Sometimes in this whiskey world I wonder if we’ve lost our minds.
Recently, I’ve pondered the increasing popularity of “barrel proof” and “cask strength” whiskeys. Nowadays, if the bottle has one of those monikers, it’s presumed that it must be better. Add a dash of “non-chill filtered” or a splash of “uncut” and it’s surely ambrosia?
If I’m correct in my history, one of the first contemporary whiskeys widely offered to the public at barrel proof was Booker’s, initially released over three decades ago (well before Beam evolved to Beam Suntory). Master Distiller Fred Noe is commonly heard to say that’s how “Dad liked to drink it,” referring to his father Booker Noe.
For some years Booker’s and similar high proof whiskeys remained the preference of a small proportion of consumers. More recently the popularity of barrel proof expressions has surged, evidenced by countless offerings from distilleries, multiple awards at spirits competitions, and the volume of publications devoting space to the format. Barrel proof is now the definitive standard for some, and the only way they will take their whiskey.
To quote fictional detective Nero Wolfe, “Phooey.” Granted, I am no Booker Noe. As such I like whiskey – even Kentucky bourbon – proofed somewhere south of 100 (50% ABV). Booker himself, no matter his preference, no doubt blended countless barrels in his lifetime and brought them to a palate pleasing proof with water. He may have even (gasp!) chill-filtered some.
I implore you zealots of cask strength whiskey to consider three points:
- If adding water is one of the blender’s valuable tools, you are robbing her of it when demanding barrel proof. Would you ask Bob Ross to paint happy little trees with only one color?
- Cask strength means less bottles yielded per batch or barrel, and therefore higher prices. Perhaps we should blame rising whisky prices on old Booker (double gasp!). [note: I’m kidding; we all know who to really blame.]
- If you’re drinking cask strength and adding water or ice to it, you’re overstepping your authority! Leave the proofing to the experts and choose a nicely blended whiskey, perhaps at a cheaper (see #2) price.
Better yet: ignore my little rant and drink whatever your whiskey however you like it! This was just for fun and to add a splash of irony before I review… a cask strength bourbon whiskey.
I managed to acquire a bottle of Little Book 4 around retail ($108) and decided to take a stab at reviewing a whiskey for Malt. For the story behind the Little Book series, see Taylor’s review of Chapter 2.
Master-Distiller-in-Training Freddie Noe (“Little Book”) from Beam Suntory creates a blended whiskey once per year as part of the Booker’s line. They are, of course, cask strength, yet each annual release is unique. Chapter 4, released in 2020, contains a 7-year-old Kentucky straight bourbon, 8-year-old Kentucky straight rye, and a 4-year-old Kentucky (triple gasp!) brown rice bourbon.
This one comes in hot at 61.4% ABV. The bottle has a blue hangtag with tasting notes and other information, and the blue pays homage to the University of Kentucky. As an alum of a school further north, I cheer for another “Big Blue” yet remain imminently thankful to all of the amazing people in Kentucky for the gift of bourbon.
Little Book Chapter 4 – Review
Color: Deep amber.
On the nose: The first evening I opened the bottle there was mostly ethanol on the nose. On a subsequent tasting, it was slightly improved with a muted sweetness. I felt like I was searching for the familiar bourbon vanilla and brown sugar and almost but not quite finding it. Overall the nose is underwhelming.
In the mouth: Not surprisingly the taste is oak forward with a quite a burn. There is more sweetness than spice, and the mouthfeel is full. My wife, who has the better palate, detected tart apple pie. Adding a bit of water diluting to about 2/3 original strength helped it for me. At lower proof, there was honey, snickerdoodle cookie and rice. These same notes are more apparent on the nose after adding the water. On the finish, the heat and sweet lingers on the very long finish with pleasing notes of smoke. For me, the finish was the best part.
Wood and fire. Overall this round of Little Book is not as enjoyable as other higher proof sippers or most batches of regular Booker’s. If you are able to find this at retail, it is perhaps worth a try. I would definitely not pay secondary market prices, and I myself will not seek another bottle. Remaining open-minded, I hope to try Little Book 5 whenever released.
Thanks for the review! Couldn’t agree more. I’m getting burnt out on barrel proof whiskies and find that my personal ABV sweet spot is around 46-54%. I find I am more willing to pick a more reasonably priced whisky these days, just so long as the ABV is still decently north of 40%.
While I can understand the desire to have something “au naturel” and untampered with, it is actually coming to mind that the entry proof mainly has to do with pulling certain flavors out of the wood at certain ABVs–there’s nothing to say that a distiller imagines their own product to be best at that uncut proof (not to mention that they usually will cut it before it even gets into the barrel to begin with!). The barrel acts as a tool to form the whisky flavors, and then proofing down acts as an additional tool in the toolbox.
If people really want nothing “tampered” with, I suppose they should just plan to suck the new make spirit straight off the still!