Saturday, October 20, 2007

Last Night's Tipple

Jim Beam makes a heck of a lot of Bourbon. Jim Beam White Label is the best-selling Bourbon in the world, and Jim Beam Brands owns and produces many other well-known brands in the marketplace, including Maker's Mark, Knob Creek, Booker's, Old Taylor, Old Crow, Old Grand-Dad, and many more. And yet, the Jim Beam name appears in the brand name for only a very few: Jim Beam White Label, Jim Beam Black Label, Jim Beam's Choice (green label), and Jim Beam Rye. That's it. There are other variations available overseas (I've seen a picture of Jim Beam Bonded in the standard square Beam bottle with a gold label), but there are only four in the US market. Beam has gotten into the upscale Bourbon market in a big way with the introduction of the Small Batch Bourbon collection (Booker's, Baker's, Knob Creek, and Basil Hayden's) and the purchase of Maker's Mark (which markets itself as an upscale Bourbon, even though there are better ones similar in flavor profile on the market at similar prices); but they have never attempted to use the Beam name prominently in any of these upscale brands. They certainly don't hide that Booker's is a Beam product, for example, but it's not like they try to sell a Jim Beam Single Barrel Aged 13 Years in the US, either. All of the products that bear the Jim Beam name in the brand are middle-shelf or lower. I'm not sure why this is. It could be a realization that too many Bourbon snobs would look down their noses at any product with the Jim Beam name in the brand name (Jim Beam is the biggest producer of Bourbon in the world and must therefore be ridiculed), or it could be that they fear a negative reaction from the legion of consumers who make the White Label the success it is ("You've taken the good Bourbon out of the White Label and put it in some fancy-schmancy bottling!"). I don't know, but it is undeniably the fact that Black Label is the best of the three Bourbon products that include Jim Beam in the name.

It apparently is also one of the more tinkered-with of the Jim Beam products. It started life as a 101-month-old 90 proof Bourbon, then it went to a 8-year-old 90 proof, then a 7-year-old 90 proof, then an 8-year-old 86 proof. I don't have any explanation for why Beam felt it necessary to make these changes, all in a relatively short period of time. Beam Black Label was introduced in something like its current incarnation only after the National Distillers acquisition in 1987. It could have been a matter of the stocks of aged Bourbon that Beam had on hand in the early '90s, or it could have been the result of market research and brand positioning. But I do know one thing: both in its packaging and its pricing, it's obvious that Beam Black Label is trying to compete with Jack Daniel's. A few year ago, JD went from 86 proof to 80 proof, and Beam Black went from 90 to 86. Could it be that Beam was just trying to stay one step ahead of JD in proof? That is, to enable salesmen to say, "Look, it's the same price as JD, it's older than JD, and it's higher in proof than JD" while at the same time lowering the proof and saving the money from excise taxes? It seems reasonable to me, but I have no way of knowing.

And what about the Bourbon inside the bottle? It's a good product, although it isn't my favorite. There's too much wood and not enough caramel, and I think that it could benefit from a higher proof. As it is, it tastes a bit watered down. It's a good, reliable, middle-shelf Bourbon, but nothing more.

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