Time to find out what other tricks are in the book…
I am checking back in with most recent entrant in the Little Book series. For those of you readers as-yet unaware of this brand: Little Book comes to us from Beam Suntory, owner of the Jim Beam distillery (and many other assets, besides). It’s a project of Freddie Noe, whose lineage stretches back – in the manner of Matthew 1:1 – all the way to the eponymous James Beauregard Beam and, before him, Johannes “Jacob” Beam.
In my previous review of a Little Book whiskey, I puzzled at the purpose of this series. The official materials on the Little Book site state:
“When eighth generation Beam family member Freddie Noe set out to make his own whiskey, he had one goal in mind: make his family proud. So he created Little Book, blending together different spirits to create something completely new.”
Without a doubt, the Beam/Noe family has left an indelible mark on American whiskey, with that influence continuing today in the form of Jim Beam master distiller Fred Noe (father of Freddie). I’m sure that Freddie is facing all the challenges normally associated with making a mark in a high-profile business, with the additional complications of a family name and living up to the legacy of prominent forebears.
However, it wasn’t exactly clear to me how a blend of Kentucky and Canadian rye was specifically a tribute to the Beams/Noes… other than it being whiskey, and the family being inextricably linked to the whiskey business. At the time I reviewed the second iteration, the price had climbed from $80 for the inaugural release to $100 for its successor. It was good whiskey, albeit a bit hard-edged for my tastes. I also balked a bit at the high price tag, which was only really justified (in my eyes) by the inclusion of some exceedingly old Canadian rye in the blend.
The third entrant in the series, “The Road Home,” made more sense in the context of honoring the Beam family. Chapter 3 was a blend of the four expressions comprising the Jim Beam Small Batch portfolio: nine-year-old Basil Hayden’s, nine-year-old Knob Creek, 11-year-old Booker’s, and 12-year-old Baker’s. I remember remarking at the time of release (September 2019) that only two of these components could be regarded as relative rarities based on their ages: the Booker’s and the Baker’s. Barrels of Knob Creek as old or older than nine years are frequently featured in the brand’s barrel pick program. Basil Hayden’s releases a 10-year-old bourbon annually, at a price of $70.
Speaking of price: with a SRP of $125 and a USP with some questions around the “U”, I felt like Little Book was increasingly at risk of joining other Beam limited editions in shelf turd territory. I recall personally spotting at least one of these bottles in a store, at suggested retail price, and passing on a purchase. It was at this point that Little Book faded from my consciousness.
I’m not alone, based on an informal review of the whiskey social media channels I frequent. There doesn’t seem to be any strong feeling, either positive or negative, about these whiskeys. The idiosyncratic nature of the series thus far means that it’s hard to categorize these in a way that would support generalization. The high (and, heretofore, increasing) price means that few consumers are likely to have picked up even one as an impulse buy, much less the entire set. I presume that repeated purchasers are limited to completists, Beam partisans, and those hoping to resell these for an even greater premium.
Coming, at last, to the most recent release (from August 2020), I’ll now be considering Chapter 4, “Lessons Honored.” I didn’t purchase a bottle; I saw one sitting on a bar and convinced the bartender to serve me the remaining ounces in a to-go cup. I decanted this from its Styrofoam container into a sample bottle, which I am now getting around to tasting. But what, precisely, will I be tasting?
The press release for “Lessons Honored” provides the details. This is a blend of a four-year-old Kentucky Straight Brown Rice Bourbon, a seven-year-old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, and an eight-year-old Kentucky Straight “high rye” Rye Whiskey. Each is said to relate to a moment in Freddie’s career: his first distilling project, his father’s pick for the Small Batch collection, and Freddie’s selection (alongside his old man) of Booker’s Rye, respectively.
Pausing momentarily to consider this: setting sentimental attachments aside (as they’re all personal to Freddie; I have none myself), we’ve got another mix of whiskeys that presents greater and lesser points of intrigue. The brown rice bourbon nods to Beam’s “Harvest Bourbon” collection (released in 2015), in which unconventional grains were included as components of the bourbons’ mash bills. The “high rye” Kentucky Straight Rye could add some distinct notes; on the other hand, there’s nothing about a seven-year-old Bourbon that would necessarily set this apart from manifold other whiskeys from both inside and outside the Beam portfolio.
At least we’ve got a relatively high bottling strength working in our favor: this comes in at 122.8 proof (61.4% ABV), similar to the 122.6 proof of Chapter 3 and sitting between Chapter 1 (128.2) and Chapter 2 (118.8). The whiskey is unfiltered, also similar to the presentation of Booker’s.
Chapter 4 has kept the $125 price tag from Chapter 3; perhaps Beam Suntory perceives this as the limit of what a curious, credulous whiskey consumer is willing to shell out for an experiment with limited provenance? Regardless, that cost still puts Little Book in the upper echelons of American whiskey. As with all expressions asking triple digits, this whiskey will need to deliver superlative aromas and flavors to be awarded a score in the top half of the range.
Little Book Chapter 4 “Lessons Honored” – Review
Color: A dingy, medium-pale amber.
On the nose: The first note that presents itself is a dairy-inflected citrus, in the manner of orange creamsicle. Some metallic notes of damp copper emerge, as well as a subtle nuance of rhubarb pie. I get an exceedingly faint note of Hershey’s chocolate syrup buried deep down, as well as the tiniest wisp of lemongrass. A little time in the glass reveals a surprising aroma of grilled American cheese sandwich. Eventually, there’s a note here that sits somewhere between nutty and grainy, in a way that is hard to put my finger on. Richly sweet notes of caramelized sugar and butterscotch also come to the fore. In all, though, this comes across as more restrained than some of the more exuberant Beam expressions to which we’re accustomed.
In the mouth: Tart and woody upfront, in a way that tastes unmistakably Jim Beam-esque, almost like a high-octane version of the White Label. Some salted peanut notes guide this toward the center of the tongue, where a tart and slightly bitterly citric note of lemons is the dominant flavor. The high proof becomes evident into and through the finish, where an expansive heat crowds out all the other flavors, bar a momentary nip of peppery rye grain. A radiant heat – tingly to the point of feeling anesthetic – covers the inside of the mouth, with only a faint, dilute woodiness hanging around in terms of flavor.
It’s not clear that this whiskey knows what it wants to be. The aromas are underpowered and nebulous, while the flavors are constricted and limited by an alcoholic heat that grips the tongue and never lets go. Whereas I could point to aspects of the Book 2 that – though not my preferred style – still spoke to the underlying quality of the raw materials, I am less convinced in the case of Book 4. I’d dock this a point off average at half this SRP; considering the lofty cost, I am shaving two points and reverting to my prior dismissive ambivalence toward Little Book. Absent a very strong recommendation from a trusted friend, I’ll be closing the book on this range and looking for my kicks elsewhere.
Photo courtesy of Beam Suntory.