Thursday, October 22, 2009

Review: Jim Beam Black

Bourbon is a classic American whisky. A spirit with a poorly recorded past, but the general consensus is that it was originally distilled in and around the county of Bourbon, in the state of Kentucky, during the 18th century. The Jim Beam brand can trace its existence back to the earliest beginnings of bourbon.

Barley malt, corn and rye grains, in varying proportions, are mixed together with Kentucky water to produce a “mash.” You will note on many bourbon bottles, “sour mash” and this refers to the the mash of a previously distilled batch being added to a new one. The distillation process is fairly complicated, and I will stop at this point because I do not pretend to fully understand it, nor do I want to lose you, the reader.

Charred Oak Barrels
Bourbon is aged in charred oak barrels. When I say “charred” I mean these barrels were subjected to flames! The spirit is clear when it goes in the barrels, but during the aging process acquires its amber color from the barrels and more importantly that wonderful charcoal flavor.

In any event, that’s enough chit-chat, let’s turn to the matter at hand. What does the widely available Jim Beam Black taste like?

Delicate, slightly floral, more oak and lots of vanilla. Maybe a little charcoal too. Impressive. Not what I expected from a bourbon.

Palate (undiluted)
The palate fulfils the promise made by the nose. Initial mild sweetness that I had difficulty putting my finger on. Eventually, I figured it might be corn or rye flavor, but still not sure. What I am sure of is that it’s damn nice. Anyhow, following entry to the palate, the flavor moves to big, soaring oak, followed by, at the mid-palate point, wonderful, tremendous cleansing wafts of charcoal. The charcoal flavor is fantastic! Very cleansing! Last but not least, tsunami waves of vanilla wash across the palate.

Short to medium finish begins with a sweet burn of cinnamon and candy cane, after which it moves onto a grand finale of charcoal and vanilla, fading like embers of a late night campfire. It’s nice.

What is such a pleasure about drinking bourbon is that sweet charcoal flavor that you will never find in scotch. No nasty bite, heat or aftertaste. Lingering vanilla, oak and charcoal woven carefully like a hand rolled cigar. Very, very nice!

General Impressions
I like this! It’s pleasant, easy-going, not pretentious. I keep thinking about the charcoal flavor. It’s perfect. I really enjoy drinking this straight. I tried it with ice, but did not notice any improvement. If anything, the addition of ice degraded the flavors.

This is so easy-going that people who generally take a little ice or water with their whisky should consider trying this one ‘neat.’ If I were salmon fishing, overlooking a brook in an Adirondack chair with a friend, I would be sipping Jim Beam Black. An unpretentious whisky that compliments a memorable moment of kicking back.

This is a "premium" bourbon due to the lengthy (8 yrs is a lot for bourbon!) aging process. Accordingly, it is not surprising that this is superior to the entry level bourbon offered by Jim Beam, the "White" label. The difference in price is a mere $8 to $10, but what a world of difference. Well worth the few extra dollars. Don't be cheap! Spend a few extra dollars and get a drink that you will still be thinking about days later.

I guess the only criticism that could be voiced (not by me) is that it is not very complex. The presentation of the principal flavors (oak, charcoal and vanilla) is rather straight forward. I can understand how one might raise this criticism, but we are not sipping scotch, we tasting bourbon. Bourbon, by its nature is does not need to have a complex flavor profile in the same tradition of scotch. Why? Because it is bourbon. Bourbon can get a way without such a requirement, but if it is not complex, it better be damn pleasing to the palate. Jim Beam Black is very pleasing. I am not saying bourbon cannot have a complex flavor profile. There are some high end bourbons (ie. Woodford Reserve), but the fact that Jim Beam Black is not, cannot be regarded as a flaw, especially given its reasonable price point.

While I might concede the presentation of flavors is “straight forward” as mentioned above, I would add that the presentation is very elegant and sophisticated, without being over the top (ie. Woodford Reserve).

Jim Beam Black is aged for eight years and I think that makes a big difference. Bourbon aged less than that amount of time tends to have excessive heat, bite and roughness. Jim Beam Black is a classy bourbon that is sure to impress your whisky fan friends!  However, Jim Beam Black exported outside the United States is not aged 8 years, but rather 6 years.  I notice some difference in the quality of the bourbon.  While it is good, it is not as good as the 8 year old bottling only available in the United States.  This will explain why Jim Black bottles outside the US do not have any age statement on the label.

Recommendation: Buy it!


Jason Debly

© Jason Debly, 2009-2011. All rights reserved.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Grant's Family Reserve Scotch Whisky

If you take a look at most of the tasting notes I have posted in this blog, you will observe that I praise most of the different scotches. Reviewers of scotch, amateur (myself) and professional (ie. Jim Murray) tend to heap praise on every spirit evaluated. Trouble is, we may give the impression that it is all good. Not so! There are some dogs out there and the question for this post to consider is whether or not Grant's Family Reserve Scotch Whisky is one of them.

Whisky expert, Jim Murray, in his book, Classic Blended Scotch, described Grant's Family Reserve as "A stunner of a whisky, one of the most complex blends the industry will ever produce."

Ok, that is saying a lot. Too much in my opinion. It's one thing to like a blended scotch, but when you make statements like ". . . one of the most complex blends the industry will ever produce" you catch my attention. For me, Murray had thrown down the gauntlet and challenged me through his words. Me, being a big fan of blends, decided to try this blended scotch and see if it lived up to his high pitched praise. I had tried this blend in the past and did not like it one little bit, but in light of Murray's eloquent admiration of the highest order, which is trumpeted on William Grant's & Sons website ( I decided to second guess my earlier judgment and revisit this very popular brand (4th best selling blended scotch in the world).

Nose (undiluted)
Faint malty notes. Not picking up much else. Not overly inviting.

Nose (diluted)
Water added to this blend seems to accentuate the malty notes.

Palate (undiluted)
You need to take a big slug of this to get any flavor. Don't be shy. This is not a 25 year old single malt that rewards the tiniest of sips with an explosion of splendid flavors. Not so here.

Once you take the medium to big sip, you will be greeted by light/thin flavors of cinnamon stick, cloves, and nutmeg enveloped in an unmistakably grainy, unadulterated alcohol bear hug.

Drank neat, there is no complexity of flavors. I am dumbfounded as to how Jim Murray can say ". . . one of the most complex blends the industry the industry will ever produce." There's truly nothing here.

Palate (diluted)
I added a splash of water (ie. one teaspoon per shot) and was able to detect some creaminess in addition to the malty/cinnamon flavors present when drunk neat. The water lessened the grainy, alcohol soaked backbone of the flavor profile. Bottom line: Water improves this blend.

Finish (undiluted)
Almost non-existent. The finish is gone in a flash and while it lasts, it's mostly a grainy alcohol imbued couple of seconds.

Finish (diluted)
Strangely, the addition of water adds some body to this scotch that translates into a finish with more depth and even a richness to the aforementioned flavors than when drunk neat.

General Impressions
Served neat, this blended scotch tastes cheap mainly due to the alcohol hanging in the background like a groupie at a rock concert. How Jim Murray can praise this blend at all is beyond my comprehension. This is not a stunner of a whisky. It has virtually no complexity of flavor.

Served with a splash of water, this blend improves. Alcohol is toned down, the grainy character is still there but more tolerable, and there is a creamy richness that emerges. Does the addition of water transform this blend into a "stunner?" I think not. It still tastes cheap, but simply more tolerable. Maybe on a very hot summer's day with ice, it would be pleasing or as a base ingredient in a mixed drink.

Whether consumed neat or with water, there is no peat flavors. The constitutent single malts used are Speyside classics: Balvenie and Glenfiddich. You can taste the Balvenie, unfortunately, not enough of it. There is a great deal of grain whisky in this blended scotch, and that is not a good thing.

My lasting impression from tasting this on several occasions is that it Grant's Family Reserve is cheap, bottom shelf, blended scotch, that is not worth the low price charged. For the same price, there are significantly better blends out there like: Black Bottle, White HorseTeacher's Highland Cream, Johnnie Walker Red, and Cutty Sark.

So how come this blend is one of the top world leaders in sales? I think the combination of the low price, a weak flavor profile that lends itself easily to mixed drinks results in it being a staple of bars around the world.

Anyway, you deserve better! Avoid this.


© Jason Debly, 2009-2013. All rights reserved.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Bushmills Black Bush

Bushmills Black Bush
I’ve always felt that Irish whisky never quite gets the respect it so richly deserves. What I mean is that people who go to the local liquor store in search of a whisky as a gift often reach for scotch, much like people who know little about wine automatically reach for French wine. Just as there are many great wines produced outside of France, the same can be said of great whisky being found outside of Scotland. Ireland is a case in point.

Bushmills Black Bush is one of a number of whiskies produced by the distiller, Old Bushmills Distillery, located in the village of Bushmills, in the county of Antrim, Northern Ireland. The claim to fame of this distillery is its age. It was founded in 1784 and needless to say with such a long history, they have perfected the production of fine whisky.

Irish Whisky versus Scotch
In general, the most obvious difference between Irish whisky and scotch is the lack of peat and smoke in the former. This is due to the lack of peat during the distillation process. There is an exception of course to this generalization, Connemara Peated Irish Malt has peat and smoke flavors.

Black Bush is made up primarily of single malts and the remainder with grain whiskies. The majority of single malts used in this blended whisky results in a rich dram with big rounded flavors of chocolate and malt that is memorable, but subdued at the same time.

No age is stated, but I am convinced that the whiskies making up this spirit are in the vicinity of ten years. There is a real depth of character to this whisky. While it is aged in former Oloroso sherry casks, it is not what I would characterize as a sherried whisky. A small percentage of grain whisky is blended to give it a sweet character. This is a sweet whisky but not overly so.

Serving Suggestion
This is too fine to use in a mixed drink. This is deserving of being consumed neat or with a little water or ice. This tasting note was based on a neat serving.

Nose (undiluted)
Restrained. No over-the-top aromas wafting up. Instead, nosing this whisky will result in the enjoyment of delicate, soft notes of malt, warm fruitcake and molten chocolate.

Palate (undiluted)
Smooth, sweet chocolate mousse introduction followed by a nuttiness, think of cashews and brazil nuts. Next comes some spiciness, but not to the point of being peppery. The spiciness rests upon a malty background mixed with some dark fruitcake. Really intriguing. This is medium bodied.

Finish (undiluted)
Medium to short finish. Chocolate mousse again, oak and soft spices combine to be gentle and never offensive. No bite on the palate. Nice, but relatively short lingering warmth of spice box upon the palate rounds out this taste experience.

Final Thoughts
Rich, mildly sophisticated, but not so special that you cannot properly enjoy it in the presence of friends in a pub. Put another away, you can drink this casually and marvel at its smooth yet gentle spices, without thinking I am wasting my money by not paying more attention to it. This is not Royal Salute, Johnnie Walker Blue or Ballantines 17, all of which cannot be tossed back casually in a pub, unless you are a billionaire. The very reasonable price of Bushmills Black Bush makes it accessible.

Black Bush is not very complex. The flavors are pretty obvious: chocolate, malt, hazelnut and caramel. For this reason, I cannot descibe this whisky as overly sophisticated. The flavor profile is not as simple as the Bushmills White Label, but not too great a departure either.

In conclusion, this is a great blended whisky that every whisky/scotch drinker should try. It's easy going, not offensive and great for social occasions. I would give this as a gift to the casual whisky drinker. If I was buying a gift for the serious whisky fan, I would not choose Bushmills Black Bush because the flavors roll out in a very simplistic fashion.


© Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

J&B Rare

I was at a wedding reception this evening and standing at the bar asked for scotch.

"Sure" replied the college kid. "I've got scotch" he bellowed over the din of people talking before the bride and groom arrived in the ballroom.

"What kind?" I asked, fearful of the response.

"Dunno, lemme check" the pimply kid replied, as I recoiled at the thought of what he might produce for a bottle.

He held up a bottle of J&B Rare. Never had it before, but thought I would give it a try.

"You want that with ice or pop?"

"Neat will be fine" I answered.


"No ice, no pop, just pour me a double."

J&B Rare
"J&B" are the initials for "Justerini and Brooks." Giacomo Justerini was the original founder and Alfred Brooks bought the entire business in 1831. Royal warrants issued by the British Royal Family served as confirmation that this blended scotch was regularly supplied to the royal court.

Today, the J&B Rare blended scotch product is owned and marketed by the multination alcoholic beverage company, Diageo PLC. This brand is the #1 selling blended scotch in Europe and #3 in the world according to the Diageo website. Spain is where the greatest sales levels are. According to the Diaego website (, sales are up 15% in 2008.

Bearing in mind this level of wide spread popularity, I sat down at my table and tried a sip.

Faint peat and a little marsh salt air.

Sweet, light bodied, very faint peat, cinammon, more candied sweetness, like a couple of packets of Sugar Twin.

A little pepper, slight salty tang, a little tingle of the nostrils as the peat disappears very quickly leaving a pepper and sweetness on the palate. Not a great finish. This blended scotch flavor disappeared from the palate as quickly as it appearred.

General Impressions
For a blended scotch whisky that has been around for so long and having impressive worldwide sales, I was frankly expecting a lot more. This scotch is in direct competition with other economy blends like Johhnie Walker Red Label, Ballantines, Teachers Highland Cream and others. I would pick its competition over it everytime.

Why? Well, let me count the ways: Sickly sweet, cloying, no complexity. Adding water didn't help things. While it was a tad more malty with water, I also detected graphite on the palate much like putting a lead pencil to my lips. Not pleasant.

The bottom line is: I don't like this. Too sweet! Simple, no complexity of flavor, no smoke, in a word "boring." It's like drinking several packets of Sugar Twin and Splenda mixed with alcohol and a cinnamon stick.

I visited the J&B Rare website. The website has the logo "Start a Party." And that is appropriate. This is a party drink to be used as a mixer. I suspect with soda, this could become a refreshing drink. The site recommends mixing with ginger ale or cola. I am sure taking such action would result in a decent party drink. Disguise that scotch with some pop and you have something you can down pleasantly and get intoxicated on quickly. For those of us who enjoy our scotch on the rocks, a little water or neat, we should pass on this.

By the way, at the wedding, a waiter, attempting to keep the tables free of dirty glasses and dishes, scooped up my partially finished glass of J & B Rare, probably thinking it was just the remnants of a full glass of gingerale. Normally, I would have strenuously objected, but in this case, I just smiled at my good fortune. I knew my little sample of J&B would soon find an appropriate final resting spot, as it is poured down the drain.


© Jason Debly, 2009-2010. All rights reserved.