Jim Beam just upgraded its black label bourbon and we got a first taste

By Jonah Flicker 19 June, 2024
jim beam

A few extra years of maturation had a big impact on this whiskey

If you’ve been busy hunting down unicorn bottles and looking for higher-age-statement whiskeys over the past few years, it may have been a minute since you’ve tasted the core Jim Beam lineup. But the James B. Beam Distilling Co. just provided a good reason to revisit it by upgrading Jim Beam Black with a seven-year-old age statement, and we got an early taste.

Jim Beam Black has gone from being an “extra-aged” bourbon matured for five to six years and bottled at 86 proof, to being a seven-year-old bourbon at 90 proof with a new label design. And this is indeed an improvement on the liquid. The core nutty, grainy Jim Beam character is still present, but it’s augmented by notes of toasted bread, fresh berries, black pepper, rum raisin, cocoa powder, and caramel. I had a chance to visit the distillery recently to spend a couple of hours with master distiller Fred Noe, an icon in the Kentucky bourbon industry, to discuss the relaunch of Jim Beam Black. We met in one of the distillery’s many warehouses to taste some seven-year-old bourbon at cask strength straight from the barrel, and at around 125 proof this was an impressive whiskey.

Noe told me that one of the reasons they were able to add an age statement to the bottle is that the market has actually slowed down a bit coming out of the coronavirus pandemic. “Right now the market is a little soft, so everything is getting a little older,” he said. The barrels for this initial release of the new Jim Beam Black, however, were separated out to age further before the market weakened, and Noe credits his son and eighth-generation master distiller Freddie Noe with having the foresight to do this. “The demand is not as strong as it was, so barrels are potentially getting a little older. Freddie saw we had some older Jim Beam because we weren’t pulling out as much four-year-old [for White Label], so he said let’s take [Black] up to seven years and put an age statement back on the bottle.”

Noe recognises that while age doesn’t necessarily indicate quality, age statements are important to many consumers. “True bourbon lovers like to know what’s in the bottle,” he said. “In the old days, people did studies and crap that said age statements don’t matter. Sure, to the guy that drinks Jim Beam White Label and Coke they don’t, but other people like to know what makes this different from other competitors on the shelf.” According to Noe, his father, legendary master distiller Booker Noe, thought seven years old was the age that really brought out the vanilla notes in bourbon. “Before that age it’s minor, but to really get it where you can see it, smell it, it’s seven years.” Freddie and his team played around with the proof as well, but decided on 90 as a good sipping and mixing strength.

Jim Beam Black is not the only label to get a new age statement. Over the past few years, Knob Creek added 12, 15, and 18-year-old expressions to its lineup after the nine-year-old age statement returned to the core bourbon. On the rye side, a seven-year-old and 10-year-old versions were recently launched. Those are significant moves to make during a bourbon downturn, and Noe acknowledges there’s some uncertainty at the moment. “I think the industry got a little spoiled during Covid,” he said. “There was double digit growth on just about anything you put on the shelf when people were staying at home drinking more. Now they’re getting out, maybe drinking a little less. You’re seeing more push towards low and no alcohol, people are more health conscious. And there’s just a lot of stuff out there, the shelves are very crowded with bottles. Anybody who’s got a fat cheque book has a distillery.”

Another upside to having a glut of bourbon because of decreased demand is that the age of White Label might rise a bit in the near future. “We’re at a point now where we can increase the age a few months and get it more well rounded, get that grainy note to become less prevalent,” said Noe. This is something that he says the Suntory Global Spirits (formerly Beam Suntory) team in Japan fully supports. “It’s all about quality. Taking the quality up, you won’t get any pushback from our Japanese owners. They’re backing Freddie up 100 percent.”

This story first appeared on Robb Report USA