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Wine and Spirits : Drink American

TIMES STAFF WRITER

So you don’t like Scotch. Or maybe you just don’t like the idea of your money going to a bunch of kilt-wearing Scots when you want a premium whiskey. Jim Beam senses your thirst.

Since 1987 it has been marketing four patriotic brands of “small-batch” bourbon--Basil Hayden’s, Knob Creek, Baker’s and Booker’s--as “the hottest trend in fine spirits” and “the ultimate male drink.” The parallel with single-malt Scotch is clear. Beam even sponsors an aficionados’ club, the Kentucky Bourbon Circle, much like the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.

“Jim Beam coined the phrase ‘small-batch,’ ” says Steve Wallace of Wally’s Liquor in Westwood. “It just means a bourbon made in a small batch. Of course, any bourbon made in less than 100,000 barrels is a small batch to Jim Beam. A lot of other bourbons would fit the definition. Maker’s Mark makes a special edition, and there’s Blanton’s, A.H. Hirsch, Van Winkel.

“The Jim Beam small-batch bourbons happen to be very good,” Wallace adds. “The bourbon business is growing, probably in part because of them.”

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The sales figures for 1993 do not quite show bourbon growing, but they do show that it may be reversing its long decline. Once upon a time, bourbon was America’s premium tipple. Then came rivals such as “white goods” (vodka and tequila), not to mention an interest in less-alcoholic drinks such as wine and boutique beers and a growth in the number of people who don’t drink at all. The result was that bourbon sales declined at a shocking rate during the ‘80s, 4% to 6% every year.

In 1993, however, bourbon sales were only down 2%. And the small-batch bourbons, though by nature a small segment of the market, were up 60%.

For a whiskey to call itself bourbon, it has to have been made from a fermented mash containing at least 51% corn, and the distilled whiskey has to be aged a minimum of two years in new white oak barrels that have been charred inside. The use of corn and charred barrels give bourbon its characteristic sweet, charcoal-like taste, punctuated by the sort of vanilla-like oak flavors familiar to anyone who has ever drunk oak-aged wines. After aging, the whiskey is typically diluted with water to bring its strength to a uniform 80 proof.

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Tasting bourbon is not like tasting wine--the contrasts are not as dramatic as Chardonnay versus Cabernet--but there’s more variation in flavor than you might expect. Of the four Beam specialty bourbons, Basil Hayden is the mildest and most like regular bourbon. The company says the recipe, which contains barley as well as corn and twice as much rye as other bourbons, comes from the family of Basil Hayden, a pioneer 18th-Century Kentucky distiller whose family long produced Old Granddad, one of the brands Jim Beam bought some years ago.

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Knob Creek is more distinctive. It’s aged nine years and bottled at 100 proof. The flavor is fairly sweet, and may remind people of the French apple brandy Calvados (the Beam people prefer to compare it to toasted nuts and butter).

Baker’s uses a unique yeast for the mash and it’s bottled at 107 proof. It’s very strong and sweet, perhaps like an Armagnac; the Beam people compare the aroma to brown sugar and overripe bananas.

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Booker’s True Barrel Bourbon is named for Booker Noe (pronounced “no”), a descendant of Jim Beam and the company’s master distiller emeritus. In his rich Kentucky drawl, Noe tells of somebody asking him back in the ‘80s about his favorite bourbon. “I don’t own it,” he says, “but I have access to it,” with roguish stress in the words “have access.” The bourbon he was referring to was not a special batch of whiskey but a “center cut” through the rack house where regular Jim Beam is aged.

For aging, bourbon is put in 50-gallon barrels and stored in nine-story buildings, three barrels deep per floor. The clear raw whiskey (“white dog”) goes in the barrels at 120 proof. Because of temperature changes that cause the barrels to expand and contract, after seven or eight years the whiskey on the first floor is dark straw in color and 110 proof, while the whiskey on the ninth floor is inky black and 140 proof.

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Regular Jim Beam is blended from all nine floors and then diluted to the usual 80 proof. Booker’s True Barrel Bourbon, however, is taken from barrels on the fifth floor only and bottled without blending or diluting. This means two things: The flavor has a more clear-cut personality than regular Jim Beam . . . and the strength can be anything from 121 to 127 proof. The first impression in the mouth is strongly alcoholic, but the complex aroma grows in the glass and in the end is even more powerful than Baker’s.

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As a giant among bourbon distillers, Beam has been most successful at getting its premium bourbons widely known. Other distillers make premiums too, of course. I. W. Harper has its 15-year-old Gold Label line, and Wild Turkey’s Pure Breed is bottled at barrel strength (around 111.4 proof) at 20 years.

Several distillers even bottle single-barrel bourbons. Wild Turkey’s Kentucky Spirit (101 proof) features a handwritten label on the neck naming the barrel and where it was aged. It has a medium-amber color and an elegant aroma, with a hint of citrus among the vanilla and charcoal flavors.

The Blanton Distilling Co. of Frankfort, Ky., makes a 93-proof single-barrel bourbon. It’s a fairly dark amber color and has a mouth-filling sweetness. In the glass it develops a powerful charcoal-like aroma with something faintly musky or winy about it.

The tradition in bottling premium bourbons is to suggest leisure and luxury. The Blanton’s bottle, for instance, is a globe with 16 broad facets and a wax-sealed cork topped with a brass racehorse figurine. Kentucky Spirit is packaged in what looks like an oversized perfume bottle with heavily scalloped shoulders.

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Jim Beam goes for a self-consciously rugged, retro-American look. Basil Hayden wears a bib-style paper label and metal band-wrap such as liquors often bore 90 years ago. Knob Creek comes in a short, stubby bottle with a label reminiscent of an old-time newspaper. Booker’s comes in a pine box imprinted with stencil-type lettering.

In another shrewd piece of marketing, Beam offers all four of the Beam bourbons together in a rustic oak case outfitted with a lock and key. If you’ve gone completely nuts for small-batch, you can even buy a whole barrel of Booker’s True Barrel for $20,000. That price includes first-class air fare to Kentucky, selection of the barrel with Booker Noe himself and dinner at Booker’s house (the company bottles the bourbon for you). If you’re interested, call Todd Winking at (708) 948-8888.

The price of small-batch bourbons is usually in the $30 to $40 dollar range (Knob Creek can be found for $23.) For comparison, single-malt Scotch prices range from $19 for 10-year-old Speyburn up to $40 for 10-year-old Talisker--and even higher for specially aged selections.


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