Quarter-cask finishing marks the third release in the Jim Beam Signature Craft collection, the innovative small-batch, limited-release series from the world's largest Bourbon distiller. Expected in liquor stores in September, it takes a page from Laphroaig single malt, which has long had a quarter-cask expression.
"We kind of learned it from our friends at Laphroaig," says Beam master distiller Fred Noe, referring to John Campbell, who holds the same title at the Islay Scotch distillery. Both whiskeys are owned by parent company Beam Suntory.
Noe reveals that the Bourbon was created by mingling a number of whiskeys, including a base of five-year-old Jim Beam, with expressions that had been further aged in quarter casks, formerly used for Sherry and Bourbon. The finish in this case was unusually long: between four and six years.
Aging in small vessels increases contact with the wood inside the barrel and thus speeds maturation. Small casks are common among craft distillers, which are trying to hurry aging, but unusual for established distillers.
"John [Campbell] issued a lot of warnings about using small casks," says Noe of his counterpart. "He said, ‘Watch it!' because the whiskey can get too woody." Watching it involved constantly testing it as it aged. Noe seems to have followed the directive well as the "big wood" that is present has a rich caramel and vanilla quality. Fruit is the other dominant note informing the whiskey.
The Quarter Cask joins the permanent member of the Signature Cask line, 12-Year-Old, and a limited release, Rare Spanish Brandy Finish, both introduced in 2013. Noe says of the Quarter Cask, "When it's gone, it's gone." (The same is true of the Spanish Brandy version.)
Another branch of the Signature Craft tree is the Harvest Bourbon collection, featuring six Bourbons that focus on different grains. The first two releases, which will continue through 2015, are Soft Red Wheat Bourbon and Brown Rice. Others include Rolled Oat, Triticale, High Rye and Six Row Barley. While Bourbon is defined by the corn majority in its grain formula, distillers have latitude to choose the other "small grains" in the mash bill.
Noe attributes this experimental collection, which dates back at least 11 years, to Jerry Dalton, whom he succeeded as master distiller. Dalton, he says, was fond of "thinking outside the barrel."
In another development, the venerable Bourbon maker is conducting a contest around its Jim Beam Single Barrel (not to be confused with Knob Creek Single Barrel) released early in this year. The program requests personal statements (including toasts, favorite place to enjoy, etc.) about the whiskey in 50 characters or less. Winners will be printed on bottles sold in stores. Visit jimbeamsinglestatement.com to participate.
Jim Beam Signature Craft 3rd Release Quarter Cask Finished (86 proof, or 43 percent alcohol by volume; no age statement; $39 per 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Deep honey color. Medium-width legs are slow to start and then speed up.
NOSE: Deep caramel and maple aromas with underlying fruitiness. Whiffs of honey, apple and crisp cinnamon are redolent of French toast.
PALATE: Fruits (tart cherry and berries) develop on the tongue along with a goodly portion of spice (cinnamon and nutmeg). Caramel base remains steadfast throughout.
FINISH: The sweetness tails off, leaving maple and honey notes.
CIGAR PAIRING: Diamond Crown Julius Caeser Toro (6 inches by 52 ring gauge, $13.30, 90 points, Cigar Aficionado August 2014) The sweet first puffs of this dark toro become more complex with cinnamon and candied orange peel notes. Medium-bodied with a slow burn and even draw. The prospect of matching the cinnamon and fruit of the cigar with like notes on the Bourbon suggested this pairing. We weren't disappointed, but a little surprised when the Beam brought out apple, not orange on the Crown. However, the toro excited the orange presence on the whiskey. The combined elements layered on the spice (cinnamon and licorice), while the hearty notes of the Beam regressed a bit. However, the cigar mellowed under the Bourbon's influence.
Don Pepin Garcia Original (7 inches by 50 ring gauge, $8.45, 90 points, Cigar Aficionado August 2014) Rolled with an oily wrapper and flat head, this Churchill is starts out very sweet with plenty of maple, hickory and brown sugar notes. There's an underlying earthiness throughout the smoke. The aim here was that the barrel flavors and sweetness of the Bourbon would strengthen similar elements on the cigar. The scheme worked as the Beam filled out the Don Pepin, accentuating its maple. Once again fruit played a big part, this time with the whiskey growing in cherry notes and ripe apple. The spice of the Bourbon also sidled up to the floral quality on the Churchill quite amiably.