When it comes to launching a whole new brand extension, one would assume that a company the size of Beam Suntory doesn’t do anything on a whim. As giants of the American whiskey industry, its movements and new product launches are quite calculated, making the ultimate decisions made by Beam’s superiors potentially illuminating as to how they think the world of whiskey evolves at some point. So whenever there’s a new line extension from Beam, we tend to look at it through a critical lens, interpreting what it says about the bourbon sphere as a whole.
What about Beam’s new launch of Hardin’s Creek as a brand? It’s intriguing, as it illustrates both the inherent quality of the company’s distillate and their desire to monetize this whiskey into a premium product, even when the story can’t quite justify the price in some cases. . This is one of those times when a brand isn’t too difficult to understand in a vacuum, but it struggles harder when context is applied, compared to other brands belonging to the same company.
At the same time, Hardin’s Creek is also designed as a centerpiece of the company’s (relatively) “young blood”, being a product of the new Fred B. Noe Distillery, named after master distiller Freddie Noe. The company says the Hardin’s Creek brand will produce “an ongoing series of annual releases, featuring some of James B. Beam Distilling Co.’s rarest and most unique liquids. Each set of releases will showcase the breadth and depth of depth of James B. Beam Distilling Co’s whiskey-making credentials, including age, blend, mash bill, distillation, barrels, rack locations, and more.
To kick off the new series, we have two releases that are pretty clearly aimed at illustrating the transformative power of age in terms of time spent in a bourbon cask. Both of these versions, Colonel James B. Beam and Jacob’s Well, were cut at the same strength (108 proof), but where the first only bears a 2 year age statement, the second is over 15 . This invites an obvious comparison, so let’s taste both and do just that.
ABV: 54% (108 evidence)
This is the 2-year-old bourbon mentioned above, or as the company describes it: “In making this whisky, Freddie Noe was inspired by the style of bourbon the Colonel was making on Day 121: weak proof of distillation for a richer flavor, ensuring the richness and complexity of the young whiskey remains intact.
Or in other words, this whiskey is a bit of an experiment in a technique that is increasingly popular with smaller distilleries less concerned with efficiency, which is evidence of lower distillation. It is believed that lower proof of distillation leaves more volatile aromatic compounds (called congeners) in the distillate, but it simultaneously means that you produce less alcohol in each batch. A big company like Beam doesn’t tend to get into such things except for experimental batches like this, and so that contributes to a higher price point here.
Still, that said… asking $80 for any two-year-old bourbon, even an overly hardy bourbon, is always going to be a tough sell, and that’s all the more true if the company behind it is Beam, because they produce so many other bourbons that are very good values. Example: the MSRP of the excellent Knob Creek 12 Year Old is only $60. Therefore, Beam is really making the point that the uniqueness of this it is worth paying an extreme premium. Is it? Let’s taste.
On the nose, it’s pleasantly sweet, reminiscent of wildflower honey and grilled peaches, as well as Beam’s notes of hazelnut, caramel and baked apple. It really is a beautiful nose, hinting only at youth with some of the most avant-garde impressions. Admittedly, it smells very different than, say, a standard, glued version of Jim Beam. On the palate, things get quite sweet, along the lines of cinnamon vanilla ice cream, toasted nuts, cornbread and surprisingly spicy oak. There’s a fair amount of spice here, but the youthfulness emerges more over time with assertive grit and sweet corn clashing with big hits of baking spice.
Overall, it’s a sweet but enjoyable dram, but it’s a tough sell at this price, even as part of a new experimental series. Beam may have thought about the concept too much here, rather than seeing it from the perspective of one of their average customers – it would be hard to buy a bottle of this without wanting to spend that $80 on an outstanding and well aged from the same distillery.
ABV: 54% (108 evidence)
At the other end of the spectrum, we have Hardin’s Creek’s other inaugural outlet, Jacob’s Well. Where Col. B. Beam was an experiment specifically in low proof distillation, this is more like a fastball in the middle of the thing Beam really excels at: well-aged traditional bourbon. According to the company, it’s a blend of 15-year-old high-rye bourbon and 16-year-old traditional bourbon, which “pays homage to the first family distiller, Jacob Beam, and the well built in 1795.”
Right off the bat, you have to recognize that this looks like a much more attractive and fair MSRP. There’s often a casual bar for some of the great distilleries and well-aged bourbons, where the MSRP is around $10 a year, so that $150 mark seems pretty on point, even though the Knob Creek lot , 15 years old, is particularly cheaper $100. Still, I suspect this one won’t rub whiskey geeks the wrong way the way Colonel B. Beam might.
On the nose, this extra-aged expression is deliciously rich, giving off big impressions of toasted marshmallow, strawberry jam, old oak and Tootsie roll, as well as the earthier elements often found in Beam bourbon though. aged. On the palate, I get molasses and slightly bitter caramel, along with black cherry, plum and spice cake. There’s tons of oak, as you’d expect, but it’s masterfully integrated into this flavor profile – tons of old, earthy, spicy wood, but never too much astringency or tannin. The sweetness and woody dryness balance each other just about perfectly, settling into final notes of sweet almond, dried fruit and vanilla.
Overall, I really like the delicate balance of the oak here – I like how much of the wood is represented, without picking up on any of the potentially negative aspects of this level of oakiness. It truly looks like the work of the masters, and is easily the star of these early Hardin’s Creek releases. Here’s hoping future bottles in this series can hit the mark that Jacob’s Well is setting. Those who particularly like well-aged Beam bourbons will want to go out of their way to nab this one.
Jim Vorel is a staff writer at Paste and a resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.