Is Jim Beam Underrated?

By Richard Thomas

Jim Beam Original Bourbon

(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey on the bottling line.

There is a reason Maker’s made it big…
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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.

9 comments

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with most of this. Actually, the only part I don’t agree with is selecting Woodford Reserve over Jim Beam “White” (Yeah, I know, personal taste thing… I just can’t stand the copper penny aftertaste of Woodford).

    Everybody (especially newbies) want to sound like they are smarter than they really are, and they go and read somebody rip on Jim Beam and favoring a much more expensive bourbon, so they already have decided that they want something more “upscale” without even knowing what the baseline would/could/should be.

    It is true that life is too short to drink bad bourbon. But while it may not be on the same level as even some of their own products (Knob Creek immediately comes to mind), it is certainly not *bad* bourbon.

  2. I guess I’m one of those guys who likes it stronger. I’ve always found JBW a little watery. I feel the same way about JD.

  3. My friend Raylan Givens is a Beam man. I prefer the Bird myself.

  4. Hi I’m from South Africa just bought Jim Beam White Label for the equivalent of $16.92 (At todays exchange rates) U.S., its a good price in my opinion. I prefer it over Jack Daniels because it tastes less sweet and its a few bucks cheaper. It was also the favourite brand of Jock Ewing and J.R.(Season one Jock Asks for his brand at the barbecue, the bottle was marked Jim Beam, The letters, “im eam” fuzzed out) in the old Hit series Dallas which makes it cool as well. Red Stag is going for $9.50, getting a couple bottles tomorrow. Jim Beam is a great brand at a good price and my go to bourbon. Gotta love em American cowboy drinks!

  5. That’s a nice price. I say “13” because most of where I see it in the UK, US, and Europe has it pegged at that in local currency. Of course, £13 is about $20 right now, and in the US some states have higher liquor taxes than others so it’s $15 or $16, but you get the idea.

  6. If I couldn’t pick up Evan Williams Bottled in Bond for $13.50 nearby, I might be inclined to agree. Even EW Black..

    If I hadn’t sampled Jim Beam White Label from the early 1980’s and found it a vastly more complex, enjoyable drink, I might be inclined to agree.

    Sorry, but, at least in the U.S., even at the $13 prince point there are better options.

  7. I used to love Beam and still do. It is a great quality whiskey at a very reasonable price. I have however stopped buying it as it is now owned by the Japanese. I see no reason to buy bourbon that isnt made in the US by a US owned company or family! I would rather drink bottom shelf swill (ok not really I traded up to some nice single barrel varieties) then send my cash overseas. If im gonna do that ill get some nice scotch!!

    • Michael – Jim Beam is and always will be made in Clermont, KY by Americans. Fred Noe is the 7th generation family master distiller. His son is soon to be the 8th. That’s the biggest misconception of the purchase of Jim Beam brands by Suntory. In fact, the Beam Suntory headquarters is in the United States.

      Totally understand how the purchase can run you the wrong way. But the product is still American made the same way it has been by America’s first family of bourbon.

    • Michael,

      I understand your reservations about Beam no longer being American owned, but if you don’t mind allowing me to dispel a couple of things. Point 1) Beam, by definition of being bourbon, MUST be made in the US. Bourbon cannot be made anywhere else, much like champagne cannot be made anywhere but the champagne region of France. We passed a law in 1964 making sure of this. So, while not US owned, it is by definition US made. Secondly, the family is still very much involved. In fact, Fred Noe (7th generation master distiller of Jim Beam) and Rob Samuels (8th generation family distiller of makers mark) are still not only heavily involved in the making of the bourbons, but also in the directions of these products. So, to say they aren’t family made is not actually correct either.
      Many bourbons on the market are no longer American owned. As larger liquor companies are forming, many are joining forces with international companies to help increase their global visibility. I only say this to give a little bit of perspective to the industry, the history of Beam, and maybe encourage you to give it, or some of its other brands like Bakers or Knob Creek, another chance. Until then, enjoy your single barrels; there are some amazing ones currently out there!

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