Just in time for the Kentucky Derby, Jim Beam has released the third in its Masterpiece collection series of Bourbons that enjoy an alternative wood finish—this one achieved in Pedro Ximenez Sherry casks.
But there's a hitch: In order to purchase this limited-edition whiskey, customers must visit the Jim Beam distillery in Clermont, Kentucky. A small price to pay, since every Bourbon lover should make a pilgrimage to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail to fully appreciate America's original spirit.
Production of Distiller's Masterpiece, Finished in PX Sherry Casks was overseen by Fred Noe, the seventh-generation master distiller and great-grandson of Jim Beam. It follows in a tradition of applying an extra finish to Bourbon developed by his father, Booker Noe. The two previous Distiller's Masterpieces were finished in casks previously used to age Cognac and Port.
Fred Noe says that the latest edition came about when they were trying to figure out what to do with some extra-aged Bourbon that had become extremely woody. While the new Bourbon bears no age statement, Noe reveals that it is between 10 and 12 years old. He adds that Bourbon, because of the very warm conditions under which it matures, can become very tannic with extra age: "almost like throwing charcoal in your mouth.
"We were experimenting with ways to tone it down, to soften it up," said Noe. The solution came with the PX Sherry casks, previously used to hold fortified wines from Spain. The vessels have become popular for finishing (and sometimes completely aging) whiskies made in Scotland. Noe says that in using the same basic technique—using an alternative wood for a short, extra aging of Bourbon already aged in the traditional charred, new-oak barrels—his team tried a number of other finishes. "You want to find two things that will complement each other."
The whiskey, Noe says, was originally aged in parts of the warehouses similar to those used to draw the ultra-premium Bourbon, Booker's, developed by his father in the early '90s. That whiskey, while not as old, comes from what Booker called the center cut: middle floors of north/south facing warehouses. Noe explains that those floors are not as hot as the conditions in the upper reaches, but allow more give and take with the surrounding atmosphere than in the lower stories. Standard Jim Beam is a mixture of whiskeys from floors throughout the warehouses, melded to create a consistent taste profile.
Noe adds that this is the first exclusive bottling sold only at the distillery. The company has previously offered replica bottles of Old Tub, the company's label before it began using the Jim Beam label. That was a 100-proof, bottled-in-bond Bourbon—much like the Jim Beam White Label—"made for history people who ask, 'What was the label before Jim Beam?'"
Only 2,000 bottles of the latest Distiller's Masterpiece were created and packaged in a specially designed bottle and wooden box with a Plexiglas front. The hope with the limited and exclusive, distillery-only marketing is that it will entice more visitors to the distillery. That seems to be working, with the bottles selling well and a recent tally of 1,000 visitors to the site in one day (well on pace to top 2012's record of 80,000 in one year).
If the excellent whiskey isn't draw enough, Noe says that he will sign bottles for customers on request, assuming he is on site and available. He only asks that purchasers enjoy the signed whiskey instead of stashing it away as a keepsake. "As Dad always said, 'Drink it yourself or your survivors will.'"
(Tasting notes and cigar pairings on next page)
Jim Beam Distiller's Masterpiece Finished in PX Sherry Casks (100 proof, or 50 percent alcohol by volume; no age statement; $199.99 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Straddles between copper and dark toffee in color. At first, the legs seem come in minute droplets. They stubbornly cling to the class, and when they at last begin to stroll down it's because they've clung together in fully formed beads.
NOSE: At first sniff the bouquet is a quick snap of caramel and vanilla (the hallmarks of Bourbon). But rather quickly come intense fruity notes: blackberries and cherries, followed by a snap of orange peel. Then the nose floats off into more exotic fruit: cassis and passion fruit.
PALATE: Explodes with fruit flavor on the tongue, channeling red berries, cherries, blueberries and pomegranate (like a citrusy Grenadine). Then it shows some floral aspects and a bit of herbal tea. And just when you're saying, "This is great, but is it really Bourbon," maple sugar and walnuts charge to remind of its ultimate provenance.
FINISH: This Bourbon behaves like a consummate Cognac with a flavor safari and complexity. At the finish, it is no exception as the parade moves on and on, switching back and forth from its out-front fruitiness to the engrained savory Bourbon elements of caramel, maple, vanilla, nuts and wood.
CIGAR PAIRING: Undercrown Robusto (5 inches by 54 ring gauge, $7.95, 88 points, June 2013 Cigar Aficionado). There is a cola aroma that emanates from the unlit foot of this dark, solidly rolled robusto. Cola flavors recur on the palate along with notes of earth and black licorice. The Undercrown glows like a lightning bug in the presence of the Bourbon, with its understated sweetness coming to the fore and the cola and anise flavors gaining more prominence. The Masterpiece develops a honey character, and its implicit nuttiness is more explicit.
Arturo Fuente Chateau Fuente Royal Salute Sungrown (7 5/8 inches by 54 ring gauge, $7.55, 87 points, June 2013 Cigar Aficionado). Leather and walnut flavor manages to get through the firm draw of this large, dark double corona. A medium- to full-bodied smoke. Once again, the Bourbon elicits fruit and sugar from the Fuente, this time a honey character not previously realized by the smoke. The cigar triumphs as the better companion for the Masterpiece, drawing out deep Sherry undertones—with its nuttiness—from the whiskey.