“The most powerful ideologies are not those that prevail against all challengers, but those that are never challenged because in their ubiquity they appear as nothing more than the unadorned truth.” – Michael Parenti
Ubiquity, defined as appearing everywhere or being very common, is a double edged sword. When it comes to bourbon, on the one hand the legacy brands (or more precisely the individuals that control their finances) pride themselves on this characteristic. “Being very common” means that you have the production capacity coupled with the popularity to place your products in every corner of the world. When it comes to the world’s most popular bourbon, there are few who can rival Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam.
The other edge of that sword is that, for many people, these brands are overlooked. Because they’re always available, there’s no urgency to give them a try unless you’re already a die-hard fan or following some specific instructions. In America, home of these two behemoth brands, they occupy seemingly every bar shelf and whiskey aisle in existence. In my all-too-limited travels around the world, I’m greeted by the same apparent ubiquity. If you find yourself in, say, a bar in Marrakech and discover you’re thirsty for a taste of America’s Native Spirit then, in all likelihood, you will be offered one of these two options.
As fate would have it, I found myself in precisely that predicament. Though in my mind I prefer Jim Beam, I opted for Jack Daniel’s on that occasion because it’s the brand I more frequently overlook. Part of that stems from the fact that although Jack Daniel’s has increasingly been making their mark on the whiskey enthusiast community with critically acclaimed one-off expressions, they’re still largely seen as the preferred drink of college kids and casual drinkers. It’s the kind of reputation that ubiquity is built on, but one that doesn’t have the “cool factor” for people who typically pride themselves on knowing about all things new-and-shiny.
Jim Beam, though nearly as ubiquitous, has a longer track record of making inroads with the bourbon enthusiast community thanks to several members of their legendary founding family: the Beams. Though the Beam family (then the “Boehm” family) first emigrated to the U.S. from Germany in 1752, and began selling whiskey in 1799, it wasn’t until 1943 that the brand name “Jim Beam” was born. Thanks to several pioneering members including James Beauregard Beam (the namesake who began the modern Jim Beam distillery in 1935) and Booker Noe (Jim Beam’s grandson who coined the phrase “small batch bourbon”) as well as a number of others who made an impact at some of Kentucky’s biggest distilleries, many people regard the Beam family as the most influential in all of American whiskey.
Jack Daniel’s, being a Tennessee whiskey, can claim credit for putting the 16th state on the American whiskey map. While it is not technically recognized as a bourbon (meaning it isn’t the number one selling bourbon in the world, a distinction that goes to Jim Beam) it holds the crown as the number one selling American whiskey in the world. The latest tally, according to The Spirits Business, for worldwide liquor sales in 2020 gives Jim Beam credit for 10.7 million cases sold versus Jack Daniel’s 12.3 million cases sold.
Both brands have a rich and complex history that has completely shaped the modern whiskey world, but you may be wondering: which is better, Jack Daniel’s or Jim Beam?
Today, I’ll attempt to answer that question with a side-by-side review of America’s two best-selling whiskeys. If you haven’t had either of these before (yeah, right) then I hope this comparison will be a welcome guide and help you decide which you should try first. Ubiquity has a funny way of blinding us, and the next time you find yourself in a remote location with only the world’s most common American whiskeys at your avail you’ll be armed with the following assessment in addition to your own bias.
First we’ll be considering Jack Daniel’s so here are the relevant details: Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Tennessee Whiskey goes through the Lincoln County Process, where the whiskey is filtered through 10 feet of sugar maple charcoal, which imparts a unique signature flavor to the end product. Typically sold between $18 and $25 in an American standard 750ml bottle, Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 is bottled at 80 proof (40% ABV) and is comprised of a mashbill (or grain recipe) that is 80% corn, 12% malted barley, and 8% rye. Additionally, Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 doesn’t have an age statement; that big #7 on the bottle is rumored to be a reference to the distiller’s registration number from the late 1800’s. Finally, it should be noted that though I’ll be trying this from a 200ml bottle that cost me only $10, I will be using the $25/750ml standard for my rating in accordance with Malt’s price-sensitive scoring system. Now, let the battle begin!
Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 – Review
Color: Watered down honey with a hint of orange.
On the nose: Semi-sweet banana pudding jumps out of the glass at first. Soon aromas of maple syrup, a nondescript red fruit, and wood chips or sawdust develop. Finally, there’s a barbecue-like note that reminds me of walking past a grill after North Carolina vinegar-based barbecue is finished cooking, along with some faint clove and red chili peppers.
In the mouth: Wow, that party came to a screeching halt. The layered flavors that were teased on the nose all but disappear on the palate. There’s an opening kiss of the banana pudding that was promised on the tip of the tongue that shifts into the faint barbecue notes, which are remarkably more restrained than they were on the nose. The midpalate and back end are largely mute with only a bit of potting soil and dough leading to a closed off finish with a bit of red apple skin that lacks any spice or real excitement.
The scent, frankly, is pretty good! However, from the first sip it all goes downhill as the inviting aromas completely dissipate on the palate and barely leave any allusions to the flavor that was teased on the nose. This is not a poorly made whiskey, but it’s hardly enjoyable because it tastes downright boring. I thought this would be an easy victory for Old No. 7 based on the scent alone, but this is why we play the game!
Next I’ll be trying Jim Beam’s flagship expression, Jim Beam White Label Bourbon. This whiskey doesn’t use the Lincoln County Process (which is unique to Tennessee whiskey) but, like most bourbons, it’s still known to have a sweet flavor profile. Another characteristic that makes it different from Jack Daniel’s is that it has an age statement (it’s aged for 4 years) and a different mashbill which is 77% corn, 13% rye, and 10% malted barley. Something that the two have in common is they’re both 80 proof (40% ABV) which is the lowest legal amount allowed for a spirit to be called an American whiskey. Again I’ll be trying a 200ml bottle, this one purchased for $6.99, but I will be using the price of a standard 750ml bottle in my neck of the woods ($20) for the purpose of this review.
Jim Beam White Label – Review
Color: Simply watered down honey.
On the nose: Generally speaking, it is far tamer on the nose than Old No. 7. There are notes of honey drizzled over peanuts with the faintest touch of marshmallow, a nopales-like green aroma, a well-developed white peach, tulips and a bit of caramelized white sugar. All in all, the aromas are light (certainly lighter than the lively nose on Old No. 7) but still pleasant and inviting.
In the mouth: A smooth mouthfeel that’s dominated early on by the white peach, peanuts, and honey from the nose. It’s soft on the palate where Old No. 7 was mostly listless, and it clings to the roof of the mouth leaving a refreshing sweetness on the tongue. The finish is a little short, but there is a slight bit of oomf as black pepper emerges along with some youthful oak notes. All in all it has more going on than our first entrant.
We have a winner? For the fact that it’s priced a bit lower and significantly more interesting in the mouth I have to award the win to Jim Beam White Label. I was, frankly, shocked at the way this played out for me. Though I do tend to prefer Jim Beam products, when smelling these two expressions side by side it was undeniable that Jack Daniel’s doesn’t just have more going on; it actually smells like it can punch way above its weight class. Unfortunately, once I tried them both the roles were reversed as Jack Daniel’s fell flat and the Jim Beam – though not particularly nuanced – certainly showed a lot more character.
That said, these are entry-level offerings for a reason. They don’t specifically exist to impress experienced whiskey enthusiasts, but rather they’re meant to be crowd pleasing and approachable expressions. Because of that, I wouldn’t highly recommend either bottle for serious sipping (both brands have far better options if you’re inclined to pay over $30 for a bottle of whiskey) but if you’re in a pinch I think Jim Beam offers more flavor and versatility. I can see it holding up better in the event you have cocktails or drinking-on-the-rocks in mind.
As I mentioned at the outset, neither can prevail against all challengers in a taste test but that they prevail in the imagination of the masses thanks to their ubiquity is a feat of its own. Just don’t be afraid to seek out something a little less straightforward if marching to the beat of your own drum is more your thing.