When it comes to launching an entire new brand extension, one can safely assume that a company the size of Beam Suntory isn’t doing anything on a whim. As giants of the American whiskey industry, its moves and new product launches are quite calculated, which makes the ultimate decisions made by the higher-ups at Beam potentially illuminating in terms of how they believe the whiskey world is evolving at any given time. Whenever there’s a new line extension from Beam, therefore, we tend to view it through a critical lens, to interpret what it says about the bourbon sphere at large.
And Beam’s new launch of Hardin’s Creek as a brand? That’s an intriguing one, because it illustrates both the inherent quality of the company’s distillate, and their desire to monetize that whiskey into premium product, even when the story can’t quite justify the price point in some cases. This is one of those times where a brand isn’t too difficult to wrap your head around in a vacuum, but it struggles more when context is applied, in comparison with other brands owned by the same company.
At the same time, Hardin’s Creek is also meant as a showpiece for the “young blood” (relatively) of the company, being a product of the new Fred B. Noe Distillery, named for 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 the James B. Beam Distilling Co’s whiskey-making credentials inclusive of age, blending, mash bill, distillation, barrels, rackhouse locations, and more.”
To kick off the new series, we have two releases that are pretty clearly meant to illustrate the transformative power of age in terms of time spent in a bourbon barrel. These two releases, Colonel James B. Beam, and Jacob’s Well, have been cut to the exact same strength (108 proof), but where the first carries a mere 2 year age statement, the second is more than 15 years old. It invites an obvious comparison, so let’s taste both and do exactly that.
ABV: 54% (108 proof)
This is the aforementioned 2 year old bourbon, or as the company describes it: “In making this whiskey, Freddie Noe was inspired by the style of bourbon the Colonel was making on day 121: low distillation proof for a fuller flavor, guaranteeing the rich complexity of the young whiskey stays intact.”
Or in other words, this whiskey is a bit of an experiment in a technique that is increasingly popular with smaller distilleries that are less concerned with efficiency, which is a lower distillation proof. A lower distillation proof is thought to leave more volatile flavor compounds (known as congeners) in the distillate, but it simultaneously means that you’re producing less spirit in each batch. A big company like Beam doesn’t tend to dabble in such things, except for experimental batches like this, and it thus contributes to a higher price point here.
Still, with that said … asking $80 for any two-year bourbon, even an overproof one, is always going to be a difficult sell, and that’s only more true if the company behind it is Beam, because they produce so many other bourbons that are very good values. Case in point: The MSRP of the excellent Knob Creek 12 Year is merely $60. So therefore, Beam is really making a case that the uniqueness of this same is worth paying an extreme premium for. Is it? Let’s taste.
On the nose, this is pleasantly sweet, evocative of wildflower honey and grilled peaches, along with trademark Beam nuttiness, caramel and baked apple. It really is a nice nose, only hinting at youth with some of the more grain-forward impressions. Certainly, it smells very different than say, a standard, bonded Jim Beam releases. On the palate, things turn quite sweet, in the direction of cinnamon vanilla ice cream, roasted nuts, cornbread, and surprisingly spicy oak. There’s a good amount of spice here, but the youth emerges more over time with assertive graininess and sweet corn duking it out with big pops of baking spice.
All in all, this is a sweet but enjoyable dram, but it’s a hard sell at this price point, even as part of a new experimental series. Beam may have overthought the concept here, rather than viewing it from the sightline of one of their average customers—it would be hard to purchase a bottle of this without wanting to spend that $80 on an exceptional and well-aged bottle from the same distillery.
ABV: 54% (108 proof)
On the extreme other end of the spectrum we have the other Hardin’s Creek inaugural release, Jacob’s Well. Where Colonel B. Beam was an experiment specifically in low distillation proof, this feels more like a fastball right down the middle from the thing Beam truly excels at: Well-aged traditional bourbon. According to the company, this is a blend of 15-year-old high-rye bourbon and 16-year-old traditional bourbon, which “pays tribute to the first family distiller, Jacob Beam, and the well be built in 1795.”
Right off the bat, you have to acknowledge that this feels like a much more attractive and fair MSRP. There’s often an informal bar for some of the big distilleries and well-aged bourbons, where MSRP sits around $10 per year, and that makes this $150 mark feel pretty on point, even if the 15-year-old Knob Creek batch is a notably cheaper $100. Still, I suspect this one won’t rub whiskey geeks the wrong way in the same way that Colonel B. Beam might.
On the nose, this extra-aged expression is delightfully rich, giving off big impressions of toasted marshmallow, strawberry jam, old oak and Tootsie roll, along with the earthier elements one often finds in well-aged Beam bourbon. On the palate, I’m getting molasses and slightly bitter caramel, along with black cherry, plum and spice cake. There’s tons of oak, as one would expect, but it’s masterfully integrated into this flavor profile—tons of old, earthy and spicy wood, but never too much astringency or tannin. Sweetness and oaky dryness balance each other pretty much perfectly, leveling off into final notes of sweet almond, dried fruit and vanilla.
All in all, I really love the delicate balance of the oak here—I love how much the wood is represented, without catching any of the potentially negative aspects of that level of oakiness. This really feels like the work of masters, and it’s easily the star of these inaugural Hardin’s Creek releases. Here’s hoping that the future bottles in this series can meet the mark that Jacob’s Well is setting. Those who specifically love well-aged Beam bourbons will want to go out of their way to snag this one.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.