What makes whiskey valuable?
Maybe it’s the age. Producing old whiskey is, at least economically, a risky endeavor. Every year a producer leaves whiskey aging is another year of deferred revenue while product literally evaporates into thin air (and somewhat uniquely to Kentucky, it accrues another year of aging barrel taxes).
That’s another year of risking a bad turn in flavor, or tipping past the point where a tiny cooperage flaw turns disastrous. At a certain age, a given barrel could be as likely to produce award-winning spirit as oaky sludge. With great risk should come great reward (and expensive price tags), right?
Seasoned imbibers might find fault in this logic. Growing up in 1990s-era Bardstown, Kentucky, I remember being educated that “old” bourbon — really, anything over eight or so years — was fool’s gold, meant for far-away markets and buyers who were more than happy to judge a book by its cover. Back then, the now “conventional” metric of $10/year for an age stated bourbon would have elicited more than a few disappointed sighs and gazes toward the ground.
Like many things in life, reality probably exists somewhere in the middle. Well-aged whiskey can hit unmatched high notes, but it’s not a guarantee of greatness. Taste in the blind, and it’s not unheard of for younger whiskeys to punch a decade or more above their weight.
Of course, there are value-added factors beyond age. Much like 8th grade math students, today’s producers are often willing to show their work to justify premium price tags: risky mashbill experiments, cutting-edge cask finishes, sonic enhancement, and a litany of other novel techniques. It’s the stuff PR writers dream about.
In the conversation balancing age and effort, the latest release in Jim Beam Master Distiller Freddie Noe’s signature line takes a strong stand toward effort. Little Book Chapter 6: “To The Finish” is very much a young whiskey with a whole lot of extra steps, a blend featuring five different components and four separate wood finishes. At $124.99 it boasts a premium price tag, firmly in the upper quartile for American whiskey.
According to the official press release, this sixth iteration of Noe’s annual batch features the following components:
- Four year old Straight Malt Whiskey finished with cherrywood staves
- Four year old Straight Malt Whiskey finished in applewood smoked barrels
- Four year old Straight Malt Whiskey finished in hickory smoked barrels
- Four year old Straight Malt Whiskey finished with maplewood staves
- Four year old Kentucky Straight Bourbon
That’s a lot of 4-year whiskey, and more wood varieties than you’re likely to see in an average Kentucky smokehouse. It’s a young, complex, and assuredly labor-intensive blend.
The Noe family is famed throughout Central Kentucky almost as much for their meat grilling, smoking, and curing as for their bourbon pedigree. The official press junket draws a bold line between that heritage and the latest Little Book offering:
“Noe uses the traditional method of smoking hardwoods to create different aromas and flavors in food, and he’s applied that same method to the whiskey-making process, using unique wood staves and barrel techniques for Chapter 6. This process brings different characteristics together to create a final blend that has a perfect balance of flavors.”
Notably, all liquid streams were produced under the guidance of Noe, who joined the distillery in 2013. Naturally, as the world’s largest producer of Kentucky bourbon, Beam’s warehouses could very well hold more 5-year-old bourbon than anywhere else in the Bluegrass state. The fact that recent Booker’s Bourbon batches have been teetering back up past seven year age statements is another sign they have plenty of flavorful product sitting in the five-to-eight year range.
This American Single Malt component is a relatively new public revelation, gradually aging in Kentucky since Beam began distilling a malt mashbill in 2017. We’ve seen Noe make use of other unconventional blending components in prior Little Books, including brown rice bourbon and a 40 year-old Canadian rye. While that exceedingly old Canadian distillate was sourced from elsewhere in Beam Suntory’s portfolio, it’s worth noting the Noe family’s ties to Alberta Distillers, another behemoth producer in the same family of companies. Alberta Distillers General Manager George Teichroeb spent years in Kentucky working under the tutelage of Freddie Noe’s father, Fred B. Noe. In addition, Freddie himself has spent time at the Calgary-based Alberta Distillers campus.
From an Alberta press trip in May 2022, I witnessed firsthand some of the well-aged stock they’re sitting on and would bet on an appearance of their distillate in future Little Book releases. (Alberta only distills single-grain runs, so I’d expect 100% rye, 100% barley, or 100% corn whiskeys, though they run even more single grains than those). Some Alberta distillate has already become a component of Basil Hayden Dark Rye.
But let’s get back to the release at hand. With this Little Book chapter, we’re seeing Noe and his team lean heavily into a particular formula for a high-end bottle: Young whiskey, finished via a complex series of wood finishes and then blended into a final batch.
It’s not that Beam doesn’t have older whiskey in some supply. In interviews, Freddie has discussed Beam’s extremely limited quantity of 16 and 17 year old bourbon of varying mashbills; two of those rare barrels went into the inaugural Bardstown Collection in January 2022, with just under 200 bottles released. Of course, there are far wider releases to consider. In 2022 alone, Beam’s nationwide drops expanded with Hardin’s Creek “Jacob’s Well” (15 years old) and a long-awaited Knob Creek 18 Year expression.
In the presence of those older releases, Little Book Chapter 6 seems like a conscious choice to marry young whiskeys for a high-end price tag. In a fortunate nod toward the value column, the release maintains its nature as a cask strength product, this time clocking in at 117.45 proof.
Ultimately, the tension between age and effort stands on the sidelines. For the consumer, what should matter most is the interplay of experience and cost; the higher the price tag, the better the whiskey needs to be to justify its value. And for better or worse in American whiskey, age is part of that formula. Today’s buyers usually equate high price tags with high age statements.
Anything that breaks the accord most somehow, against some odds, justify its own existence, even considering the effort that comes with blending different wood finishes. In that realm, at a premium price uncommon for four and five year-old whiskey, Little Book Chapter 6 has given itself a tall task.
The sample tasted was provided at no cost by Beam Suntory.
Little Book Chapter 6 “To The Finish” – Review
Color: Light copper.
On the nose: The nose immediately indicates young whiskey, then gives way to a complex mix of notes, layering one after another in rapid succession. Young, green oak is the first thing that hits, then mint. Once the nose acclimates, that gives way to smoke: Sweet and sticky like BBQ, not biting or astringent in the slightest. Hickory and maple stand out from the wood finishes. Sweetness lingers in the nostrils, along with a noticeable metallic note, which I rarely experience with Beam distillates, and may owe to the younger malt.
In the mouth: There’s that sweetness, with BBQ, largely hickory and maple but also reminiscent of mesquite flavoring. Toffee and fruitiness come in on the mid-palate. The fruity quality is interesting and tough to pinpoint; the closest I could muster is apricot. Returning to the glass brings less heat and more nuttiness, this time pecan. Then more smoke on the end, increasing with intensity with a little “Kentucky Chew.” The finish has a thick, minty quality that sticks on the upper palate and tingles on the tongue for a long time. The whiskey doesn’t taste as young as it noses on first smell; there’s a conversation here between the five blended elements, with no one stream completely dominating. I would (of course) love to try this blend with older components, because I think there’s a lot more depth of flavor these components simply haven’t reached yet.
There’s balance to keep the various liquid streams in harmony, but also enough interplay to make things interesting from one sip to the next. Too much restraint, and Chapter 6 might have fallen flat. But the final product hits multiple corners and evolves more than any four or five year-old blend I’ve had in recent memory.
It’s impossible to discuss Little Book Chapter 6 without stating the obvious value dilemma: $125 is a darn high price to pay for young whiskey, probably too high for many drinkers. To be fair, the line’s seemingly permanent bump up from $100 to $125 likely doesn’t fall to Noe or the team of distillers and blenders under his watch; a score of factors and corporate decision makers harmonized to get it there. What Noe and team did was produce a younger whiskey with a lot of moving parts and new-to-us malt distillate. It’s tasty and certainly fun to drink, especially when it comes to tying flavor elements to specific finishes or the bourbon base. (Think of it like a game in a glass!)
The fact remains there are other, also-tasty, also-complex blended whiskeys available for less. Many also feature several innovative wood finishes! Chapter 6: “To The Finish” is a whiskey I’m eager to share and revisit, but the price tag hampers this release from reaching up just one more level. My hope is that future Little Books can maintain this level of fun while incorporating older liquids with even more depth of flavor.
This was a sample provided free of charge by Beam Suntory, which – per Malt’s editorial policy – does not affect our notes or scores.