The James B. Beam distillery is more than just Jim Beam bourbon. Although Jim Beam is the biggest selling bourbon in the world, there’s a lot more going on in Clermont, Kentucky than making white-label bottles of Beam. There are eight bourbon brands that come out of Beam’s distilleries altogether, and those are what we’re here to blind taste today.
Beam’s eight bourbons are fairly varied both in taste and price. Perhaps more importantly, Beam has two bourbon mash bills. The standard mash is 75 percent corn, 13 percent rye, and 12 percent malted barley. That covers classic Jim Beam, Knob Creek, Baker’s, Old Crow, Legent, and Booker’s expressions. Then there’s their high-rye bourbon mash bill of 63 percent corn, 27 percent rye, and ten percent malted barley. That whiskey ends up in Basil Hayden’s and Old Grand-Dad.
For this blind tasting, I’m focusing on those eight bourbons — no rye whiskeys or Little Book (a blended straight whiskey) today — to see which one really stands out as the ultimate Beam bourbon brand. I’m keeping bottles as close to similar as possible — that is I’m not pulling a wild single barrel limited edition Jim Beam you can’t find and pretending that’s going to be comparable to Old Crow or Old Grand-Dad. The lineup today is all pretty standard bottles of Beam’s bourbons that you should be able to find and taste for yourself.
The lineup today includes:
- Knob Creek Small Batch 9-Year
- Baker’s Single Barrel 7-Year
- Booker’s 2021 Batch 3 “Bardstown Batch”
- Old Crow
- Basil Hayden’s 10-Year
- Jim Beam Single Barrel 95 Proof
- Old Grand-Dad Bonded
- Legent Bourbon
Let’s dive in!
Also Read: The Top 5 UPROXX Bourbon Posts Of The Last Six Months
Part 1: The Taste
This is classic from the jump. The nose is a balanced mix of bourbon vanilla, cinnamon spice, and fresh popcorn just touched with browned butter all next to a hint of mild cherry. The palate is a soft mix of almond shells, orange oils, and fresh cinnamon rolls cut with plenty of vanilla icing. The mid-palate has an old wicker chair vibe with a hint of must to it next to a touch of old leather that ends up on a dry cherry tobacco leaf.
This opens with a sweet Christmas cake vibe on the nose with plenty of creamy vanilla next to old leather belts and musty cellar beams. The taste is almost shockingly sweet for just a moment before vanilla pound cake with poppy seeds veers the palate toward sticky cherry tobacco. That spicy/fruity/sweet mid-palate fades away and you’re left with this savory green herbal and a floral note on the finish that ebbs between fresh rosemary sprigs and dried eucalyptus with an echo of powdered coriander.
We’re back to a classic bourbon nose that’s bursting with old cherry tobacco leaves, worn-yet-somehow-sweet leather, oily vanilla pods (the expensive ones), chewy caramel candies, and this sense of wet charcoal (think of an old outdoor grill after a rainstorm). There’s a slight woody sassafras note on the palate that leads towards a cherry root beer vibe before subtle apple sauce full of cinnamon and nutmeg drives the silken taste towards marzipan, raw cornbread batter, dark chocolate, more of that cherry tobacco, and a final whisper of dry old wicker.
Wow, this is thin on the nose already. There are hints of vanilla, overcooked popcorn, caramel, and what feels like fresh slices of Wonder Bread. The sip is almost invisible on the tip of the tongue and very watery but does have echoes of sweet cherry candy, caramel apples, and vanilla extract in there. Those notes almost immediately disappear into the watery nature of the sip with no discernable finish.
This is pretty light too but has a lot more going on from the nose onward. There’s a clear sense of old cellar beams with a touch of cobweb next to rich vanilla, eggnog spices and creaminess, and a hint of indistinct pepperiness. The palate starts off creamy and sweet like a vanilla cream pie cut with wintry spice. That spice focuses on a black peppercorn with a hint of woody maple syrup, more of that old cellar wood, and a light dusting of dark chocolate powder. The end is short and a little thin while leaning more into the old cellar beams and pepper than anything else.
There’s a light sense of toasted oak on the nose next to kettle corn with a hint of butter, vanilla beans, and Cherry Coke. The taste opens with a honeyed sweetness that leads towards orange oils, wintry spice, cherry tobacco, caramel cornballs, and a hint of that oak. The mid-palate marries that cherry tobacco to the dry wood from a cherry tree that then fades out quickly, leaving you with a watery end.
There’s an indistinct “pepper” on the nose that’s countered by vanilla extract, soft winter spices, and equally soft suede. The palate is a full-on Christmas cake cut with orange zest, dried fruit, and almonds that leads towards a green peppercorn spice and a layer of dry cornmeal. The end is shortish and leans into dry cherry tobacco, more of those peppercorns, and dry old wicker that’s spent too long on the deck.
This opens with a rich and lush sticky toffee pudding with hints of marzipan, rich vanilla cream, and oaky spice on the nose. The taste leans into woody cinnamon sticks and allspice berries mingling with nutmeg, dried cherries, and plum jam with a subtle spicy edge. That plummy jamminess drives towards a finish full of lush marzipan and spice while a hint of dried cherry tobacco arrives on the end with a cedar box vibe.
Part 2: The Ranking
8. Old Crow — Taste 4
Average Price: $13 (1-liter bottle)
This is a classic bourbon that became part of Jim Beam about 30-odd years ago. Until then, it was famed for being the drink of choice of President Grant, back in the 1870s — which gave it a lot to hang its hat on as a brand. The juice in the bottle is a year younger than a typical Jim Beam bourbon and it cut way down to 80 proof for bottling.
Meh. That’s all this left me with. It was so watery and indistinct. You can skip this altogether.
7. Basil Hayden’s Aged 10 Years — Taste 5
Average Price: $80
This bourbon is the same juice as Old Grand-Dad. This is aged longer and built to match a different flavor profile even though both brands use the same high-rye distillate.
This was miles ahead of Old Crow. Still, it was pretty thin thanks to that low 80 proof. The wateriness sneaked into the palate and just kind of muted everything. That being said, this is incredibly easy to drink and does have a clear flavor profile. So, I’d say that this would be a good introduction to bourbon for a newbie.
6. Old Grand-Dad Bonded — Taste 7
Average Price: $20
This high-rye whiskey is aged for at least four years. The bonded barrels are then vatted according to the Old Grand-Dad flavor profile and bottled at 50 percent, which lets a bit more of the juice shine in the bottle.
This was fine. It’s a good shot and beer bourbon, for sure. I could see using this in a cocktail in a pinch thanks to those ABVs. There’s certainly enough going on that it’ll stand up to mixing in a classic cocktail.
5. Jim Beam Single Barrel — Taste 6
Average Price: $40
These bottles are pulled from single barrels that hit just the right spot of taste, texture, and drinkability according to the master distillers at Beam. That means this juice is pulled from less than one percent of all barrels in Beam’s warehouses, making this a very special bottle at a bafflingly affordable price (for a single barrel).
This is more refined Jim Beam and it kind of works for me. It’s not “amazing” or “blow your socks off” bourbon but it’s not meant to be. This is good, solid bourbon that’s amazingly drinkable neat, or in a cocktail, for under $50.
What more could you ask for a single barrel bourbon?
4. Baker’s Single Barrel 7 Year — Taste 2
Average Price: $53
This is the first single barrel release from Baker’s, which has phased out its small-batch expressions. The juice comes from hand-selected barrels from specific spots in the Beam warehouses from whiskey that’s at least seven years old. In this case, we’re talking an eight-year-and-seven-month-old barrel.
This is the biggest outlier in the whole line. That veer into savory herbs and florals at the end is pretty damn cool. The only reason this isn’t higher is that the next three bourbons are all fantastic too.
3. Knob Creek 9 — Taste 1
Average Price: $37
This is Jim Beam’s small batch entry point into the wider world of Knob Creek. The juice is the low-rye mash that’s aged for nine years in new oak in Beam’s vast warehouses. The right barrels are then vatted and cut down to 100 proof before being bottled in new, wavy bottles.
I can’t overstate how “classic” this bourbon feels. It’s comforting and really easy to drink while still having serious depth. Pour this over a couple of rocks and you’ll be set. Or throw it in your favorite whiskey cocktail and let it shine there. It’s up to you.
2. Legent Bourbon — Taste 8
Average Price: $34
This bottle from Beam Suntory marries Kentucky bourbon, California wine, and Japanese whisky blending in one bottle. Legent is classic Beam bourbon (low-rye) made by bourbon legend Fred Noe that’s finished in French oak that held red wine and Spanish sherry casks. The juice is then blended by whisky blending legend Shinji Fukuyo at Suntory.
This was delightful. I had been only really using this to mix up cocktails but it really stood out as a great sipper during this blind taste test. I’ll have to rethink only using this for cocktails going forward and start sipping this on a rock or two.
1. Booker’s Bourbon 2021 Batch 3, “Bardstown Batch” — Taste 3
Average Price: $82
The whiskey in the bottle is the classic Jim Beam low-rye mash bill that’s hand-selected for its excellence. In this case, the barrels were aged for exactly six years and five months before the juice went into the bottle untouched at cask strength.
This was like drinking silk imbued with beautiful and classic bourbon notes. It was a dream to sip, even neat, in this lineup. It’s also the bottle I wanted to return to immediately. I do think Legent came close to this, but this bottle had the edge thanks to the velvet texture/mouthfeel and a little more depth in the flavor profile.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
Cards on the table, I’m not at all surprised by any of this. I’m a huge Beam stan and drink a fair amount of the juice from Clermont. I also know what I don’t touch on my whiskey shelves and that’s Old Crow and Basil Hayden’s. That 80 proof juice is just too thin for me these days.
That aside, Booker’s winning with Legent as a close second didn’t feel off either. Though, I do wonder if other Booker’s releases would have been inched out by Legent — or Knob Creek 12 — in an alternate reality blind taste test. But that’s a story for another day. Until then, if you see some Booker’s or Legent on the shelf on your next trip to the liquor store, don’t hesitate to give them a shot.