The flavored whiskey category is a large and growing sub-segment that sold 10.8 million cases in 2018. Over the past decade, brands have included more flavored whiskey options, which have helped introduce new customers to bourbon and bring energy into the overall whiskey category.
From the very beginning of this trend, honey whiskeys have played a critical role. In this post, we’ll explore which honey whiskey is the best between two category leaders: Jack Daniel’s Honey or Jim Beam Honey?
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We’ve already gone into detail on the history of Jim Beam and Jack Daniel — two 19th century whiskey men who helped shape the American whiskey category.
So, in this post, let’s dive into the history of flavored whiskey and how it evolved into the wide and diverse sub-category we enjoy today.
The earliest example of a spirit we might recognize today as whiskey would likely have been distilled on the British Isles sometime after the turn of the millennium in 1000 CE. Celtic brewers used malted barley and other grains to make beer, then fed it into an invention introduced by proselytizing Christian monks — the still.
But those early distillates would have been a far cry from the bottles of Glenfiddich or Jameson gracing your modern bar. Early distillations would have been crude at best. Using small clay or tin stills, a spirit may have been distilled once into what we might consider low wines today. If a second distillation was done, the art of the hearts cut — removing the pure ‘heart’ of the distillation run from the deadly heads and unpalatable tails portions — would have been a difficult lesson to learn.
In fact, the earliest recorded evidence of the distillation process in Ireland comes from Annals of Clonmacnoise, a translation of an ancient and lost Irish history written in early modern English. It recorded: “Richard Magrannell, Chieftain of Moyntyreolas, died at Christmas, by taking a surfeit of aqua vitae,” in the year 1405.
Distillation works by heating an alcoholic solution — say, wine, beer or hard cider — until the ethyl alcohol vaporizes into a gas. The distiller then collects the vapor and condenses it back into liquid. This process is possible because alcohol boils at about 160 degrees Fahrenheit, while water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. By slowly heating the vapors that rise from a traditional still’s pot and capturing the liquids between these two temperatures, the distiller is left with a liquid much more concentrated in alcohol than when they started.
But — and this is a big but — lower-temperature volatiles in a whiskey distillation include methanol, which burns off as early as 150 degrees Fahrenheit. And in high concentrations, these methyl alcohols can be deadly. Thus, these deadly heads compounds may have been the culprit in our chieftain’s death. Or, he may have taken a spirits-based medicinal cocktail because he was already afflicted with a deadly condition.
Anyway, honey — the first fermentable sugar source discovered by mankind — likely played a significant role in early whiskey production, including the beverage our late Chief Richard consumed. In addition to being an easily digestible source of sugar to help boost the fermentation potential of the mash grain ingredients, it most likely would have been used to make the fierce, fiery spirit palatable. Early concoctions were used for medicine as much as for pleasure and would have been combined with whatever honey, herbs, fruits, berries and other botanicals were available and in season.
From this early start, the spirit known as ‘uisce beatha‘ in Irish and ‘uisge beatha’ in Scots — the local translation of the Latin’ aqua vitae,‘ or the water of life — would evolve over the centuries into the brown, matured and refined product we know as whiskey today.
The distillation of spirits evolved over the centuries and was exported to the new world, where distillers introduced native ‘Indian maize’ or corn to the mash bill and added new charred oak barrel maturation to the mix.
Let’s fast forward to the modern era.
Most bourbon historians credit Jimmy Russell over at Wild Turkey for introducing the first bourbon liqueur — Wild Turkey Liqueur, which was rebranded as Wild Turkey American Honey in the 2000s. Its appearance on the scene began a bit of a trend.
At the beginning of the bourbon renaissance that started in the 1990s but really caught fire in the 2000s, brand leaders looked for ways to bring more people into the bourbon category. Flavored whiskey was one answer.
Both Jim Beam Honey and Jack Daniel’s Honey are liqueurs made using the respective whiskeys as the leading spirit ingredient.
The mash bill for Jack Daniel’s is 80 percent corn, 8 percent rye and 12 percent malted barley.
The mash bill for Jim Beam is 75 percent corn, 13 percent rye and 12 percent malted barley.
Comparatively, Jack has a little more sweet corn while Jim has a little more spicy rye. But the main flavor contribution for both is honey flavoring.
Distillation & Production Attributes
We’re going to get into the weeds here…
Neither of these products is bourbon or Tennessee whisky, which cannot add ingredients other than grain and no flavorings other than new American charred oak — with Tennessee whiskey also employing the Lincoln County process. But they contain bourbon or Tennessee whiskey, and the term ‘bourbon’ or ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ on their labels.
The U.S. Tobacco and Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau approves the label for every alcoholic beverage sold in the United States. These ‘flavored whiskey’ products can be labeled under several product categories: Flavored Whiskey, Bourbon Liqueur/Cordial or Distilled Spirits Specialty.
Both Jack Daniel’s Honey and Jim Beam Honey are classified as Distilled Spirits Specialty, which may give us clues into the product’s production attributes.
In marketing copy, these types of products are often described as using a proprietary recipe or technique, leaving the exact ingredients and proportions vague in the customer’s eyes.
The flavored whiskey and bourbon liqueur categories have specific rules. For Bourbon Liqueur / Bourbon Cordial, the TTB statute reads: “Liqueur/Cordial produced in the U.S. with the predominant characteristic flavor of bourbon whiskey made with not less than 51 percent on a proof gallon basis bourbon whisky, straight bourbon whisky or whisky distilled from bourbon mash bottled at not less than 30 percent alcohol by volume (60 proof). Wine may be used but if used may not exceed 2.5 percent by volume of the finished product.”
That’s a mouthful.
The ‘Flavored Whisky’ standards of identity state the whiskey must be flavored with ‘natural flavoring materials, with or without sugar, bottled at not less than 30 percent alcohol by volume (60 proof)” with the predominate flavor part of the class, e.g., ‘Honey Flavored Whiskey,’ along with some similar language about wine volumes.
But neither of these categories is used. Instead, both products are classified as ‘Distilled Spirits Specialty,’ a catch-all term that literally states: “Distilled spirits not defined under any other class.’
The TTB can be a stickler for language. If the regulator is unsure of a label, a notice might come in from the agency that can tie up the launch of a product for weeks or months. Carefully timed marketing and ad campaigns with spends in the millions of dollars can become mired in a colossal cluster.
The term ‘natural’ can trip up labeling. For example, it may imply that only natural honey — not synthetic honey flavoring. So, the decision here may have been led by its production team in response to standards of identity. Or, it may have been led by the front office to streamline the approval process. We can’t know without a detailed explanation from a brand representative.
On the label, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey is described as a ‘Honey Liqueur Blended with Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey’ and is bottled at 70-proof. The label for Jim Beam Honey has gone through multiple iterations, being described alternately as a ‘Real Honey Liqueur Infused with Kentucky Straight Bourbon,’ a ‘Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Infused with Real Honey and Liqueur’ and ‘Jim Beam Infused with Real Honey.’
All of this is to say the flavored liqueur category is a lot less straightforward than the Straight Bourbon category…
Jim Beam Honey
Real Honey Liqueur Infused with Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Description: In the glass, Jim Beam Honey is amber in color. The legs are substantial and viscous, a reflection of the addition of sugar.
Nose: Barrel wood, vanilla, honey syrup nose reminiscent of mead.
Palate: Floral notes, honey flavors with a viscous mouthfeel.
Finish: Sweet honey and caramel with lingering honey.
Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey
Honey Liqueur Blended with Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey
Description: In the glass, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey has a golden- color. The legs are substantial and viscous, a reflection of the addition of sugar.
Nose: Delicate honey and raisin aroma.
Palate: Dark chocolate, black pepper, coffee and honey on the tongue.
Finish: Sweet honey, vanilla and baking spices.