“Have you tried this one? But what about that one?”
I should preface what I’m about to say by noting that I happily field questions about my thoughts on particular whiskeys. I am usually glad to enthusiastically pass along a recommendation, or to warn someone away from a flaming rip-off. Everyone is entitled to my opinion, which is why we find ourselves here.
However, though I try to taste both widely (across regions and styles) and deeply (exploring multiple expressions and batches from my favorite distilleries), I’m far from encyclopedic. The preservation of sanity and health make it impossible to expect that I would have tasted every single iteration of a given type of whiskey, even those I count as personal favorites.
Take the whiskey at hand, for example: Booker’s has released between three and five batches per year, every year, for at least the past half decade. Collecting and opening all 29 batches back to 2015 would have cost me in excess of $2,000 (assuming an average price of $80/bottle). At the end, I would have been left with more than two dozen bottles of bourbon at a bottling strength exceeding 120 proof (60% ABV). I’m occasionally a passionate completist, but I wouldn’t say that my love for Booker is sufficiently intense to warrant that type of devotion.
Still, I can’t help but feeling that I’m letting people down a bit when I can’t render an informed judgment on a specific batch. In the case of Booker’s, I’m usually satisfied to point out that the batches I have tried have all had more similarities than differences. Sure, the notes vary between them (Dekopon orange peel, anyone?), and I liked some more than others, but they were all within, say, a half standard deviation of what you’d expect if you had tried any prior batch of Booker’s.
The unmatched granularity of the details provided to us with each release might serve to reinforce a perception that there is a greater variability between the batches than an uninformed taster might realistically perceive. This data is so voluminous that I have actually had to create an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of it; as always, feel free to contact me directly if you’d like me to send you a copy.
I worry, in indulging my inner (OK, fine, and outer) bourbon nerd in this way, that I am actually aiding Jim Beam in performing a diversionary mind trick on myself. Does knowing the age (down to the day!) and the exact percentages of what floor of which rickhouse comprise the batch cause me to convince myself that there is more difference between these? If so, it would be easy to make the cynical extrapolation that I therefore feel the need to buy every single batch, keeping a reliable quarterly payment flowing into Beam Suntory’s coffers.
So far, I have resisted the temptation to “collect the whole set,” aided in part by the understanding that I like – but don’t love – Booker’s. For the barrel proof component of my bourbon bar, I continue to rely on my personal holy trinity of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, Maker’s Mark Cask Strength, and Wild Turkey Rare Breed. That said, I certainly don’t grab a bottle of every batch of those… and I’m better off for it, apparently. Imagine failing to find a batch? I have recently read – with great bemusement and schadenfreude – about the completists who have lost the plotafter missing a single bottling from a distillery. As always, passion (inflamed by whiskey, or otherwise) needs to be governed by reason, and I’ll once again exhort my readers not to act the fool.
Aforementioned caveats aside, I keep an open mind about Booker’s and remain curious about the past batches I have yet to try, as well as those new ones that I spy on the store shelf from time to time. Today, I have a sample of each of these categories to try, courtesy of Ryan. Please join me in extending him very hearty thanks for his continued generosity.
Starting with the older batch, I’ll be having a taste of “Backyard BBQ.” As with every Booker’s expression, this has a back story: apparently Booker Noe liked to host barbecues (who doesn’t?), with his signature dish being pork chops flambéed with bourbon.
This batch is the second of 2018 (2018-02) and consists of barrels pulled from six locations from rickhouses E (4% from the fourth floor, 29% from the fifth floor, and 10% from the seventh floor), J (8% from the fifth floor) and I (32% from the sixth floor, and 17% from the seventh floor).
At 64.4% ABV, this is remains the highest-strength batch since 2016-05. At six years and two months of age, it is also the second-youngest release since 2015. Though the retail price has been rising gradually over time (with recent batches appearing on shelves upwards of $90, depending on the region), I’ll be evaluating this using a price of $80, which is about where bottles trade hands near me.
Booker’s Bourbon Batch #2018-02, “Backyard BBQ” – Review
Color: Medium-pale orange-gold.
On the nose: Nutty and spicy, this is immediately recognizable as Booker’s. I get the hallmark Jim Beam peanut note, yes, but also a more varied assortment of cashews, Brazil nuts and walnuts, depending on how I angle my nose. Some vanilla extract aromas meet a distinctive whiff of black licorice with a candy coating, similar to Good & Plenty. There’s an overripe note of fruit in here that recalls an orange left to the point of softening, which I mean in a good way. Hovering above all this is an airy but present stony note. Around the periphery, there’s a dry and smoky ashy whiff of spent campfire. All in, this might be the most fascinating nose I have ever experienced on a Booker’s bourbon.
In the mouth: Greeting the lips with a citric bust (orange again, but in the tart form of freshly-squeezed orange juice), this zips up the tongue in a sweet and fruity dart that then broadens out to include some generous flavors of custard and crème brûlée, with a subtle but additive woody accent and a faint lick of cayenne pepper. This takes on a drying texture as the stone notes become dominant toward the back of the mouth, where this transitions to a softer textured and gentle sweetness on the finish. There’s a slight tingle that covers the inside of the mouth, but overall I’m surprised how manageable the comparatively high ABV is, relative to some of the more “hot” feeling Booker’s batches I have tried.
Of the standard Booker’s bourbons I have tried (setting aside the epic 30th Anniversary bottling), this is among the best that I can yet recall. It ticks so many of my important boxes: diversity of aromas and flavors, intensity of aromas and flavors, harmony, balance, unity, elegance. It’s also recognizably Booker’s, from the very first whiff, which I feel is a key element to my favorite bourbons. Those paying the premium price for Booker’s are entitled to an experience like this one each and every time. I’m giving this a positive score and hoping the next sample can deliver as well as this did.
Moving along to the new kid on the block, we’ve got batch #2021-02, called “Tagalong Batch.” The backstory here actually provides a little interesting bourbon history, so I’ll reproduce it straight from the Booker’s site (the voice is that of Jim Beam Master Distiller Fred Noe):
“This batch celebrates the way my dad, Booker Noe, learned the ropes at the distillery – by ‘tagging along’ with his grandfather and my great grandfather, Jim Beam. Growing up, the distillery was like Dad’s playground; he loved spending time with his grandfather and everyone else who worked there, asking questions and expanding his knowledge. That’s ultimately how he developed his curiosity and passion for whiskey, and it was how he became such a talented Master Distiller.
The tradition of ‘tagging along’ has continued generation to generation. I learned much of what I know about whiskey by following in Dad’s footsteps, digesting all of the information I could while working side-by-side at the distillery. It’s also a tradition I continued with my son Freddie, and one I hope he’ll share with his children in the future.”
This batch is slightly more diverse in its makeup; the majority comes from warehouse H (13% from the fifth floor and 33% from the sixth floor), which has been featured prominently in the last seven Booker’s releases. The remainder comes from warehouse 5 (4% from the third floor), warehouse X (4% from the seventh floor), warehouse D (13% from the fifth floor) and warehouse Z (7% from the fifth floor).
At 63.95%, it’s the highest proof release since 2018’s final “Kitchen Table” batch. For all the talk of bottling strength, it’s worth remembering that all the batches since 2015 have been in a range of 62% to just under 65%, which is comparatively narrow. At six years, five months of age, this is pretty much in line with the last several years’ average; the third batch of 2015 was the last time the age statement had a seven in the year column.
As before, I’ll be using $80 for scoring, which is the price at which this can currently be acquired at my go-to liquor megamart.
Note the label photo for Tagalong Batch incorrectly labels it as 2021-01.
Booker’s Bourbon Batch #2021-02, “Tagalong Batch” – Review
Color: Identical medium-pale orange-gold.
On the nose: Far more subdued than its predecessor, I am getting much less distinctive aromas out of this whiskey. There’s a vague sweetness of confectionary, a slightly yeasty wood note reminiscent of a paper mill, and perhaps the piquant green spiciness of cardamom… but that’s mostly it in terms of particular scents. Some time in the glass reveals a whiff of weak black coffee. Despite the higher bottling proof, this gives the nasal impression of being watery or dilute in some way.
In the mouth: The coffee flavor presents itself again, along with the sticky sweetness of maple syrup. There’s another tart fruit element at midpalate, but this time of a squeezed lemon wedge. Toward the back of the mouth, spice and stone mingle in a nebulous combination that makes it hard to pick out any nuanced components of either. This mostly disappears on the finish, where a dilute nuttiness meets a blooming heat that makes its way back toward the front of the mouth to tingle the lips. There’s a slightly acrid or off-bitter aftertaste of almonds to this as well, a flavor I don’t particularly enjoy.
I have heard the persistent refrain that Booker’s batches have decreased in quality as the price has gone up. While my own experience would indicate a less tight inverse correlation, this Tagalong is definitely a low point among the Booker’s batches I have tried. Both on the nose and in the mouth, it underwhelms by failing to present distinct elements; the overall presentation comes across as muddled and confused. If I shelled out $80 (or more) for this, I’d be pretty disappointed. As a consequence, I am docking a point.
I’m sad to report that the fresh release was comprehensively outclassed by its predecessor. With regards to Booker’s specifically: it’s worth being selective, particularly given that batches from a few years back tend to hang around on shelves long after subsequent releases have arrived. In general, when dealing with batched whiskeys: consistency is not a given, and you might consider getting an informed opinion before you spring for a given batch. If you’d like to know what I think, go ahead and ask!
Photos courtesy of Jim Beam.