. Missing from that lineup was the blender’s top-end bottling, “Old-Rare,” most easily recognized by the stoneware flagon in which it is bottled. (“Old-Rare” is in tiny print at the very top of the decanter; the rest of the writing goes on at length about the company’s 225 years of history.)

Old-Rare includes a whopping 41 single malt Scotch whiskies (mostly Highlands, it seems) each up to 20 years old, plus 15% grain whisky in the mix. Let’s pull the cork from this olde tyme bottle and see how it fairs.

The nose is a bit hot, and rough around the edges with more of a granary character than you’d expect, which dulls the notes of leather, caramel, and some citrus peel. Subtle smokiness emerges as the spirit opens up in the glass. Things quickly coalesce on the palate, which layers in coffee and cocoa notes, juicy orange, and malt balls. The finish is lively and youthful, and even evokes a bit of lime zest to give it a bit of zip when you least expect it. After a lackluster start, it proves to be solid stuff.

86 proof.

A- / $100 / usquaebach.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: The Glenlivet Single Cask Edition Pullman Train Collection

Single Cask Range with Box

I scratched my head, too: Why would a major producer of Scotch whisky name a series of high-end releases after a train invented in the United States? We’ve got the full story, courtesy of The Glenlivet.

The Glenlivet has been a standard-setting luxury brand for nearly 200 years, appealing to whisky connoisseurs looking for a rare expression steeped in heritage and history. The brand’s historical ties to the Pullman Company, a pioneer of first-class railroad travel, are due in large part to the business savvy Captain Bill Smith Grant, Founder George Smith’s last distilling descendant. Grant was able to persuade the Pullman Company to offer 2-ounce miniatures of The Glenlivet as one of the only Scotch whiskies available in the dining cars helping to spread the whisky’s fame across the US.

To commemorate this piece of The Glenlivet’s history, The Glenlivet Single Cask Edition Pullman Train Collection are three new, special-edition Single Cask whiskies marking the first time ever the brand has released a Single Cask in this market and available exclusively in the US. The name of each bottle is inspired by the Pullman connection: Pullman Club Car, Pullman Twentieth Century Limited, and Pullman Water Level Route.

Founded on the three pillars of rarity, purity, and uniqueness, each Single Cask within the Pullman Train Collection is hand-selected by Master Distiller, Alan Winchester. Chosen for its exceptional quality and intense flavor, The Glenlivet Single Cask Edition has been transferred from cask to bottle purely, at their natural cask strength and without chill filtration, therefore locking in the original flavor and character from the cask’s influence. Only a few hundred bottles of whisky were drawn from each cask, making them a highly collectible and unique Single Malt series.

Though it might seem like a natural fit, these are not travel retail releases but will rather be released — obviously in very small amounts — to the general market in the U.S. only. As these are three single-cask releases, each expression is limited to just a few hundred bottles.

With that said, all aboard! Let’s try ’em!

The Glenlivet Single Cask Edition Pullman Water Level Route – “The original high-speed train” connected Chicago and New York. 14 years old, matured fully in an American oak hogshead. This is a solid example of bourbon-barrel matured single malt. Heavy on the nose with caramel and spice, florals burst forth with time in the glass. On the palate, a warm and lightly grainy attack gives way graciously to a mountain of dense chocolate, chewy nougat, and a touch of candied orange peel. The finish is lengthy and full of warmth, finishing with gentle notes of caramel and vanilla. Again, it’s a textbook example of how glorious unsherried single malt can be. 111.88 proof. 321 bottles produced. A  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

The Glenlivet Single Cask Edition 20th Century Limited – The most famous train in the world at the time, this was the train that took the aforementioned Water Route from NYC to Chicago. This whisky is also 14 years old, but aged in a refill European oak butt that was previously used for another Scotch whisky. Bright on the nose with honey and nutmeg notes, with time it evolves aromas of camphor and mint. On the palate, the unctuous body offers notes of gingerbread, marzipan, and cloves. A light smattering of sherry-like citrus peel notes emerge primarily on the finish, rounding things out with a bit of zip. Not quite as lush as the Water Route, but an easy winner in its own right. 115.46 proof. 588 bottles produced. A-  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

The Glenlivet Single Cask Edition Pullman Club Car – Finally we get to the Club Car, essentially the bar car, where Glenlivet would have been served on the train. This is an 18 year old whisky drawn from sherry butts. By far the darkest and richest whisky in this lineup, the nose offers notes of first-fill sherry, heavy with sherry and complemented by prominent baking spices, cocoa powder, and butterscotch. The palate plays up the above, adding ample notes of apricots, peaches, toasted marshmallow, and a creeping impression of barrel char. Again this is a fantastically well-structured whisky — all of these barrels were clearly chosen for a reason — that offers complexity and nuance alike. 112.48 proof. 618 bottles produced. A-  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

each $350 / theglenlivet.com

Review: Four Roses 2016 Limited Edition Single Barrel Bourbon “Elliott’s Select”

2009Limited Edition- 173

Astute readers might recall that in January 2015, Four Roses discontinued its annual Limited Edition Single Barrel releases, citing a shortage of available stock to produce it. Then beloved distiller Jim Rutledge retired and Brent Elliott got promoted to the job. Somewhere, Elliott found enough 14 year old, lower-rye OESK-recipe bourbon to revive the bottling — which this year runs 8,000 (hand-numbered) bottles in size. (That’s about double the typical size of a Four Roses LE Single Barrel release.)

The yearly Single Barrel releases only use one of the famed 10 Four Roses recipes. The last time OESK was used was in 2012, which was bottled at a somewhat younger 12 years old and at about 109 proof.

Tasting the 2016 — Elliott’s first solo release as master distiller — reveals plenty to like. It’s a much different whiskey than the 2012, which is today showcasing butterscotch, gingerbread, and loads of baking spices before heading toward a winey, very sweet chocolaty finish. In contrast, the 2016 offers aromas of marzipan, green olive, barrel char, and a little toasted coconut. The palate deftly blends sweet and spicy, notes of black pepper folding in nicely to those of a crusty fruit pie, more almonds, vanilla, and some curious notes of fig and — again — green olive. The interfplay is fun. The finish woody but easily approachable.

Altogether a very solid whiskey for Mr. Elliott. Let’s see what’s next.

As a single barrel release, proof varies; figure around 116.8 proof.

A- / $125 / fourrosesbourbon.com

Review: 1792 Full Proof Bourbon

1792 Full Proof Bottle

The latest (and fourth) limited edition release in the recently emergent 1792 Bourbon line is this one: “Full Proof,” a kind of weird way to denote that the bottling proof was the same as the entry proof into the barrel.

Note, this isn’t quite the same thing as cask strength. Says 1792’s creator, Sazerac:

Bottled at the same proof it was originally entered into the barrel, the bourbon was distilled, aged, and bottled at the historic Barton 1792 Distillery. New oak barrels were filled with 125 proof distillate in the fall of 2007 and left to age in Warehouses E, N, and I for eight and a half years. Warehouse I is one of the oldest warehouses at Barton 1792 Distillery. All of these warehouses are seven stories high, metal clad, with concrete bottom floors, and windows all the way around the outside, allowing some direct sunlight inside. After the barrels were emptied, the bourbon underwent a distinct filtering process, forgoing the typical chill filtration, and instead was only passed through a plate and frame filter.  This allowed the bourbon to maintain a robust 125 proof for bottling.

I’m not 100% sure what that last part means — 1792 surely rises above 125 proof during aging and has to be cut down a bit to reach 125 proof again —  but the point is that 1792 Full Proof is an overproof expression of the standard bottling. Here’s how it acquits itself.

On the nose, notes of cocoa powder and cocoa nibs engage with rather dense, toasty sawdust. Some notes of ripe banana — perhaps banana bread — emerge in time as undercurrents. On the palate, it’s quite a racy whiskey, fiery and a bit harsh at times. There’s sweetness underneath, but it is masked by a ton of wood, charcoal, and licorice notes, which endure on the finish with a sultry ashiness. Water helps, tempering the wood notes and letting some baking spice show through, but it dulls the experience. In the end, it remains a little muddy, finishing a bit like a damp cinnamon roll — nothing offensive, but just a bit off structurally.

125 proof.

B / $45 / 1792bourbon.com