For decades, consistency, not creativity, was required of America's most iconic whiskey brands. They had their signature labels — Jim Beam's white and Jack Daniel's' black — for which they made and sold a lot. And that was good enough.
But in recent years, both Beam and Jack have veered increasingly toward experimentation and heightened quality.
For Jack, that has meant Sinatra Select, its most expensive whiskey to date, plus the release of its first-ever rye. Beam has added new products that include a white whiskey called Jacob's Ghost and the upcoming debut of its Signature Craft line, which retails for a very un-Beam-like $40 per bottle.
So what changed? You did, whiskey drinker.
Fueled largely by the craft distilling movement, whiskey drinkers have become more numerous and more adventurous. The big boys have been able to get more experimental as a result — something they arguably need to do to keep up with an increasingly discerning marketplace.
"They're scratching some new ground maybe some of us were reluctant to get out there and do," Jeff Arnett, master distiller at Jack Daniel's, said of the craft distilleries. "The big boys are playing in that sand box now."
Look no further than Jack Daniel's un-aged rye. The clear spirit features the distillery's first new grain bill since Prohibition. Classic Jack Daniel's and its derivations, like Gentleman Jack, are predominantly corn. The un-aged rye is 70 percent rye, and just 18 percent corn. An aged version of the rye is forthcoming, expected to be released in mid-2015 at the earliest.
Then there is Sinatra Select, an oily, nutty and smooth whiskey released in late 2012 at the distillery and airport duty free shops; it will be available in stores in early 2014. Matured in grooved barrels that impart increased color and intensity, it retails for $150.
"We want to give people the opportunity to stay with our brand, but experiment," Arnett said.
Beam, meanwhile, has long been a high-end whiskey innovator, releasing premium brands such as Basil Hayden's, Knob Creek and Booker's during the last 25 years. But its latest innovations seem decidedly more daring.
Jacob's Ghost was designed to be a cocktail ingredient rather than a straight sipper (heresy at Beam a generation ago, perhaps) while Signature Craft comes in two stripes: the standard 12-year-old version, and a rotating and limited-edition variation, the first of which is finished with Spanish brandy for an interesting and spicy hybrid spirit. Signature Craft debuts in August.
"I see it as long-term evolution of the category," said Adam Graber, Jim Beam's director of global innovations. "There's definitely increased energy in the bourbon category and across whiskey. Craft distillers have had a lot to do with that."