Happening upon older, limited edition bottlings while browsing a store for the first time (in a while) is always a fun experience. I equate it to going off the beaten path in a videogame and finding a long-lost item that sets you off on a fun side quest. This happened to me last year when I browsed a local store and found a couple bottles of Jim Beam Signature Craft Quarter Cask. I knew Jim Beam had a Signature Craft series of pint-size bottles, and I also knew about the more recent Knob Creek Quarter Oak, but this particular 750ml expression was a new one to me.
Per the bottle:
Jim Beam Signature Craft is a series of innovative whiskeys designed to showcase some of the finest hand-crafted expressions from our diverse lineup. Each Signature Craft whiskey brings something new, uniquely crafted and extremely special to the world of Small Batch Bourbon…Our 2014 edition is finished with bourbon aged in quarter-sized casks for four to five years.
The idea of using smaller casks to age—typically to mimic higher aging—isn’t an uncommon practice, but it never really caught on the way more ubiquitous finishing techniques have. Even the aforementioned Knob Creek Quarter Oak, which saw fairly high distribution, has more or less been forgotten. Quarter Cask essentially preceded its spiritual successor, albeit with a lower bottling proof. Is there a reason this style of whiskey didn’t make a big splash? Let’s have a look:
Nose: Corn-forward and fruity, reminds me of fresh cornbread and a honeyed, peach glaze with some cherries. Hints of butterscotch and tobacco with some light brown sugar and mildly dry oak notes.
Palate: Light mouthfeel; mild silkiness. Standard light brown sugar, dried apple, and mild vanilla notes. Honey and peach amidst a backbone of corn, oak, and light caramel.
Finish: Mild, mossy oak flavor with sugared cherries and a little smoke. Tannins seem to linger on the mid-palate. Impressions of vanilla and baked golden fruits.
I’m normally a defender of proofing down spirits prior to bottling, so long as the final product holds up. Whiskey is still business at the end of the day, however, especially when considering a big player like Jim Beam that’s owned by a publicly traded company (Beam Suntory). So by the same token, I’m not fond of proofing whiskey down solely to sell and move more product. This is where Quarter Cask comes in. Limited or otherwise special-release bottles inherently carry a certain expectation: that not everyone who wants to will get to try or find them. But when you’re dealing with a market where demand is constantly growing, it’s easy to consider certain alternatives. Add a little water, sell more product, and allow more people to potentially try your limited release. Win-win, right?
Not so much.
The thing with Quarter Cask is that it has a number of things going for it. Despite coming across as corn-forward, the overall experience is quite pleasant with a small, but welcome variety of notes that make it easier and more fun to pick apart than other pours. Unfortunately, these notes are carried by a weak vessel, one that not only fails to deliver some much-needed depth, but also undermines the present notes from being stronger. It’s almost impossible to shake the suspicion that Jim Beam got carried away with proofing down the whiskey. What this ultimately translates to is a release that’s enjoyable enough and little else. This is fine for everyday releases, but if the effort is going to be put into a limited production run, then the final product should truly showcase the whiskey—absent obvious hindrances.