The great-grandson of legendary Jim Beam is changing the way you drink bourbon

The global launch in 2019 of Legent, a bourbon finished in wine and sherry barrels, further signals a new era for the American spirit.

Co-creator Fred Noe, Jim Beam master distiller and great grandson of Beam himself, admits bourbon was fairly devoid of innovation up until recently.

"When I came into the industry 35 years ago, bourbon was very limited. It was considered your dad's drink or your grandfather's drink." he says.

"Bourbon today is on fire. It's pretty cool to watch the industry evolve like it has."

Keeping up traditions

Bourbon must be distilled from a grain bill that is at least 51 per cent corn, and aged in new, charred oak barrels.

It is a somewhat restrictive designation for distillers, but Noe wouldn't have it any other way.

"I think using a new barrel keeps the consistency of bourbon – everybody has to play by the same rules, that's the way it is," he says.

"When you start looking at that definition, there is a lot of leeway if you want to play in the grey areas.

"Now, the sky's the limit on new products; new mash bills, new ageing techniques. You see people using different sized barrels, secondary barrels."


Landmark barrels

Australian spirit maturation expert, Darren Lange of oak barrel supplier MasterCask, says the 2010 launch of Makers 46 was another landmark moment for bourbon.

The first new major expression launched by Maker's Mark Distillery since its inception in 1953, the addition of French oak staves to the barrel late in the maturation process contributes additional character to the spirit.

"I think since then it's largely been the craft distillers looking for opportunities to create points of difference, with a combination of different barrels but different finishings as well," he says

Flavour in the details

Lange says a key development has been the introduction of new oak barrels that have been naturally air dried over many months.

"Historically bourbon casks would largely have been kiln dried, which is really just moisture adjusting the timber," he says.

"When you naturally air dry the timber you're creating more complex, more balanced oak flavours and tannin profiles and three dimensional mouthfeel. The oak influence is more subtle.

"We're now seeing far more sophistication in terms of the application of the barrel generally, and finishing casks is just an extension of that."

A generation thing

Noe points out that Legent was not Jim Beam's first foray into cask finishing, which his father Booker Noe previously explored in the Distiller's Masterpiece series, beginning in 1999.

"I think Dad was probably one of the first to finish a bourbon in cognac barrel," he says.

"It kind of opened the door for secondary finishing."

But he acknowledges that the craft distilling boom has focused Beam more acutely on innovations such as Legent, in which he collaborated with expert blender Shinji Fukuyo, of Beam's Japanese affiliate Suntory.

"It keeps us looking at new innovations," says Noe.

"Just because we're the number one bourbon in the world, we can't just sit on our thumbs and do nothing."

New drops to try

Given all the change and experimentation, Lange says there is guaranteed excitement ahead for bourbon drinkers.

"There'll be far more diversity in styles and different brands to discover," he says.

"It opens up the possibilities for how those whiskies are consumed as well, in different cocktails."

James Atkinson is creator of the Drinks Adventures podcast and a previous editor of Australian Brews News and drinks industry publication TheShout. A Certified Cicerone® and 2017 winner of the Australian International Beer Awards media prize, James regularly contributes to other publications including Halliday, Good Food, QantasLink Spirit and more.

The writer was a guest of Beam Suntory.