Very rarely these days will you see any kind of excitement or headlines attached to a bourbon with a $20 MSRP, especially if stores are actually selling it at that $20 MSRP. With pricing inflation for whiskey being what it is, a $20 bottle resides pretty close to the bottom shelf, and rarely will any new release there be doing something that makes whiskey writers and brown liquor geeks take note. Beam Suntory’s new Old Tub Bourbon, though? That’s the exception.
This is a great case of “good story,” good marketing, high value and quality product. It’s also a good step in the right direction, in a time when so much attention is being thrown toward bottles with high dollar values (and secondary market values) attached. It seems safe to say that many of us whiskey geeks would LOVE to see more bottles like Old Tub hitting the market, and it accounts on some level for the huge amount of coverage and attention this new Beam product has received.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. First, a little history.
A product named “Old Tub” was once the flagship whiskey produced by Beam—for more than 60 years, in fact. Initially launched way back in 1880, the name was already a nostalgic throwback even then, referring to an earlier era before bottled whiskey was common, wherein customers would bring jugs to the distillery and literally fill them from tubs like they were pumping gas. Beam refers to this historic “Old Tub” as a bottled-in-bond bourbon, although that’s likely an oversimplification, as the bottled-in-bond term didn’t exist until the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. Regardless, at some point the whiskey ended up as a 4-year, 100-proof product, and it remained that way after Prohibition until 1943, when the “Old Tub” name was finally dropped, making the way for the flagship bourbon we now refer to as Jim Beam White Label. Old Tub then slowly faded from memory, until Beam revived it in recent years as an affordable gift shop exclusive, sold only in 375 ml flask bottles. That release proved popular enough to spur this one—a limited run of 750 ml bottles of Old Tub, although we’d wager that the positive reaction to this spirit would seem to guarantee more Old Tub releases in the future.
This is a 100 proof, at least 4-year-old bourbon that distinguishes itself with its focus on being “unfiltered,” which it proclaims in large letters on the front of the bottle. Beam defines that on the back label in more detail, saying Old Tub “has not been carbon or chill filtered—only quality screened to remove bits of barrel wood. It’s the next best thing to thieving the barrel yourself.”
With that said, given the amount of attention that has been given to Old Tub in the last few months, you might think it’s more unique than it truly is. Beam has several releases on the shelf that are very similar—most notable Jim Beam Bonded, which is more or less the same except for that it makes no such claim about the lack of filtration. Old Grand Dad BiB, likewise, can be found around the same proof point and age statement, but uses the higher-rye Beam mash bill rather than the lower rye one in Old Tub. This is all to say: The draw here is an unfiltered BiB bourbon for a $20 price tag, specifically aimed at the geekier whiskey consumers who want maximum flavor for the proof point.
Plus: How can you not want to sample this, looking at that delightfully silly, retro label? If kitsch exists within the whiskey world, surely this is what it looks like. Right? So with that said, let’s get to tasting.
On the nose, this pale gold bourbon is grain and corn-forward, with a profile that is familiar to younger Beam bourbons but also somewhat deeper than most of them can claim to be. It has a fair amount of the classic, honey-roasted peanut aromatics typical of Beam, but they’re less all-encompassing than I’ve typically found on bottles like White Label or Old Crow in the past, which allows more dusty rye, light vanilla and brown sugar to emerge.
On the palate, I’m getting cornbread, brown sugar, cinnamon candy, butterscotch and hints of sweetened peanut butter. “Nutty Bars” was one of my first thoughts, as the slight cocoa note combines with peanuts to evoke that childhood wafer confection. The ethanol, meanwhile, is integrated pretty nicely, and this is plenty easy to drink, seeming a bit under its 00 proof while still possessing a pleasantly full mouthfeel. “Pleasant” really is the word—if you like the Beam bourbon profile, you’ll like this. We’re not always fans of younger Beam whiskeys in particular, but this one does enough to earn a $20 investment and then some.
With that said, Old Tub is being pitched by some whiskey writers as a be-all, end-all to the idea of “value” in bourbon, but it’s certainly not running away with that title all on its own. The top three finishers in our blind tasting of 13 bottom-shelf bourbons would all be excellent picks at $20 or below as well, including Heaven Hill’s Evan Williams Bottled in Bond, Buffalo Trace’s Benchmark or Barton 1792’s Very Old Barton, two of which are also available in 100 proof expressions. As always, it comes down to your preference of each distillery’s house style, but Old Tub is an expression that fits in very well in that “bang for your buck” category. As far as budget sipping whiskey is concerned, this is a winner—one that also should be able to handle itself quite nicely in an Old Fashioned.
Distillery: Jim Beam (Beam Suntory)
City: Clermont, KY
Style: Bottled-in-bond bourbon
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $19.99 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.