Updated January 14, 2015
By S.D. Peters
If you’re an old timey, back in the day Rye drinker, you probably know all about Jim Beam Straight Rye already. The Straight Rye with the yellow label is one of two whiskeys that were what you meant when you said “I’ll have a Rye.”
“Beam or Overholt?”
You preferred one to the other, but would settle for either. You were, after all, a Rye drinker in the days when respectable whiskey was Single Malt Scotch or Bourbon. Ask for Rye, and you were Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend.
But you knew an average Rye was superior to an above-average Bourbon, and also that although the cost was nearly a third less than a low-end Single Malt Scotch, the quality was two-thirds better than anything bottom shelf. You also knew that the early Scotch-Irish immigrants to Western Pennsylvania chose rye to reproduce their beloved juice of the barley in their new digs. If you drank Rye, you toasted a long tradition.
I preferred Old Overholt, but always kept a bottle of Jim Beam Straight Rye at hand. With the arrival of Wild Turkey 101 Straight Rye, and more recently the ever-expanding variety of craft Ryes, I’ve spent less time with Old Overholt, and almost none with Jim Beam Straight Rye. After returning to Old Overholt for a taste, I was prepared for a less than superlative experience when I cracked open the bottle of Jim Beam Straight Rye that was lingering in my pantry.
The Beam name is familiar to whiskey drinkers. No surprise, then, that its namesake Straight Rye Whiskey, which is aged 4 years in oak barrels, comes in a bottle that has the familiar style of its namesake Bourbon. It’s a practical design that looks good on the shelf, but will do just as well in your grasp if you’ve a mind for some no-nonsense drinking.
A light copper-infused amber in the glass says this is happens to be a no-nonsense Rye, too. A sniff confirms it: pepper and leather play the spice to a caramelized oak. There’s corn in the 51% rye mashbill, and as usual, it filters the floral notes that are more prevalent in a higher Rye content, with a hint of brown sugar. Anis and smoke linger around the edges, the former a common characteristic in the nose of higher-end and white Ryes. The dominant flavor is on the 72% end of the dark chocolate spectrum, infused with a teaspoon of allspice, a dash caramel, and sliver of leather. The finish has a mild bite, hints of strong shag scattered over new leather, with vanilla and the ubiquitous spice rounding out the experience.
Jim Beam Rye Straight Rye bills itself as “The World’s Finest Rye” on the bottle. In retrospect, I’m inclined to think that may have been true when Beam was one of the few contenders on the Rye market, competing mostly against another Beam brand, Old Overholt. These days, it’s not the finest Rye bar none, but if you’re looking for an affordable yet distinctive Rye, it’s among the finest of that now dwindling class.
If it weren’t so surprisingly appealing, the best thing about Jim Beam Straight Rye would be its price. On average, 750 ml. runs $12-$15. If you can find a better sipping Rye at that cost, don’t hesitate to buy it. Until then, get yourself a bottle of Jim Beam Straight Rye.
Editor’s Note: This review refers to the old 80-proof Jim Beam Rye, and not the new, stronger “Pre-Prohibition” style Jim Beam Rye.