A diamond ring.
Picking out a good bottle of bourbon is kind of like pressing suit for a marriage. You appraise the situation - look up and down the shelves appraising whiskies by price, by attractiveness of bottle, by reputation and pedigree - you taste all kinds of different whiskies haphazardly and in different settings, and you eventually settle on something. You take the bottle home, see how it treats you the morning after, and - if love strikes - you're faithful forever (with perhaps a few dalliances along the way (don't stretch the metaphor too far, ok?)).
And a nice, fat diamond ring helps, no? Nothing clarifies matters of the heart like a large, shiny diamond in exquisite 18 karat gold. Or platinum. With sapphires and such.
Beam Global wooed would-be whiskey drinkers with their own version of shiny, diamond ring in a tasting and what a night it was.
Consider the setting: in this case Boltini Lounge in Champaign, IL. A sexy little martini bar in the college district with an amazing array of bottles behind the counter, a literary buffet of cocktails for the offering, and an impressive menu of appetizers from shrimp to beef. It has booths; it has tables with soft lighting; and a recessed portion in back just perfect for an intimate gathering like a bourbon tasting.
Consider the uncut diamond: in this case Beam Global's line of bourbons plus one rye whiskey. From $15 bottles to $50 bottles and from 80 proof to 140 proof, there was a whiskey to satisfy the whim and fetish of any person looking for love.
Finally, consider the polish and cut of the diamond - the part that turns that uncut hunk of carbon into something to bedazzle the eyes of men and melt the hearts of women: in this case, Bourbon Ambassador Fred Noe, seventh generation distiller and great grandson of Jim Beam himself. His stories, anecdotes, and history behind each of the whiskies and the people behind them polished the night into a gleaming success and doubtless turned many passerby into bourbon enthusiasts.
The night opened up with Basil Hayden 8yr bourbon - part of the Small Batch Collection recently launched by Beam Global. We started here because - as Fred cautioned us - it's important to go from low to high proof when tasting and comparing bourbons lest the lower proofs taste like water in comparison. Fred acknowledged Basil Hayden as a sweeter bourbon magnificent in mint juleps for the Kentucky Derby. For us, it was like the solitaire, round-cut diamond: good for a lot people but is there anything more exciting out there?
Moving on, we tried Jim Beam Black, a bourbon aged 8 years and regarded as - without question - the best tasting bourbon on the market for the price-point. Fred Noe is clearly proud of this bourbon and indeed the reactions of the crowd (numbering about 50) were equally enthusiastic. Fred claimed that if he were on a desert island with one bourbon and one bourbon only, it would be the Black. He backed it up by ordering Jim Beam Black as his cocktail of choice for dinner that night. We found it strong and sweet: like the full carat, marquis-cut diamond that's stylish while being classic, and extra-exciting for a little extra money.
Following up the Black was a very, very impressive offering. The only non-bourbon of the night was Beam Global's venture into the premium rye whiskey market: the quirkily named (rī)1 Whiskey (pronounced rye-one, which you can kind of decipher when you realize the r and the ī are meant to be looked at phonetically like a dictionary to make rye with the little superscript 1 on the outside making the sound one). This rye was absolutely magnificent and, we promise, converted many present despite the price point of $48. Fred lamented the bottle and the name - calling out the marketing girls for looking for something contemporary when he wanted something more traditional. We just wanted something Google would actually recognize when you searched for it. But perhaps scarcity itself is driving up the value of this truly magnificent rye. It is the fashionable bezel finish setting for brilliant-cut or princess-cut diamonds - spectacular for the select group of connoisseurs looking for something very specific.
Next we tried one of the top-selling premium bourbons around and another of the Small Batch Collection: Knob Creek 9yr bourbon. This one's stiff, coming in at 100 proof and even Fred admitted it's not for everyone. It was about this point when the appetizers were starting to roll and we've got to admit, the shrimp whatever that Boltini was serving went splendidly with the smokiness of the Knob Creek, which is its defining characteristic. But it is smoky. We think it's kind of like champagne diamonds (they come in a yellow/brown due to sulfur additives) - for a select group, there's nothing like it. And maybe that group's larger than we think because its sales are herculean.
Now get ready, because the final offering of the night was the kind of finale that teenagers dream of for their first time at the prom. Booker's Small Batch bourbon (another of the Small Batch collection) is the ultra-premium offering from Beam Global and clocks in at single barrel strength ranging anywhere from 125 proof to 142 proof. It is strong! Named for Booker Noe (Fred Noe's father), Fred said, You've gotta watch that Bookers cause it'll sneak up on you if ya don't! Fred told a tale of how Booker Noe and a friend of his went fishing every Saturday and took a 750ml of whiskey to share each outing. One fateful afternoon, they took a bottle of Booker's. It happened that upon their return, it took his friend three tries to back the trailer into the water and Booker himself seven tries to drive the boat on the trailer. Exhausted after their ordeal, the friend commented, Booker, do you make that in smaller bottles? Upon reflection, Booker responded, Why do you ask? We found this bourbon to be very, very smooth but will indeed curl your toes. The best way to drink it is to put it in rocks and sip cautiously until just enough water has diluted the strength to suit your personal taste. Then drink it down! In the hands of a professional, this bourbon is a masterpiece. It goes well with whatever the heck Boltini's was offering at this point (we can't remember what it was). It is the most special of all diamonds: the emerald-cut that absolutely demands perfect clarity and color lest any flaws show through. It is only for those most able to appreciate fine diamonds.
Red Stagg black cherry flavored bourbon whiskey. That's right: Beam Global is entering the flavored whiskey market. Set to be released in June, 2009, the simple bottle blends traditional white label Jim Beam bourbon with 100% all natural black cherry flavor. It's aimed for the female market, which we're told tend to find the bourbon market a bit intimidating and overly strong. We found the flavored bourbon very, very good. It's smooth and it's sweet without being overpoweringly sweet. (Then again, coming off Booker's, lighter fluid may not have tasted particularly strong.) We personally believe that Jim Beam has a winner on its hands with this one.
A tasting with guidance straight from the master distiller himself is a splendid way to introduce people to bourbons in an approachable way. We highly recommend attending these sorts of affairs as they become available. Certainly, with this night, Beam Global has shown that being big doesn't necessarily mean surrendering quality or risk-taking.