By Richard Thomas
An idea that has been picking up steam over the last few years is that classic standard of Kentucky bourbon, Jim Beam Original (sometimes referred to as “White Label”), is an under-appreciated gem. Some pundits have championed this line to the point of claiming that America’s booming micro-distillery scene has yet to produce a bourbon of any kind that surpasses it.
Certainly Beam is underrated to the extent that it is deserving of a second look (in some cases a first look) from most bourbon drinkers, both in the United States and around the world. Few whiskeys of any type offer comparable quality at such a reasonable price as Jim Beam White, with its magic pricing number usually set at 13, whether we are talking dollars, pounds, or euros. Furthermore, the original Jim Beam defines the basic qualities of what modern bourbon is supposed to be in the minds of many, and at the aforementioned low price.
This combination is certainly what brought me back around to Jim Beam White, making it my go-to bourbon for summer on-the-rocks drinking. For years the only bourbon available in my part of Europe was Four Roses Yellow Label at €18. Even though I think of Four Roses as being a little better, it’s not €5′s worth better, and I gleefully made the switch when Jim Beam Original became available.
Yet the same can not be said for everyone, and this is where the pundits who are pumping Jim Beam White full of hot air get it wrong. Right off the bat, a substantial slice of bourbon drinkers, perhaps even a majority, like their bourbon stronger than the minimum of 80 proof (40% abv). This is something demonstrated in the premium market that reflects their tastes so well, and where most bourbons are 90 proof or stronger.
Recall the outrage sparked by Maker’s Mark’s attempt to cut their whiskey from 90 to 84 proof, and then think about why Maker’s Mark grew into a major bourbon brand starting in the 1980s. A big part of their success is the fact that plenty of bourbon drinkers wanted a stronger product with bolder flavors. The same factors explain the very births of the small batch and single barrel premium sectors during the same decade. When I lived in the United States my summertime on-the-rocks standards were Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve, and for exactly the same reasons of higher proof and bolder flavors.
So is Jim Beam White under-appreciated? Sure it is. I know just from the bar conversations I’ve had that plenty of novices to whiskey-drinking, and there are a lot of them these days, have never tried Jim Beam’s original, and they should. But painting Jim Beam White as some kind of sleeper premium bourbon, standing above all newcomers yet obscured in the shadows is overstating things, and overstating them by a Keeneland furlong.