G’day guys and welcome to the third and final article of my Three Wise Men feature. With the representative of Kentucky; good old Jim Beam.
It has been said in many a book, that bourbon came to be as an American substitution to that other widely-loved spirit, Cognac. The name, bourbon, taken from the sixteenth century French kings. You’re probably already thinking with this sort of French-bias thinking, that this now patriotically American whiskey was originally perfected by French settlers. While you are technically correct, there was indeed French lineage in the slew of settlers that created bourbon, but certainly not solely. Those who first created the whiskey, consisted of all the backgrounds of the colonisers that settled the heartland of the United States – The English, the Irish, the Scots, the Welsh, and the Germans. It’s also hypothesised that the popularity of bourbon was cemented by the city of New Orleans, and that the name was taken from the street name of the supposedly namesake street, where bourbon came to be known as a substitution as Cognac. Although the real backstory of bourbon is, like many things in the times of old America, mired in myth and folklore. But whatever the truth of the birth of the whiskey, it came to be the beloved whiskey it is today across the globe. The pride of the American state of Kentucky.
Kentucky straight bourbon, famously, is a straight whiskey. That by law of the state, must be distilled in the state of a mash bill of at least fifty-one percent corn, in a charred new American oak barrel, at no more than eighty proof alcohol. These are the official rules anyway, these rules are broken often. You won’t see anybody complaining, mind you about the bourbons that go as high as one hundred proof. Although one or two “bourbons” are created outside of Kentucky; Cougar bourbon, distilled in Indiana is a perfect example. True bourbon, by definition, it is not. But it does evidently get away with this nonetheless. There are others too, made in California, Wyoming, Arkansas and Washington. How or why this happens is beyond me. But this is clearly an example, in case you ever needed another one, that bourbon is a huge market.
The Jim Beam label, this ever-available pub-hero bourbon, originated in the eighteenth century from German migrants to Kentucky, the Böhm family, later change their name to Beam. Jacob Beam first started to produce whiskey in seventeen-ninety-five, then sold by the name of “Old Jake Beam Sour Mash”. The next inheritor of the label, David Beam at the age of eighteen in eighteen-twenty, capitalised on the Industrial Revolution to move bourbon. But then the Prohibition era hit America hard, outlawing alcohol and putting Jim Beam and many others out of business. The ones that played by the book and did right by Johnny Law, obviously, everybody else simply did their business under the table. But the prohibition hit the industry hard. After the prohibition, the then inheritor of the label, James Beauregard Beam brought sweeping changes to the company, the label came to be known by the name it bears today. One of the most obvious changes to the label, was the change brought to the bottles themselves. The signature of James Beam, stating “None Genuine Without My Signature”, the phrase now a trademark of Jim Beam in itself. But what about this bottle – the Jim Beam Double Oak? The practice of using more than one type of oak to age whiskey is not one foreign to me. Bushmills is, appropriately, aged in bourbon barrels, and Portuguese sherry barrels. Teeling, after it’s main oaking stage, is finished in rum barrels from Flor de Cana. Bourbon, by definition is oaked in a deep charred American oak barrel. The second stage of oaking, according to the bottle, is simply “another freshly charred American oak barrel”. How this is, in any way different than the first charred oak barrel it left is left unexplained. The only difference between the two, trying to identify any difference between them, is that the first barrel does not claim to be freshly charred, as the second barrel does. What difference, if any in flavor this brings with it, I intend to find.
The bottle, like all in the Jim Beam range are all familiar from any local pub, all generally sharing the same basic shape. After the bottles themselves received an update in twenty-sixteen. The colour inside of the whiskey, too is typical of Jim Beam bourbon, a golden caramel-brown, nothing showing out of ordinary. The nose of bourbon is rich, flavorful and flirtatious, raspy in spice but sweet in tone. That old familiar nose of old Kentucky bourbon, bringing back memories of my last two years of being a teenager, throwing back Jim Beam White Label until I had difficulty walking. On ice, the nose opens as expected, to a sweeter note. And now to taste, the bourbon has an oaky spice on the finish, a generous sweet taste full in body with a savory aftertaste. In exploration of the enhancement of the double oaking, the taste of oak is more pronounced on the finish. An easily noticeable taste of oak that stands out more than the norm
In summary: I initially feared the addition of simply another charred American oak barrel for the sake of double oaking would prove redundant. But whatever the truth of what goes on in the Jim Beam distillery in far away Kentucky, this does indeed work. The richer more pronounced taste of American oak, compliments the flavor of the bourbon. Rounding up the spicy flavor and taming it to a savory sweetness. Fitting to some barbecued red meat or some of those Instagrammed Texan-inspired burgers. I was prepared to be underwhelmed by this whiskey when I delved deeper, but was reassured by this real nice bourbon. Cheers