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Battle of the Bourbons: Can a $23 Bottle of Jim Beam Beat Out a $3,000 Cult Classic?

We put premium Pappy Van Winkle up against a popular mass-market whiskey.

jim beam black bourbon Courtesy of Beam Suntory

Buffalo Trace recently announced that this year’s allocations of Pappy Van Winkle bourbons are out. Now begins the rush for acquisition. But something tickled my brain about this bourbon, someone trying to disprove its status as a modern cult classic.

A while ago I clicked on an email that stated: “Jim Beam Black ($23) recently went up against an iconic bottle of bourbon that can cost up to $3,000 (a recognizable brand with a high demand and limited production) in a national blind taste test and the results are in: 54 percent of American whiskey drinkers prefer Jim Beam Black over this iconic bourbon, while 55 percent said Jim Beam Black tasted smoother.”

That caught my attention. Especially since the “blind taste test” was conducted by the Beverage Tasting Institute (BTI), an accredited organization known for its impartial ratings of spirits. And even though the results showed that a majority (albeit a very slight majority) of the tasters preferred one of the most popular and competitively priced bourbons over a more expensive super-premium whiskey, I was naturally skeptical.

A mental computation of the unnamed “…iconic bottle of bourbon that can cost up to $3,000” concluded that it had to be Pappy Van Winkle, the most elusive, coveted, and collectable of all currently distilled bourbons. Although Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 23 Year Old has been garnering the most attention, there were two other Pappy rarities that have also been selling for thousands of dollars among collectors and investors: the 15 Year Old and the 20 Year Old.

To put those lofty secondary market prices in perspective, the suggested retail prices (SRPs) for these whiskies are $100 for the Pappy 15 Year Old, $170 for the 20 Year Old, and $270 for the 23 Year Old. But good luck finding these bourbons at those prices. On the other hand, you can often pick up a bottle of Jim Beam Black Extra-Aged (as it is now called, to highlight the fact that this 8 Year Old bourbon is aged twice as long as their White Label) for less than its $23 retail price.

Having determined it was Beam against Pappy, I decided to do my own taste test, with a side-by-side comparison between Jim Beam Black, and all three of the top tier Pappy Van Winkle bourbons. Obtaining a bottle of Jim Beam Black was no problem, but acquiring the Pappy Van Winkle 15, 20 and 23-year-old whiskies proved a slight challenge.

As the distiller, Buffalo Trace, states on its website, “We only release stock once per year, because we’re a small company. On October 1, we tell our wholesalers how many bottles they’ll receive. From there, they determine which retailers get that inventory, and distribute accordingly…We know our whiskey can be difficult to find…Many retailers use a lottery or a waiting list to sell our stock. We recommend you get on as many waiting lists and enter as many lotteries as you can.”

But I know some people; I’ve been doing this a long time. Whiskies in hand, A friend covertly poured equal amounts of the four spirits into identical tasting glasses. With the four glasses in front of me, and not knowing which bourbon was in which glass, I began by nosing each one before taking a sip. After making my initial notes, I took another sip, but this time, swallowed it then breathed through my nose, thereby getting even more of the subtle flavors of the bourbons.

Being wheated whiskies, it was comparatively easy to sort out the three Pappy Van Winkle pours; they were soft and slightly sweet, in varying degrees. That left the Jim Beam, which uses rye in its mashbill rather than wheat. It had a different type of sweetness, especially on the nose, with a hint of smoke. The flavors were buttery vanilla and caramel, with a gentle roughness in its long, cherried-citrus finish.

Of the three Pappy bourbons, the first to be readily identified was the more pungent 15 Year Old, thanks to its hefty 107 proof, which tingled the nose. But once I got past that, I found it vibrant, thick with dark wood, citrus, a bit of char, and stealthily potent. Compared to the 86 proof Jim Beam Black, the Pappy 15 was more robust, and not quite as gentle on the palate, but it lingered with an extremely long finish. Curiosity made me go back for another sip of the Jim Beam. It indeed was a gentler pour, with a seductive candied caramel-like undercurrent, but without as much elongated depth as the 15 Year Old.

With two of the wheated Pappy bourbons left, it took a bit more concentration to differentiate between the 20 Year Old and the 23 Year Old. One was a little harsh on the lips, but once I got past that, I found floral layers of violets, sweet oak and candy. Overall it was smooth in a rough, oaky way. Compared to the Jim Beam Black, it also had slightly more depth but was a completely different bourbon altogether. I later found out this was the 90.4 proof 20 Year Old.

I finally came to the final glass (which turned out to be the 23 Year Old) and noted multiple layers of deep, burnt oak, caramel, cedar and chocolate. It had complexities of woody mustiness that hinted of lengthy aging.

The Pappy Van Winkle bourbons all showed varying muscular nuances. Although the majority of the BTI tasters found the Jim Beam Black to be “smoother,” this could have been partly attributed to its slighter lower alcoholic proof. Besides, “smooth” is a subjective word, as there is smooth as leather and there is smooth as silk. For the money, Jim Beam Black is definitely worth the price for its cocktail-or-on-the-rocks versatility. But the Pappys have my vote for the better bourbons.

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