Whiskey’s Other Stag

Any cursory glance of the bourbon shelves these days will reveal a growing selection of flavored whiskeys. Some of these are below 40% and are actually liqueurs – Evan Williams Honey, Southern Comfort, Wild Turkey American Honey. However, there’s one of these flavored whiskeys that actually can bear the name “whiskey” – Red Stag by Jim Beam. And just like the other Stagg – George T., to be exact – it’s got an amazingly huge presence on the palate.

Unfortunately, that was one of the negatives of this tasting.

Red Stag is labeled as a “Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Infused With Natural Flavors” – black cherry in this case. The presentation of this and its heritage unfortunately tip that this is not going to be a high-road approach that perhaps mimics some of the extra-aged bourbons that can show beautiful black cherry flavors that develop with some age.

There’s a profile in bourbon that I’m a huge fan of – it’s one that’s more woody, with light vanilla notes, perhaps some pepper, occasionally a marshmallow flavor or some light clay earthiness, with a bold black cherry note as the clear central note. Executed right, these are rich and nuanced bourbons that show how absolutely incredible it can be – especially if you’re of the school that tends to write off bourbon as little more than undrinkable fire-water. I’ll place some of the finer expressions of that against virtually anything. (One really quick way to experience this flavor is to pick up a bottle of Noah’s Mill. The last couple times I’ve had it, it was right down this line with some nice sweetness to complement it).

Given that I’m not generally a fan of Jim Beam due to its tendency to have some very strident sweetness, I had two expectations of this. The first was that it would be heavy-handed and vulgar, with an incredible artificiality. The other possibility which made me chuckle was that they would do it in moderation, and I would find a really interesting if artificially created bourbon that was very close to my favorite profile at a reasonable cost. The idea of having a hoard of Red Stag was endlessly amusing.

When you open up Red Stag, there’s nothing even slightly subtle about it. Even at arm’s length I got a massive and immediate hit of a strong cherry note instead of the faintly sour sweetness you’ll smell from other bottles when you pour from them. I even held the glass above my nose and at arms length and clouds of this smell were pouring from my glass, as if it was some sort of presence that had to fill the room.

I knew immediately which way this was going so I did the only thing I could do: I hid in the armor of cold, emotionless and rational analysis, undertaking this tasting for pure science.

The nose was repellent. Artificial aromas overpower in a huge way. Cherry cough syrup is the first and most immediate scent. Hawaiian Punch and tropical tea can be made out. There’s an artificial “fruit punch” flavor. Oddly, after a moment or two I could catch the faintest glimpse of the signature Beam corn sweetness and turbinado sugar/new make as well a faint bit of graininess. This was after some real digging and intense smelling though; it’s like trying to make out a conversation at an AC/DC concert.

Great. Time for the first sip. Immediately, my panic and flight reaction kicked in. It’s immediately and completely unapologetically syrupy with fruit punch, fake cherry and tropical tea. It’s unbelievably syrupy and fake – there was almost like a liquid Jolly Rancher mouthfeel. Also curiously there was a bit of grape to the flavor. Somewhat less surprisingly, there was some maple syrup notes and overall quality to it. It’s unbelievably sugary, just not in the usual Beam way – unless you usually have your Beam with a couple packets of Kool-Aid dumped in it.

The finish, true to Jim Beam form is light. The syrupy notes persist, with grape Jolly Rancher, fruit punch and cherry cough syrup. There’s also a fleeting dry bourbon note with the Jim Beam new-make sweetness and a touch of rye, but the syrup comes back to dominate again.

I registered my disgust on Twitter and Sku responded, saying “You can’t drink it neat. Throw it on ice with soda…then it actually does taste like Cherry Coke.

Armed with 50 additional mL of Red Stag (50mL more than anyone on this world should drink, and certainly twice my actual requested lifetime allotment), some ice and some Coca-Cola, I began the quest to find the proper dilution of Red Stag to Coke to hit the Cherry Coke note.

The earliest sips at about 1:1 still were overwhelmed by the syrup notes. I tried more, adding a little coke after each sip. Somewhere north of 2:1 (by my estimation) it got in the ballpark but not quite the same. Close enough. Still awful.

There was a moment where I thought this was Jim Beam without the painful new-make notes. Unfortunately, I was overwhelmed by the syrupy cloying sweetness. If you’ve ever wanted to experience getting completely drunk from cough syrup but didn’t want to risk liver damage or the dextromethorphan high, Red Stag is your drink – no question.

In a way, this is a somewhat towering achievement. I used to think Woodford Reserve’s Sonoma-Cutrer finished bourbon was the absolute worst bourbon drink in the world based on its intense fake-grape note. It turns out Red Stag’s jolly rancher taste easily unseated that (this should not even be a category of bourbon, let alone have multiple entrants).

Needless to say, I thought this was terrible. It was one of the worst I’ve ever had, and I’m charitably calling it a whiskey. On that basis, it rocketed straight to the bottom 5 whiskeys I’ve had in my life.

If anyone ever buys this for me I will unfriend them on Facebook.

At a glance:

Red Stag by Jim Beam – 40% ABV
Oh hell no. Artificial aromas overpower in a big way right out of the gate. Cherry cough syrup. Hawaiian punch. Tropical tea. Fruit punch. Underneath that syrup is the signature Jim Beam corn sweetness and turbinado sugar/new make kind of notes. Just the faintest touch of graininess underneath it.
Palate:  AW HELL NAW. Punches in the face immediately with big syrup, fruit punch and fake cherry and some tropical tea. Syrupy, fake, kind of a liquid jolly rancher thing happening with just a faint bit of grape. There’s a maple syrup quality to it as well. Sugary as hell but not in the usual Beam way – more Kool-Aid. 
Very light. The syrupy notes persist, with grape jolly rancher, fruit punch, a bit of cherry cough syrup, and oddly enough there’s a distinct dry bourbon note momentarily with some more raw new-make sweetness and a bit of rye.
For the briefest moment I thought, “Wow, it’s a Jim Beam without the usual new-make agony.” And then I realized it was achieved in the most awful way ever. If you’ve ever wanted to get drunk off of cough syrup but you were afraid of liver damage, your whiskey has arrived. Take a bow, Beam, you guys have managed to easily and handily dethrone Woodford’s deplorable Sonoma Cutrer finish as the most objectionable fake-grape whiskey known to man. (This should not even be a category, let alone have multiple entrants!!) Horrid. Never again. If you buy this for me I will unfriend you on Facebook. 

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