Are you ready for some football?
From the photo, you’ll have noticed that I accessorized this bottle (Booker’s “Pigskin Batch”) with my very own pigskin bearing the logo of “The Pride and Joy of Illinois.” Those of you who have paid attention to some of Da Bears’ more woeful performances this season will therefore find it amusing (or depressing, depending on your allegiances) that this review will be preoccupied with quality control.
Industry legends Jimmy Russell and Parker Beam – when queried by Mark Gillespie about what defined a “master distiller” – concurred that the true measure of a master was an understanding of every phase of the production process and the resultant ability to achieve consistency over decades. Quality control, in the context of a distillery’s operations, aims at ensuring that necessary consistency of aromas and flavors in the finished product.
In practice, this involves measuring and analyzing myriad variables at every step of the way. From the grain all the way to the bottled whiskey, there is data to collect (often using specialized instrumentation) to determine whether things have gotten out of whack in a way that compromises the integrity of what we’ll ultimately be purchasing.
The risks of putting out a bad batch of whiskey should be obvious: reputational damage is the clear one. No distiller wants to see an entire batch rejected by consumers, and anyone who ended up with a bum bottle of booze is unlikely to be a repeat customer. There’s also the threat of fines from the TTB should the whiskey end up as mislabeled, for example due to the stated proof differing from that of the bottle’s contents. That’s why production of documentation related to the aforementioned data is a key part of a distillery’s quality control responsibilities.
Still, mistakes happen. An employee’s erroneous combination of bourbon and rye resulted in the Wild Turkey “Forgiven” blend, so-called because the worker in question wasn’t handed a pink slip for their blunder. Speaking of Wild Turkey and quality control: the company recently issued refunds to purchasers of certain 1.75 L bottles of 101 which, to some, evinced an unpleasant funkiness. The source of the off notes is not clear, but something had clearly gone wrong in Lawrenceburg.
The reason that all this is germane to the whiskey we’ll be considering today is because there’s another whiskey we won’t be considering today. This “Pigskin Batch” is number 2020-03; it will not be followed by the expected 2020-04. Apparently, something about the intended fourth batch was amiss, causing it to be discarded. For the first time in recent memory, there will be only three Booker’s batches this year.
Booker Noe (the brand’s namesake) and his son Fred Noe (Beam’s current master distiller) certainly meet the aforementioned criteria for mastery. Beam is an enormous, professionally run distillery, and there’s every reason to believe that best practices for quality control are implemented with due rigor. There was even a prior batch of Booker’s named after one of the plant’s quality control managers (“Teresa’s Batch,” 2019-01). So, how did this happen?
We won’t know until some whiskey-loosened lips allow the true backstory to slip. Perhaps there were some bad barrels in the batch, whose flaws were not subsumed by the addition of offsetting notes from other whiskey? This is pure uninformed speculation, mind you; the only certainty is that we’re left with this Pigskin Batch as the final Booker’s release of a year that has not wanted for bad news on many other fronts.
Separate from any specific issues that have beset Beam of late, Booker’s is also plagued by variations that are intrinsic to a small batch whiskey comprised of barrels pulled from different floors of different rickhouses. Though all the batches that I have tried have been recognizably Booker’s (within a standard deviation of expectations), there are still noticeable differences between them. I’ve heard from a few folks who have felt let down by prior batches, indicating that they now wait for consistently positive reviews of new batches prior to splurging on them.
Setting all that aside: we can now focus on this whiskey in isolation, ignoring its stillborn sibling. Per usual, we’ve got a very detailed look at the components of this batch: 32% came from the 4th floor of warehouse X, 27% from the 5th floor of warehouse M, 15% from the 6th floor of warehouse H, 14% came from the 6th floor of warehouse L, and 12% from the 5th floor of warehouse Z. This is the first time since at least 2015 that warehouses X and M have featured in a Booker’s Batch.
In certain aspects, this Booker’s is the mathematical average of the last 5 years of Booker’s batches. The 63.65% ABV is almost precisely at the average (63.66%) of the Booker’s bourbon batches since 2015. At 6 years, 6 months and 7 days old, this comes to us after 2,409 days, compared with the last five years’ average of 2,390. The five locations this draws barrels from is equivalent to the mean of the 15 batches for which we have this data.
One of the ways in which this is not consistent with the prior 5 years’ bottles is the price. As mentioned in my prior survey of Booker’s bourbon, prices have been steadily creeping up over time. Though not yet appearing with any regularity at the previously mooted $99.99, it is increasingly difficult to find a bottle of Booker’s on the shelf for less than $80. I paid $85 for this one in a liquor control state, indicative of the “new normal” benchmark for Booker’s. SharedPour did have this for $89.99, maybe they’ll get it back in?
Booker’s Pigskin Batch – Review
Color: Brownish orange with golden glints.
On the nose: Appropriate for a whiskey reaching us in football season, this has some very autumnal flavors: a drily woody note of sawdust, a metallic aroma of rusted old tin cans. With more time, I am sensing a peanut note (one I get frequently from Beam whiskeys), a smoky scent of chipotle pepper salsa, and some spicy Mexican chocolate. At first there was a harsh aroma of acetone, but this abated a few days after the bottle was opened, replaced by a new sweet and creamy whiff of vanilla buttercream frosting.
In the mouth: This moves through the front of the mouth at light speed; there’s a initial kiss of citrus followed a fraction of a second later by a more expansive peanut note in the middle of the tongue. There’s a momentary oily, bitter nip of Dekopon orange peel that mingles with a reappearance of the aforementioned acetone aspect. The most assertive and memorable note on this is a mineralic flavor of limestone that bursts immediately as this hits the finish and continues for a full minute, radiating around the mouth with a drying sensation to complement the residual heat that comes with the high ABV.
Appropriately (given the previously noted numerical correspondence to the mean of prior batches), this is bang-average Booker’s. It’s got the notes that Beam enthusiasts will recognize, with a few interesting twists thrown in. These are more evident on the nose than in the palate, which is weighted heavily toward the back of the mouth.
As we previously discussed quality control, it’s worth noting that there are no overt off notes in this. There are a few points of sharpness (to be expected with barrel proof bourbon) as well as minor imbalances, but nothing in the way of glaring flaws. Again, this should be recognizable as Booker’s to anyone who has ever tried a batch.
It’s worth considering this Booker’s not just in the context of prior batches, but in the broader landscape of barrel proof bourbon whiskey. Full-strength offerings from Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey and Maker’s Mark run around $50, while Elijah Craig Barrel Proof is more frequently found at $60. Is this whiskey as good as those whiskeys? Perhaps, depending on your tastes; not to me. Setting aside my personal preferences, I can’t point to a reason that this justifies a roughly 50% higher price than those expressions. Netting all of the above, I am awarding this a score consistent with where this sits relative to prior batches, as well as relative to the scores I have given those other examples.
Returning to the gridiron: the Booker’s franchise has a storied history but is staring down some fierce competition, especially considering quality for price. It’s dead last in the barrel proof small batch division for me; the disparity is clear in absolute terms but is exacerbated when value for money is taken into account. If Beam and the Noes seek to please Booker’s ghost, they should find a way to bring us future batches that argue more convincingly for the brand’s premium positioning.
There’s a commission link within this article if the bottle does come back in stock…