Time To Give Jack And Jim Another Look

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Premium Whiskeys From Jim Beam And Jack Daniel’s Have Become A Big Deal This Year

By Richard Thomas

Jack Daniel's ain't just the staple of Animal House anymore

Jack Daniel’s ain’t just
the staple of Animal House anymore.

To say that American whiskey enthusiasts need to give Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam another look might seem a peculiar statement at first glance. These two whiskeys are ranked as the third and eighth best-selling liquors in the U.S. Not just among whiskeys, mind you, but among spiritous liquors in general. Their distilleries in Clermont, Kentucky and Lynchburg, Tennessee are giants in the industry. Everyone who knows whiskey knows who Jack and Jim are.

Yet that very success has caused most enthusiasts to look past Jim, and especially Jack. Even among my own colleagues, discussions of products coming from Jack Daniel’s dwell on college drinking experiences and how their palates and interests have moved beyond the thing Jim Belushi chugged like iced tea. As for Jim Beam, enthusiasts focus on the top shelf, and it’s been a long time since Jim did anything exciting there.

Fair enough, but in light of recent events it’s high time for whiskey fans to look past their familiarity and give Jim and Jack another look.

Big Boys Left In The Dust
Go back 20 years and the idea that Jim Beam in particular was somehow being overlooked by whiskey enthusiasts would have been silly indeed, because in the mid-1990s the way many became acquainted with premium bourbon was via the Beam Small Batch Collection. This group of bourbons—Knob Creek, Booker’s, Baker’s and Basil Hayden—date to the late 1980s and early 1990s, and were an important step out of the doldrums following the whiskey crash of the 1970s.

Knob Creek Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey

Knob Creek,
the popular, but familiar, classic
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Today, however, they are regarded as reliable, go-to staples by American whiskey enthusiasts everywhere. Drinkers love them, especially Knob Creek and Booker’s, but it’s been a long time since they were regarded as hot topics.

Lynchburg, on the other hand, never really got on board with the small batch buzz of the mid-1990s. Gentleman Jack dates to 1988, same as Booker’s, but it has solicited little excitement among whiskey geeks, then or now. From the point of view of the whiskey fan back then, the exciting thing Brown-Forman was doing was the brand new Woodford Reserve, not Jack Daniel’s.

Instead, products like Gentleman Jack contributed to a perception of Jack Daniel’s among enthusiasts that all of the distillery’s products were closely bound to a narrow flavor profile. There is good reason for that perception too, because it was confirmed as intentional by every former employee of the distillery I have ever spoken to.

The Giants Flex Their Muscles
A lot happened as Jack slept and Jim rested on the Small Batch Collection. Four Roses was revived from its coma; Buffalo Trace emerged as the center of wheated bourbon craze. Most of the focus at the upper end of the bourbon spectrum shifted to these two, with much of the remainder settling on super premium offerings from Heaven Hill and Old Forester.

Booker's Rye

Booker’s Rye:
a strong contender for the best whiskey of 2016
(Credit: Beam Suntory)

Jim Beam began shaking things up a few years ago with its Signature Craft series, as well as other releases like Distiller’s Masterpiece and the innovative Harvest Collection. While well-received for the most part, these whiskeys generated little real buzz among enthusiasts. The response received was akin to that of Woodford Reserve’s Masters Collection, which is noted and appreciated rather than met with a big fuss in bourbon circles.

Booker’s morphed into a limited edition line, with each batch having its own particular identity. This met with somewhat more success, but did not turn Booker’s into a hot ticket item. In June 2016, I was able to find several past Booker’s releases in two different states. At the same time, the only place I could find Four Roses Elliott’s Select Single Barrel was at the distillery.

All that changed this year with the release of Booker’s Rye and Knob Creek 2001, two whiskeys met with the kind of excitement usually reserved for the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and the like. Twitter and the internet forums were ablaze with first speculation, then pictures and rave reviews. Blogs were also lively with a mix of praise and, in some corners, condemnation of the high price tag attached to the new pair of whiskeys. Picking up a bottle of either required advance planning and/or good connections, at least in some parts of the U.S.

Jack Daniels' Barrel Prof Single Barrel

Jack Daniels’ Barrel Proof Single Barrel
(Credit: John Rayls)

Down in Lynchburg, Jack Daniel’s has finally shown some inclination to do something more interesting. Their choice to make rye whiskey called for using their first new mashbill in a century. After a succession of step-by-step iterations, Jack’s rye culminated in this year’s Single Barrel Rye. This follows the 2015 debut of Single Barrel Barrel Proof, a whiskey that has been making droves of writers and bloggers into JD converts.

Both of these whiskeys were reasonably priced (on par with Booker’s), and neither is hard to find. That said, the pair of them signal Lynchburg’s willingness to break out of the all-too-familiar Jack Daniel’s mold.

In 2016, Jack Daniel’s has made a strong statement with two premium whiskeys. At the same time, Jim Beam broke into sizzling, super premium limited edition whiskey with two offerings of its own. Of the Beam pairing, Booker’s Rye is a strong contender not just for best rye, but best whiskey of 2016. Based on that, it’s time to count Jack and Jim among the distilleries that give enthusiasts something exciting to look forward to every year.

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