Saturday, November 21, 2015

Jim Beam Rye, Yellow label vs. Green label

Jim Beam Rye, yellow label: Straight Rye Whiskey, 40%, $19
Jim Beam Rye, green label: Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey 45%, $21

The lineup of whiskeys offered by the Jim Beam distillery has been expanding and evolving for several years now. When I recently noticed the new green label in stark contrast to the former yellow label on their eponymous rye bottling, I immediately looked to see if the liquid inside might be different or if they had simply updated the packaging. Two things instantly stood out: the proof had risen from 80 to 90, and they were now calling it “pre-Prohibition style” rye.

The fact that they upped the proof from its former anemic level was certainly welcome news, but what of this “pre-Prohibition style” business? Let’s do a little historical overview and at the same time dispel the widely believed myths that rye was the dominant style of American whiskey up until Prohibition and that Prohibition was entirely responsible for its demise.

Looking back to Colonial times (pre-1776), whiskey production was largely a secondary farming activity, and it was concentrated in Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia (New England had a booming rum industry at the time which was fueled by the supply of inexpensive molasses from the Caribbean). Rye was the main ingredient of that early American whiskey because it was the grain that grew best in that mid-Atlantic portion of the colonies.

The trickle of settlers who migrated west of the Appalachians before the American Revolution had turned into a flood after that seminal event. When farmers (which most people were in those times) expanded westward, so did distilling. But the fertile, newly settled lands between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River were much better suited to growing corn than other grains. The style of whiskey that emerged from this new distilling frontier eventually came to be known as Bourbon. Its production was centered in Kentucky, but it was also made in surrounding states such as Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri.

Aging whiskey in charred oak barrels had become standard practice in the U.S. by the early to mid 1800’s, significantly transforming the product. By the middle of the 19th century whiskey distilling was transitioning into an industry in its own right, rather than simply being a facet of farming activity. This held true both east and west of the Appalachians, but most of the growth in the industry happened in the west. While the eastern distillers focused on supplying their nearby population centers, the western distillers had access to river networks that led to the Mississippi and ultimately the important New Orleans market. Later, the new railroads also gave them access to markets further west. Fertile soils supporting high yielding corn crops allowed the western distillers to take advantage of this growth potential.

Most of the commercial distillers in Kentucky and its surrounding states also made rye whiskey, but almost always in very small quantities relative to their mainstay, Bourbon. Overall, rye was the leading American whiskey style being made before the Civil War (1861-1865), but Bourbon production outpaced rye from that point onward. Rye’s share of production ranged from 60% to 85% between 1790 and 1810, but its share had dropped to 38% by 1878. While Prohibition wasn’t solely responsible for the near death of rye whiskey, it certainly expedited the process. That period was tough on all distillers but the eastern rye producing region was hit particularly hard, with only a handful of Pennsylvania’s 3000 distilleries surviving Prohibition. That thirteen year stretch and the following decades were a time of great consolidation in the industry. Most of the popular eastern rye brands were bought up by the few surviving companies and production was moved to their distilleries in Kentucky.

There’s in interesting point of distinction that I haven’t mentioned yet though. The rye whisky produced by the new distilleries west of the Appalachians was made in a fashion similar to Bourbon, while the eastern distillers held on to their old traditions and even refined the process in some ways, essentially leading to two distinct styles of American rye whisky.

The first difference was corn. Most of the eastern ryes being made by the end of the 19th century had no corn in their mashbills; they were primarily rye with some barley malt, and some had a bit of malted rye. If any of them did have corn in the mix it would have been a very small percentage. The western ryes were made in corn country and had quite a bit of it in their mashbills. Their rye content would have been at or slightly above the 51% minimum required and they would have had some malted barley (5% to 10%) for its enzyme content. But the remaining percentage was corn.

The next difference was the sour mash process. This was a technique that bourbon producers had come up with where some of the spent stillage from the previous distillation is added to the next mash. This is done to adjust the pH level making a more hospitable environment for the yeast that will be added. The western distillers applied this new method to their rye whiskeys while the eastern distillers stuck with the traditional sweet mash approach.

The third difference was the stills. When the western distillers scaled up and modernized, they switched over from pot stills to column stills. In the early 1800’s eastern distillers came up with a new still design that fell somewhere between the two mentioned above; the “three-chambered still”. This was an arrangement of three pot stills housed within a wooden column. Live steam was injected directly into the pots to strip off alcohol, and each pot would feed the next.

While Bourbon took over as America’s prominent whisky after the Civil War, the western distillers were only making small amounts of rye, leaving the bulk of the country’s rye whisky production (and leading brands) in the eastern states up until Prohibition. One could easily make the argument that this late 19th century / early 20th century eastern style of rye is what actually defines “pre-Prohibition style” rye.

So, is this new Jim Beam Rye truly “pre-Prohibition style”? The short answer is no. The folks at Beam don’t disclose their mashbills, but it’s widely accepted that the one rye recipe they have used for many, many years is at or near the 51% rye mark. If they had done something so remarkable as coming out with a second rye recipe with little or no corn, or made a sweet-mash whiskey or set up a three-chamber still, any of those would be a huge selling point. It would also be something well worth screaming about in their marketing.

Don’t get me wrong here; I’m not saying that they’re lying. The term “pre-Prohibition style” isn’t legally defined anywhere. What I’ve laid out above is a historical perspective of what the term should mean. The Beam family has been making rye whiskey since before Prohibition (albeit primarily in the western style), making them somewhat entitled to put the term on their label. But it’s highly unlikely that the stuff in this bottle is any different than what was in the bottle with the yellow label, aside from having 5% more alcohol.

Why put the pre-Pro terminology on the label now? Craft cocktail culture is currently one of the prime drivers of rye whiskey sales. If you want to make an authentic whiskey cocktail from a pre-Prohibition recipe you’ll need a bottle of rye. A “pre-Prohibition style” rye will be that much more appealing.

Fortunately I’ve had a nearly full bottle of Beam’s yellow labeled rye kicking around on my whiskey shelf since some time in 2006, so I can do a proper side by side. I should also mention that at some point Beam had updated the “traffic safety” yellow label to a more easy-on-the-eyes, muted brownish-yellow label, but as far as I know the whiskey remained the same through that change.

Yellow label:
I really love the aromatics on this whiskey. There’s a lot going on, but it’s not very assertive – subtle complexity. Well rounded spice notes, a little bit floral, some clay and a hint of oaky sweetness.
Unfortunately the palate can’t keep the promises made by the nose. The flavor development just doesn’t come together. It starts off kind of flat, and then shows a brief moment of promise on the mid-palate with some gentle spice and subtle floral notes, before it goes out of balance and turns hot as it moves into the finish.
Some burnt toast notes stand out later on the finish. It’s not horrible, but comes across as being poorly integrated and is mostly disappointing because the nose showed so much potential.

Green label:
The nose seems to be less complex but fuller and still well composed. The spice and floral aromas have an interesting pine note riding along with them.
This one is a little more agreeable on the palate. The spice notes are complex with cinnamon red hots, pine and a touch of mint. The “Beam funk” that is a characteristic of their house yeast definitely comes through. I know that this is a polarizing trait and it’s one that I don’t love, but I find it less offensive here than I do in their Bourbon. I think the rye notes are able to balance it out to a certain degree.
The finish is lengthy with some nice spicy warmth. Everything is pretty well integrated here. Opinions of this whiskey are going to be very dependent on personal preferences.

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