What do you want to know about a whiskey? Everything, of course. That’s why you’re here.
Oh, sure, we’ll occasionally get some feedback in the comments section along the lines of “You guys are overthinking this. Why can’t you just enjoy whiskey?” These are the vast minority, however. Most of you seem to enjoy the minutiae that comprises the “who, what, where, when, and how” a whiskey was made, and we’re happy to provide it. In some cases, you even write in asking for more information, so insatiable is the curiosity of our readership.
I share your inquisitive passion, and I laud the distilleries that give us a baroque level of detail about their raw materials, distillation, and maturation. However, If I had to narrow these down to just a handful of essentials, I might choose the following (for bourbon): name and location of the distillery (unfortunately not a given in the world of American whiskey), mash bill, and specific age (rather than “at least X years old”).
I also appreciate the rickhouse-level detail that informs, say, barrel picks of Wild Turkey, though it takes a few years of highly-focused tasting to assemble the mental framework to make these meaningful. With so many different distilleries and expressions out there, even very gumptious tasters typically don’t achieve the narrow specialization that would necessitate this data.
With these criteria as gating factors, it’s surprising how little bourbon whiskey qualifies for inclusion. When you strip out store picks and the more dogmatic craft distilleries, the ranks dwindle even further.
One of the outliers is Booker’s bourbon, the crown jewel of Beam’s small batch collection (including Baker’s, Basil Hayden’s, and Knob Creek). Astoundingly, Booker’s has bucked industry trends and given us more – rather than less – information as time goes on.
This is not MALT’s first foray into Booker’s (Jason had a look at export-only batch #2017-01E last year), but I hope to make it our most comprehensive. Jason did an admirable job detailing the genesis of the brand, so I’ll dispense with the history lesson and get right into describing some of the unique characteristics of the range.
While the mash bill is not officially disclosed, I have seen this reported at 75% corn, 13% rye, and 12% barley, or thereabouts. Barrel entry proof is reputed to be near the maximum permissible 125. Beyond that, we’re able to rely on Booker’s for the information we crave.
Booker’s website has batch information going back to 2015. Six batches were released in 2015 and 2016 (plus one limited edition rye in the latter year), before 2017 stepped down to a cadence of four batches (due to supply constraints), a pace which has persisted through 2019. In total, we’re talking about 29 batches, each with a short nickname.
Beyond that, we have the ABV (by law) and the years, months, and days that each batch (or its youngest component) was aged. This alone would place Booker’s near the top of the disclosure league tables.
However, starting with the first batch of 2017, Booker’s started giving us more. The last 12 batches have included a percentage breakdown of which floor of which warehouse contributed barrels to each batch. So, for example, “Tommy’s Batch” (2017-01) contained 46% of Warehouse D Floor 7, 41% of Warehouse E Floor 6, and 13% of Warehouse H Floor 6.
In isolation these details might seem superfluous. When viewed as a series, however, they start to paint a picture of the evolution of this brand over time. They also allow us to focus on batches with emphasis on different warehouses, and perhaps thereby discern some contrasts between them.
This system of batches (and the associated detail about barrel locations) is the raison d’être for this review. I’ve long been curious how much variation there is from batch to batch, and from year to year. While I have had several individual incarnations of Booker’s over the years, I had never sat down and compared them side-by-side.
To organize the data that informs this review I have created (finance geek that I am) an Excel spreadsheet with all the available statistics regarding these barrels, as well as the rest of the Booker’s range. It’s available to any of our readers who would like to consult it for themselves; please contact me directly and I’ll happily send it along.
Before I get into the specifics of these expressions, some general observations: after three releases in the 7-year age range, the average age dropped slightly to around 6.5 years; it has stayed more or less constant at this level since. ABV varies from 62% at the low end (“Shiny Barrel Batch,” 2019-02) to 64.85% at the high end (“Off Your Rocker,” 2016-05). This is a comparatively tight range and would place any Booker’s expression toward the high end of widely available Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey.
As for the bourbon itself: recent batches contain whiskey distilled on a single date, while prior batches were comprised of barrels from as many as seven separate production dates. The warehouse and location focus seems to have tightened as well; from a high of 7 warehouses in 2016’s “Bluegrass Batch” (#2016-01), the last two batches have featured only 2 warehouses.
In terms of locations (defined as a given floor of a given warehouse): these vary from a high of 9 to a low of 3. Among the 10 warehouses used by Booker’s to make these batches, 31 separate floors (usually 4-5-6 from a 9-story warehouse) are identified as sources of barrels. A particular location can contribute as much as 51% or as little as 2% of a given batch.
Batch size is typically not disclosed (the rare omission among the voluminous data provided), but the company did once mention that Batch 2019-03 (“Country Ham”) consisted of 364 barrels. Assuming 30% evaporation from a standard 53 gallon barrel, this translates to batches of around 68,000 bottles (750 ml). That’s almost 23,000 9-liter cases per year, compared with – for example – 9,400 for the Van Winkle range. So, while these are necessarily more limited than mass-produced expressions, they’re considerably more plentiful than the most strictly-allocated bourbons. This is reflected in their relative availability; where I live, it’s not uncommon to see batches going back a year or two still sitting on store shelves.
As with whisky/whiskey more generally, pricing has become a source of controversy recently. A massive +66% increase to MSRP (from $59.99 to $99.99) was announced in in late 2016 before public outcry forced Beam Suntory to walk this back. In a revised statement, the company indicated a more gradual implementation. The 2017 batches arrived at retailers within a range of $69.99 to $74.99. In practice, prices have risen less steeply than initially proposed, to the current level nearer $79.99, which is what I paid for all three of these bottles.
What else can I possibly say about these bourbons? Booker’s notes that this is “bottled uncut and unfiltered,” though the website reassuringly adds “While we get every last ounce of charred oak flavor from our barrels, we make sure any actual pieces of barrel wood are left behind at the distillery.” Phew.
A word about my selection: I picked three different batches from each of the past three years. The 2017 batch comes mostly from Warehouse E (with the remainder from D and F), while the 2018 batch is a majority of Warehouse J, with some E and D filling out the blend. The 2019 batch highlights Warehouse P, which made its debut with Batch #2019-03.
As far as tasting methodology: given the high proof, I tasted these several times, with and without the addition of a few drops of water. Without further ado, here’s Booker’s vs Booker’s vs Booker’s.
Booker’s Bourbon Batch #2017-03, “Front Porch Batch” – Review
Quoting verbatim from the source: “This batch consisted of seven different production dates stored in six different locations within three storage warehouses. The breakdown of the barrel locations is as follows: 8% came from the 5th floor of 9-story warehouse D, 14% came from the 7th floor of 9-story warehouse D, 37% came from the 4th floor of 9-story warehouse E, 5% came from the 5th floor of 9-story warehouse E, 16% came from the 6th floor of 9-story warehouse E, 20% came from the 4th floor of 9-story warehouse F.”
Color: Golden brown
On the nose: Earthy and meaty aromas of forest floor and braised lamb shank are joined by accents of mint and freshly-squeezed lemon juice. There’s the baked sweetness of graham crackers, as well as the middle-of-the-rickhouse scent of fluoride. Over top of all this is a healthy serving of freshly-ground black peppercorns. Some water reveals additional sweet baked notes of cornbread as well as the perfumed scent of rosewater.
In the mouth: Sharp to start, with hard edges encompassing the peppery citrus bite of grapefruit, as well as the astringently woody flavor of sawed pine. This lightens up with an airy sugary sweetness of pavlova as it moves across the midpalate before it again takes on some more perky notes in the woody register. This remains lighter weight (perhaps I should say “more fleet of foot”) as it finishes with a floral flavor and a soapy texture. Adding water to this doesn’t change the front of the mouth, but reveals more nutty flavors of hazelnut and a residual note of orange curaçao on the finish.
The nose intrigues, but the palate is more shrill and unbalanced towards the high notes. I could have used a bit more “bass” in the form of some richer fruit and savory nuances to balance out what feels like an otherwise tightly wound and astringent palate.
Booker’s Bourbon Batch #2018-04, “Kitchen Table” – Review
Again, direct from Booker’s: “This batch is made from barrels produced on three different production dates and stored in six different locations. The breakdown is as follows: 7% came from the 4th floor of 9-story warehouse E, 14% came from the 5th floor of 9-story warehouse E, 4% came from the 6th floor of 9-story warehouse E, 24% came from the 5th floor of 9-story warehouse J, 44% came from the 6th floor of 9-story warehouse J, 7% came from the 6th floor of 9-story warehouse D.”
Color: Luminescent orange
On the nose: Starts with a thick, sticky, and sweet aroma of honey. Spearmint, hard candies, and some oily aromas of buttered chicken thighs round out what is overall a much less expressive nose in comparison to its flight mates here. The addition of water doesn’t unlock much more than a vaguely woody nuance and some pleasant aromas of grilled cheese sandwich.
In the mouth: Similarly lithe to start, this enters with a subtle minerality and transitions to the tart bite of underripe orange as it hits the middle of the tongue. Across the top of the mouth, there’s a tingling medicinal note. This moves into the rather sedate finish, where it lingers with the faint flavor of tobacco leaves. For a good minute after the last sip, the insides of the lips and cheeks burn with a chili-pepper like radiating heat. This abates somewhat with a few drops of water, which is a welcome relief.
The least forceful of the bunch, and not in a good way. There’s not the same breadth or depth of flavors here as I found in the other two batches. Nothing wrong with this, it just doesn’t have the same strength of personality. If you prefer a lighter style of whiskey then this may be more to your tastes, but if you prefer a lighter style of whiskey then you’re probably not drinking Booker’s.
Booker’s Bourbon Batch 32019-03, “Country Ham” – Review
In a first, Booker’s disclosed the batch size (364 barrels), with a single date of distillation and storage in three warehouses. Directly from them: “51% came from the 7th floor of 9-story warehouse H, 5% came from the 3rd floor of 7-story warehouse P, 44% came from the 4th floor of 7-story warehouse P.” So, this is a balanced mix of warehouse H and P, very slightly favoring H.
Color: Tawny auburn.
On the nose: Fulsome fruit and baking spice to start out, like a pie baked with ripe cherries. Cardamom pods, semi-sweet chocolate, rosewater, kola nut. Some smokier nuances of embers and barbecue sauce, with more of the aforementioned fluoride. Adding water tones this down significantly to the point that all these aromas mix together, with only a little ham hock emerging as an addition.
In the mouth: Starts with a juicy note of cherries, accented by the ashy accent of charcoal. This shows a bit of mocha before becoming acerbically tart at midpalate, which constricts the favors and scours the tongue through the finish. With water, this takes on a more velvety texture towards the front of the mouth, while the finish becomes altogether more enjoyable, though no less persistent.
The best of the trio, in my opinion. Nose and palate were equally matched, with both as pleasing as the other. There’s a fair deal of complexity here, with excellent delineation between the many sweet and spicy counterpoints.
Overall, I liked each of these to varying degrees but didn’t absolutely love any of them. Stagg Jr. remains my king of the barrel-proof bourbons, and I’d probably even take the more sedate (in terms of both ABV and price) Wild Turkey Rare Breed over Booker’s. That said, the batches keep changing and there’s certainy a lot of bourbon here for the price. I’ll keep an open mind and continue to try these on occasion, but will be unlikely to splurge on a full bottle again.