Review: Jim Beam & Jim Beam Black
“This tastes like feeling sorry for yourself.”
Such was the Rebel Spouse’s pronouncement upon trying bourbon for the first time, in the form of Jim Beam Black. And the Bartender couldn’t help but agree with him. Strongly oaky and slightly sour, the stuff burns its way down your throat, especially if you’re not steeled for it. But then, after leaving that streak of liquid fire down your trachea, it hits the pit of your stomach, lighting a warm and oddly comforting little fire there. Not at all unlike the quasi-masturbatory experience of self-flagellation, where the pain of wallowing in your own mistakes and their consequences gives way to the empty but oddly sweet sense of having cried oneself out, and being ready to face the coming day. Is it any wonder Humphrey Bogart serves the stuff straight up at his personal pity party?
The classic, white-label Jim Beam was actually the Bartender’s first experience with hard liquor, thanks to her teetotaling mother nonetheless having a couple of airplane bottles on hand with which to make bourbon cakes. It’s not as awful as you might expect from its price and ubiquity, either. The nose is not particularly complex, but oaky and slightly sweet. As for the taste, while there’s definitely some harshness (especially for the whiskey-uninitiated), the flavor is an oddly compelling mix of sweet-sourness. And then, of course, there’s the signature (and disconcertingly pleasant) bourbon burn. If anything, its biggest liability is its simplicity. It’s just not very interesting on its own – quite good in a mixed drink, but not something you properly savor and appreciate singly. That said, at an average of $15 a bottle, it’s hard to argue with as a bar staple.
Jim Beam Black, on the other hand, has a little more character to it. Its claim to fame is the extra time barrel-aging – eight years instead of four – and the oakiness definitely comes through on the nose. It also has a noticeably stronger burn, even more than the extra 6 proof on the label would indicate. Strangely, though, the extra character all but disappears when mixed; the Bartender made up Whiskey Sours with each to compare, and the only real difference with the Black was a slightly more complex finish. This is possibly the ultimate drink for the aforementioned pity parties; it’s also good paired with particularly sweet and rich foods, such as spice cake with cream cheese frosting. And for only a few dollars more than the regular Jim Beam, it’s almost worth stocking this instead for its versatility – drink it on the rocks when you’re not feeling particularly fancy, or shake it up for a perfectly decent whiskey sour.
The Bottom Line:
Jim Beam: Good for cooking or mixing, but plain on its own. B
Jim Beam Black: Perfectly decent straight, but not so pricey you’ll regret mixing it – a rare combo. A-