For a handful of years now, the word craft has been thrown around the spirits industry to imply something more special than the usual bottle: production in smaller batches, hand-harvested ingredients, fussy aging techniques, and so forth. The terms is now so ubiquitous that, a cynic might find, it has come to mean whatever the marketers want it to.
Enter Jim Beam, America's biggest name in bourbon. In its newest line of whiskey, Jim Beam Signature Craft, the company is pointing to its choosy approach to the aging and barrel process. Whether or not the term is overused, the new line is a bold move toward high-quality whiskey meant for at-home sipping, rather than raucous partying.
In the line, the Signature Craft 12-Year boasts the oldest age statement Beam has ever released, captured at 86 proof in a bottle marked with the signature of master distiller Fred Noe, great-grandson of Jim Beam. Available in August, Jim Beam Signature Craft 12-Year looks to lure loyal Beam drinkers toward elevating their taste. Serious bourbon dorks have been drinking upper-echelon Beam whiskey for years: Booker's (aged seven years), Baker's (aged eight years), Basil Hayden (aged eight years), and Knob Creek (aged nine years), collectively known as the Small Batch Bourbon Collection. But for the everyman who prefers the taste of simple, no-age-statement Jim Beam, the Signature Craft is the smoothest transition into sipping-whiskey territory. The 12-Year maintains the familiar nose and flavors of the original white label with subtle refinements that come with age. Rather than pushing the boundaries of flavor and taste, as those in the Small Batch collection do, the Signature Craft is familiar and comfortable.
Simultaneous with the 12-Year, Jim Beam Signature Craft is releasing a Rare Spanish Brandy, designated as "extra-aged" (though the years aren't disclosed) and finished with a touch of rare brandy. That expression will be available through Summer 2014, when a new Signature Craft will replace it. Both are priced more than double what Jim Beam white label costs, but are well under most small batch sipping bourbons. [$40, jimbeam.com]