Legent Bourbon signals new era for American whiskey

Legent Bourbon is a collaboration between Jim Beam and Japan’s Suntory Whisky, and its unveiling drew 200 people in cocktail attire to a lavish event at New York Public Library on March 8, 2019.

The guests of honour were the “two true legends” behind this new whiskey; Fred Noe – Jim Beam’s great grandson – and Suntory chief blender Shinji Fukuyo.

Fukuyo is renowned for the blending mastery behind products such as Suntory Toki and Hibiki, as well as the distiller’s single malts.

“When I heard about this product, the concept was east meets west, so I wanted to introduce the blending technique to this new brand,” Fukuyo said.

“But in order to blend, we needed different types of whisky.”

Legent Bourbon mash bill and oak regime

The Legent Bourbon mash bill is exactly the same as that of Jim Beam: 76 per cent corn, 12 per cent rye and ten per cent malted barley.

The rules for bourbon production mandate initial ageing in charred new oak barrels, which does not present the array of blending options Fukuyo is accustomed to in Japan.

Shinji Fukuyo and Fred Noe launch Legent Bourbon
Shinji Fukuyo and Fred Noe launch Legent Bourbon

Fukuyo and Noe took Kentucky straight bourbon that had already undergone conventional maturation and put it into two different types of used barrels; ex-red wine and ex-sherry.

These two cask finishes gave Fukuyo three different fluid streams with which to work his magic.

“To take those finished liquids and balance them together was an education for me,” said Noe.

“Today, bourbon lovers enjoy different flavours and this is another way to expand the palate, taking it places that just under normal bourbon ageing you couldn’t get there.

“It’s still bourbon-forward, that’s the key. It’s not like we’re masking the bourbon in any way, we’re just complementing it and pulling it all together.”

How Legent Bourbon came about

Billed as a bourbon “unlike any other”, Legent Bourbon has been on the agenda ever since Beam Inc was acquired by Suntory Holdings in 2014, CEO Takeshi Niinami told guests at the library to rapturous applause.

“From the beginning it was my idea and my dream to bring together our foundations… combining Beam’s legendary bourbon making and Suntory’s art of blending,” he said.

“Because this is something only Beam Suntory can do. Am I right?”

Showmanship aside, Beam Suntory is indeed the only multinational distiller with whisky assets in both the USA and Japan.

But if Legent Bourbon was already a twinkle in Niinami’s eye back in 2014, his motivation to get these two distillers in the same room must surely have crystallised in the interim.

Realistically, Japanese whisky was little known to consumers when the Suntory boss was shaking on the Beam deal.

Five years on and Suntory single malts are some of the planet’s most sought after drams. They are frightfully difficult to get your hands on, with the fervour among collectors driving increasingly outrageous prices, and cynical exploitation of the category.

Why not transplant a little of the excitement surrounding Japanese whisky to another more plentiful whisky in Suntory’s arsenal?

Is Legent Bourbon rare?

As to whether Legent is a bourbon unlike any other, Noe said this is certainly the first time Beam has ever blended the results of its experiments with ageing bourbon in casks that had previously held cognac, port and sherry.

“Everything we secondary aged, all of it went into the bottle as opposed to having three fluid streams coming together to blend to the taste of Legent,” he said.

Woodford Reserve Four Wood
Wine cask finished bourbon by Woodford Reserve

But the Beam Suntory marketers may stand accused of overreach by possibly inferring that Fukuyo’s blending of cask finished bourbons is unprecedented.

In 2014, fellow Kentuckians Woodford Reserve released the Four Wood bourbon, which was aged in charred white oak before being transferred into port, sherry and maple wood.

“Re-barreling mature Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon in three additional barrel types and then batching them together creates a product of exceptional complexity and smoothness,” read the distiller’s marketing blurb at the time.

Four Wood was a one-off release for Woodford in its Master’s Collection series, limited to just 26,000 bottles.

In Legent, Beam Suntory has created a cask-finished bourbon at a scale and price point that makes it accessible to whisky drinkers everywhere.

Legent Bourbon tasting notes

It is hard to deny Fukuyo’s hand in creating a product that deftly carries the fruity, winey characters, while remaining true to its Kentucky roots.

“From my experiences, I recognised wine cask finishes give a whisky a very mild sweetness,” he said.

“On the other hand, sherry cask finish gives a bitter accent as well, so it’s a very good combination.

“The result is a perfectly balanced and well rounded bourbon that is also very complex and radiant.”

Legent Bourbon

It’s exciting to see large scale innovation in the bourbon category, and Fukuyo said there is plenty more to come, thanks to the Beam Suntory relationship.

“We are considering all possibilities for the next new collaborations… there is nothing fixed yet, but for example, taking Fred’s bourbon to Japan and then having maturation at Yamazaki Distillery,” he said.

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Author: James Atkinson

Journalist specialising in the food, drink, travel and hospitality arenas. Australian International Beer Awards 2017 Media Award Winner and Certified Cicerone®.

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