Category Archives: Whiskey
Once again, it’s time for we Americans to celebrate the independence of our nation. Across the US, millions of people are indulging in those quintessentially Statesian traditions of outdoor barbeques, explosives, and alcohol consumption. Admittedly, the wisdom of combining those last two concepts seems questionable at best, but the Bartender lives in an area recently plagued with wildfires, and has forgone the explosives for this year – thus allowing her to partake of libations freely. And really, what could be more American than inexpensive and readily-available Kentucky bourbon?
For those unfamiliar with the Kirkland Signature line, it’s the house brand for Costco Wholesale‘s chain of warehouse stores. It’s also a store brand of surprisingly consistent quality; one of Costco’s big draws is that they accept returns on anything, no questions asked – if you buy something and don’t like it, you can bring it back (and thanks to the membership system, they don’t even require a receipt). Obviously, this creates an incentive to stock products of good quality, and the Bartender was very impressed by their vodka offering. Therefore, when she discovered they had started carrying bourbon as well, she was extremely interested in trying it, especially as the Rebel Spouse’s stock of 1792 (his preferred brand) was currently gone. And if it could stand up to the 1792 in quality, it represented a significant potential savings – $20 for a liter as opposed to $28 for a fifth.
Alas, Kirkland’s first impression was not positive. At 103 proof, the stuff is extremely hot when drunk straight; what few notes come through the alcohol burn are overpoweringly oaky and sour. Adding a bit of water, or serving it on the rocks, helps some; the flavors open up, allowing some charcoal and molasses notes through and giving it a bit more complexity. It does, however, still burn significantly on the way down; this is pity party bourbon of the first degree.
In all fairness, it’s not without its charms – it mixes up into a perfectly decent whiskey sour, and the strong flavor would probably work very well in bourbon lava cakes. But I wouldn’t really recommend it straight unless you enjoy the sensation of having your taste buds scalded into submission. C+
“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-