How do you like to celebrate your anniversary?
I mean, with whiskey, obviously. But how so? What type of whiskey? When the occasion is a big one and the pressure is on, what would you choose to capture the special nature of the event while remaining true to your roots? I’m having heart palpitations just thinking about the difficulty of the task at hand, and I’m merely drinking bourbon, not selecting or blending it!
The question is not purely an academic one. As time goes on, tributes and commemorative bottlings have become a fixture of the bourbon landscape. The one-off nature of these (including the application of the dubious “Limited Edition” appellation) and the usually elevated retail prices they fetch (never mind the “secondary market” resale prices) make them a high-stakes gambit for those who would seek to procure them.
The reason for this line of rumination is, naturally, the subject of today’s review. Released in 2018, the whiskey I’ll be tasting celebrates the 30th anniversary of the first batch of Booker’s bourbon. For those of you unfamiliar with Booker’s: Jason treated us to a succinct history of the brand as part of his review of a 2017 export batch. I followed up thereafter with an appreciative consideration of the significant amount of factual detail provided to us with each quarterly release of Booker’s, three of which I evaluated in that piece.
As this is a member of the aforementioned commemorative limited-edition species, I’m approaching the whiskey with a healthy amount of skepticism. I’ve had run-ins with a few examples of these bottlings in my time, and the result has typically spoiled the party. The Diamond Anniversary bottling (for Jimmy Russell’s 60th year at Wild Turkey) left me cold, while the second edition of Little Book (brought to us by Booker’s grandson Freddie) had me scratching my head. The importance of the legacy can easily overwhelm the capabilities of even well-resourced whiskey makers to come up with a product to pay sufficient reverence to the intended honoree.
Speaking of product: what, precisely, have we got here? This whiskey was described in the press release as “a mingling of uncut, unfiltered 9-year-old and 16-year-old Kentucky Straight Bourbon whiskies.” Additional details indicate that the proportions are 70/30 in favor of the younger spirit, though nine years of age is still older than we’ve become accustomed to from Booker’s, whose last five years of releases have been in the six-to-seven-year-old range.
On its face, though, there’s nothing to suggest that this is essentially a standout. Here comes the leap of faith: we’re relying on the nose and palate of Booker’s son (and current Jim Beam Master Distiller) Fred Noe to give us a fitting tribute to his old man, within the confines of what can be profitably produced, distributed, and sold by his multinational corporate overlords at Beam Suntory.
As for additional specifics: like other Booker’s batches, this comes to us at the undiluted strength of 125.8 proof (62.9% ABV), which is toward the low end of the (admittedly narrow) 62%-to-65% range at which normal Booker’s has been bottled. In terms of barrel selection: 48% came from the fifth floor of Warehouse E, which was heavily featured in batches from 2017-2019. The remaining 52% was from Warehouse H, comprised of 12% from floor three, 29% from floor four, and 11% from floor five.
SRP for this on release was $200, which puts this at the far reaches of retail bourbon pricing. Though I’ve felt no personal pain in the wallet in this case (as this was a sample generously shared by Brian), I’ll be evaluating this as though I have shelled out that amount from my own dwindling coffers.
Bookers 30th Anniversary Bourbon – Review
Color: Medium-dark amber with peach glints.
On the nose: Musty aromas of wine cellars, old book shops, and crawlspaces are the most noticeable characteristics at first. There’s a sweet and rich note of chocolate fudge that emerges, as well as elements of garrigue and Provençal herbs. This has a light and juicy meatiness to it, in the manner of a roasted bone-in chicken breast. With more time in the glass, I start to sense an ashy note that plays against the caramelized, fatty smoke-and-sweet note of burnt ends. Lingering at the top of the nose is a dried floral note of potpourri.
In the mouth: Dry on the entrance, this has a tart touch of lemon juice and an astringent minerality. Suddenly, this blooms with the most remarkably lovely note of candied orange as it moves toward the middle of the palate. For an instant, there’s a perfect balance between sweet, sour, and stony flavors that is unique among bourbons I have tried. There’s a tobacco-inflected stony note that sits peacefully at the rear of the mouth as the endless finish lingers. A lean and dry sensation radiates around the back of the tongue and the throat, as a note of macerated cherry re-emerges as a final delightful surprise.
The best Booker’s I’ve had by a country mile, this has several elements that argue convincingly for the uniqueness of the whiskey and the attendant premium price. To choose but three: the funky and herbal notes on the nose are distinctive and compelling. The dryness of the palate imparts an intense character; however, this is balanced by a precision that prevents the bourbon from ever becoming bitter or astringent. Most of all, though: that orange note in the middle of the mouth. Good Lord, I’ll be chasing that moment of perfection until my dying day.
This is every bit as good as the superlative Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond, the last high-priced, limited-edition bourbon that I felt justified an ask that is triple or quadruple that of the very many compelling bourbons in the $100-and-below range. If I were able to find bottles of this at $200 or even $250 (I cannot), I’d be buying up every single one of them. As it is, I’m overjoyed to have had a sample of it to savor and would urge you to do likewise, should you ever encounter an open bottle.
Photograph kindly provided by Beam Suntory.