Few words will make a whiskey fan’s ears perk up more than “age.” Try as we might to convince ourselves that age is “just a number” and that more age doesn’t automatically mean a better product, there’s always something alluring about trying something that’s even slightly older. For example, if someone’s bragging about a pick of Knob Creek Single Barrel bourbon that they have, chances are it’s because the age is either at or approaching 14-15 years, rather than say, the rickhouse or rick number. I know because I’ve done the same. It’s practically human nature to be drawn to bigger numbers or something more than what you could normally get.
I also mention Knob Creek because it makes a nice jumping point into the whiskey of today’s review: Jim Beam Black. Those who’ve either been into whiskey for a while or are aware of the expression’s history might recall that it used to carry an 8-year age statement. After a number of bottle and label redesigns, it lost that age statement and simply advertises itself as “extra-aged to taste and bottled only when it’s just right.” For an extra $5 or so, drinkers can get Jim Beam with a slight bump in proof and undisclosed bump in age. Is it worthy of either note or purchase? Let’s find out.
Nose: Sweet and corn-forward with straw/hay-like notes. Vanilla with vague caramel and oak notes. One of those bourbons that reminds me of state/county fairs. Licorice and watery lemonade. Bit of a cleaner-like personality that’s tough to shake. Stale, dried up grapefruit.
Palate: Light and sweet. Somehow feels both grainy and slightly syrupy at the same time. Generic caramel sweetness thrown off by notes of lemon, Cracker Jacks, and an underripe and dried banana note. Licorice and a little black pepper. Comes across as bizarrely artificial.
Finish: Fleeting. Whispers of vanilla, corn, and honey. After a few sips the corn barely holds up, along with impressions of wood.
When I look at the history of Jim Beam Black, I can’t help but think of how George Carlin began his famous bit on euphemistic language. He essentially described how the term “shell shock” changed throughout the years, becoming softer with each iteration, from “battle fatigue” to “operational exhaustion,” and finally, “post-traumatic stress disorder.” We could look at Jim Beam Black in its original, 8-year form like the stronger “shell shock” term, which eventually lost its age statement around the time that it was called “XA Extra Aged.” The current iteration may have the “simple language” Carlin was fond of, but the strength and personality of the whiskey itself, like the humanity in PTSD, “has been squeezed completely out.”
I honestly don’t know whether I’d take this over Jim Beam White or not. Although it contains a number of characteristics that sound superior on paper, I’d be lying if I said they came together in a way that I enjoyed. Compared to its cheaper, younger sibling, there’s a fleeting degree of silkiness with a far sweeter profile and, ultimately, more going on. Yet everything about it just feels off. Beam products that hover around the $20 mark seem to be particularly hit or miss, whether it be Black, Double Oaked, or Old Tub. Jim Beam Black may accomplish its goal of building upon the younger White label, but I can’t say it’s one I feel compelled to revisit.