Let’s hear it for the quiet one!
No, I’m not talking about George Harrison, though the whiskey being considered today is a member of another famous quartet. Rather, I mean Baker’s, the forgotten sibling in the Beam small batch family. Here at Malt we’ve had a look at Knob Creek (in more than one format) and have done a deep dive on Booker’s across the years and in its export-exclusive incarnation. Each has its selling points, with the Knob Creek store picks, particularly, occasionally offering exceptionally high value for the money.
Basil Hayden’s has yet to warrant our attention, but it’s not because of an inconspicuous profile. Rather it’s because the whiskey is very, very, very, very dull. Seriously, it makes Dalwhinnie look like Daftmill. Their bizarre attempts to spice up the range with a blend of Kentucky Rye, Canadian Rye, and rum (“Caribbean Reserve Rye”), and the release of a 10-year-old expression at a premium price have fallen flat based on online reactions, with a persistent concern being the minimum permissible 40% ABV.
So, that leaves us with Baker’s. The expression is named for Baker Beam, 6th generation member of the storied Beam family. Baker was the day shift Master Distiller at Beam’s Clermont distillery until his retirement in 1993, a year after his cousin Booker Noe launched this expression in his honor.
The curious thing about this brand is that it seems to fly under the radar of even the most tenacious bourbon hounds. In my online experience, every distillery or label has a handful of fans. Wild Turkey, of course, has the fan to beat all fans. Lots of other brands have their partisans as well… even Michter’s! However, I am struggling to recall a time I ever heard anyone speak of Baker’s positively, negatively, or at all.
Perhaps aware of its “invisible man” status, Beam recently revamped the Baker’s label as a single barrel expression. With the tag line “For those who want to taste the difference between Floor 5, Rack 17 and Floor 7, Rack 21,” (um, sure) the emphasis is now on the variation between barrels due to location, as well as the manifold other factors that influence taste and flavor. Both a “minimum 7 years” and a “minimum 13 years” limited edition have been released as part of the initial rollout, maintaining the standard 107 proof of the prior batch format.
GAAAAHHHH! M07#3RFLU881N&C0RK$04K3R! THEY ALMOST GOT IT SO RIGHT! Migration from batches to single barrels? Yeehaw! Maintaining age statements? Christmas came early! However, they stumbled on the crucial last step of releasing these at barrel proof. Perhaps not wanting to step on the toes of the high-ABV Booker’s range, these will be proofed down to the magic 53.5% number, which has no cosmic significance of which I am aware.
It has been speculated that 107 proof is a holdover from the pre-1962 era, when the maximum permissible barrel entry proof was 110, and often as low as 100. The fluctuations of rickhouse temperature and the resulting impact on evaporation left barrels, on average, at a fairly consistent 107 proof. Thus, this would have been a de-facto barrel strength under the old distilling regimes. I have not seen this confirmed officially; the eponymous Baker refused to be drawn on the 107 figure specifically, stating only that it reflected his “personal preference for a robust, medium-bodied bourbon.” Regardless of when and why the decision was made, 107 remains the standard strength at which Baker’s continues to be presented.
We’re in a transition period currently; bottles of the old batch format are still kicking around while the new single barrel variant pops up here and there. Today I’ll be reviewing them both, starting with the old style.
This is Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey from batch # B-90-001. I paid $50 for a bottle at my favorite local retailer, though going rates fluctuate between $45 and $65 currently, depending on geographic location.
Baker’s Batch #B-90-001 – Review
Color: Rusty, dirty brown.
On the nose: Graham cracker. A funky whiff of black licorice, potting soil, and dark chocolate. There’s an alkaline note in here as well. Some candied cherries and a hint of grapefruit swirl throughout this one, but mostly it reminds me of the drying aromatic profile of several-decades-old wine from Barbaresco.
In the mouth: Delightfully, this carries through fully with the nose’s promised flavors. There’s more funky earthiness at the front of the mouth. This develops the dirty bitterness of iron-rich soil into the midpalate, where it suddenly softens with a sweet note of milk chocolate. There’s a medium-firm note of citrus as this transitions to the finish, which is drawn out with a lingering metallic and mineral note.
Incredible. When the nose presented itself, I was taken aback, but was even more surprised when there was follow through in the mouth. One of the funkiest, dirtiest bourbons I have ever tasted, and I mean that in the best of ways. This has all the tertiary nuance of wine aged for decades, but at no point does this feel tired, weak, or overwhelmed by the barrels. Not for everyone, perhaps, but those of you who enjoy a whiskey that grabs you by the neck would be well advised to seek out a bottle of this one. I’m not sure if this flavor profile is unique to this batch, but I’m sad to see this go regardless. As is my custom when I find a unique barrel or astounding flavor profile, I have laid in another bottle of this for long-term enjoyment.
Out with the old, in with the new. Having set the bar very high with that crazy funky bottle, we’re now moving on to the contemporary version. I was pleased to finally lay hands on this and to take note of the information on the collar of the bottle which, I am shocked and delighted to inform you, actually exceeds the expression’s specifications!
We have here a single barrel (#00502632), filled in December of 2011 and aged for eight years and two months, well beyond the seven-year age statement on the bottle. It was stored in warehouse CL-Y; a wild guess is that CL stands for “Clermont,” though I have not confirmed this. It is 107 proof (53.5% ABV). I paid $60 for 750 ml; nationally, average prices look like they’re in the $50-70 range.
Baker’s Single Barrel Bourbon – Review
Color: Gold-inflected copper.
On the nose: Aromatically dense; this is a nasal hunk of chocolate fudge. I’m getting some masculine cologne notes in here, like Tom Ford’s Italian Cypress scent. Smoked meaty aromas of beef brisket emerge, with a sappy coniferous note to round this all out. With some time, I start to get the bitter scent of mandarin orange peel. Overall this is dominated by woody nuances, but there’s plenty of other smells in here to keep things interesting.
In the mouth: This enters the mouth with a soft whisper of wood. There’s the most delightfully fruity burst of citrus right at this meets the middle of the tongue; this part tastes like an Arnold Palmer with a heavy-handed slug of bourbon added in. At the top of the tongue, this tilts back toward the wood in a way that falls over into slightly bitter astringency. The finish is very elegant; there’s a very lean and firm mineral note of limestone, as well as the airy sweetness of confectioner’s sugar and pavlova.
This is not the enthralling freak of nature that the prior small batch bottle was, but still has enough positive attributes. The high points are the nose chock-full of diverse and potent aromas, as well as that gorgeous fruity note that appears in the middle of the mouth. To point out a few shortcomings: The mouth feels like distinct parts with discrete separation between them, wanting for a sense of natural flow. The woody notes overpower at points, taking on a slightly unpleasant bitterness. Overall, though, I am happy to savor it and would be glad to share it with friends.
The necessary disclaimers around single barrel expressions all apply here. However, compared with what’s coming out of Blanton’s recently, this boasts superior flavor and texture, with (not coincidentally) a meaningful difference in bottling strength. It’s a little more expensive than the Russell’s Reserve single barrel store picks, though these are not always widely available with any kind of reliability. On net: if you like your single barrels bursting with character and presented at above-average strength, you’ll probably be a fan of the new format Baker’s.