I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: “Sic transit gloria mundi.”
Even the best of reputations can tarnish. In bourbon, names once considered among the “royalty” of Kentucky’s native spirit have dwindled into oblivion. Crow, Medley, and Wathen all spring to mind as having lost their luster over the years; countless others have faded entirely from our collective memory. Some get a second life as they are resurrected to adorn new distilleries or expressions; yet more remain missing in the mists of time.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Booker’s brand was a go-to for bourbon connoisseurs. As assertive as the Jim Beam distillery’s eponymous white label was anodyne, it delivered flavor like few other widely available expressions. Bottled at barrel proof and supported by enough details to enthrall the nerdiest of bourbon geeks, Booker’s stood out as something different from – and better than – the rest.
Plenty of folks still recall the namesake – Booker himself – who passed away only in 2004. He’s often mentioned reverentially in the company of Elmer and Parker and Jimmy, only the latter of whom is still with us. His memory is kept alive through fond anecdotes relayed by his progeny; I have heard both Booker Noe’s son (Jim Beam Master Distiller Fred Noe) and his grandson (Freddie Noe) speak warmly of him in interviews.
In contrast to the respect which Booker Noe continues to garner both within and outside Jim Beam, Booker’s bourbon has fared more poorly in the collective consciousness. Similar full proof offerings from other distilleries have outshone more recent Booker’s batches, while a series of price hikes have pushed bottles out of consideration for those folks that use value as part of their criteria.
It’s not just Booker’s external competition that has intensified; the brand now has to contend with rivals within the Jim Beam portfolio as well. Baker’s, formerly a “small batch” product, switched to the single barrel format in 2020. The bottles I have seen typically carry age statements in the seven-to-nine-year range, pipping the recent Booker’s releases by a year or two, in most cases.
Knob Creek also started catching enthusiasts’ attention with the release of some fiendishly tasty barrel picks. That increased regard was solidified in 2019, when a slew of barrels with mid-teens age statements hit store shelves. The range’s expansion has brought whiskey lovers options ranging from the perfectly solid (and competitively priced) 100 proof nine year old, all the way up to the limited edition 18 year old that garnered acclaim in this space not once but twice.
The less said about Basil Hayden, the better. Even disregarding that watery weakling, Booker’s has arguably slipped from the #1 position down to #3 in what used to be called the “Jim Beam Small Batch Collection.” The brand’s struggles with quality control caught some attention in recent years, but that’s not really what people complain about when they complain about Booker’s.
Rather, it’s the fact that flavor seems to have slipped further and further with each passing batch, while the price remains stubbornly high. Even in a crazed bourbon market, not everyone has lost their wits; paying near $100 for a bottle elevates expectations to levels that Booker’s, at least lately, has been unable to meet.
Can Booker’s buck the trend and win back fans? It will have the chance today, as I have a sample (courtesy of Ryan; thanks much, pal) to review. This is batch #2022-02, nicknamed “The Lumberyard Batch.” As with all the batch titles, there is a story behind this moniker. Per the official Booker’s site:
“After a short stint at the University of Kentucky, Booker hitch-hiked across America in hopes of joining the Air Force. After being accepted to the Air Force, the local police called his mom to verify his information to be cleared. When Booker’s Mom found out where he was, she convinced him to come home and work at the local lumberyard with uncle Jeremiah Beam, also known as Uncle Jere. Booker was over 6 feet tall and very strong at an early age. He never backed away from physical labor of any kind, which made him a natural fit for the job. Booker gave 110% during his time at the lumberyard, which eventually landed him his first role working at the distillery and from then on, the rest was history.”
Bottled at an age of seven years, one month, and seven days, this is the first batch to bear an age statement of seven years or greater since 2015-03. Five production dates and seven locations across as many rickhouses went into the batch; the breakdown is as follows:
- 28% came from the 6th floor of 7-story warehouse Z
- 28% came from the 4th floor of 7-story warehouse 1
- 19% came from the 5th floor of 7-story warehouse Q
- 17% came from the 4th floor of 7-story warehouse Z
- 3% came from the 3rd floor of 7-story warehouse 5
- 3% came from the 4th floor of 9-story warehouse D
- 2% came from the 4th floor of 7-story warehouse X
Those who keep a spreadsheet of Booker’s releases (it me; get in touch if you’d like me to send it to you) will notice that the largest representation of rickhouses in the blend is warehouse Z. In fact, each of the four 2022 batches of Booker’s had warehouse Z as the dominant component of the batch, the first time this has occurred since Donohoe’s Batch (2021-01).
This is bottled at a strength of 124.8 proof (62.4% ABV), very slightly lower than the average of 63.9% for all the batches on which I have data. Local prices for this are around $90, which is the price I will use for scoring.
Booker’s Bourbon “The Lumberyard Batch” – Review
Color: Medium golden orange.
On the nose: Gives the impression of being younger than its years initially; nosed blind, I might have pegged this in the four-to-five-year age range. Smells like Beam bourbon, with the dry and dusty aroma of peanut shells. There’s a similarly dry floral top note here reminiscent of an old bowl of potpourri. I get a hint of caramel, as well as some more fragrant notes of pine needle and some herbaceous scents of star anise. In total, though, this seems to be tacking more toward the drier and leaner end of the spectrum. I’m interested to see how it performs on the palate.
In the mouth: Thin on arrival, this takes on a sour and hot bitterness as it moves toward the middle of the mouth. Where there should be body, there is only tannic and bitterly astringent wood instead. That potpourri note reemerges here, but once again with the pitch pushed to an uncomfortable, unbalanced part of the register. A faintly minty note carries this through the finish, as well as some blandly chalky candy flavors that make me think of Necco wafers.
Probably the worst batch of Booker’s I have encountered thus far, this tastes like cask strength Jim Beam white label (I mean that in a sense which is not at all complimentary, in case there were any doubts). The bourbon is thin and shrill, lacking in body and showing an overbearing barrel influence that makes it hard to enjoy at points.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I am once again obligated to inform you that there are still several barrel strength bourbon offerings out there that way outperform recent batches of Booker’s, and can usually be found at a healthy discount to the high price (did I mention that already?) at which Booker’s now sells.
While I’ll accept pours of future batches – should anyone see fit to follow Ryan’s excellent example of sharing – I’ll continue to avoid the temptation to purchase a bottle of Booker’s for myself. It’s a sad indication of the goings-on at Beam that the legacy of Booker Noe is being “honored” with releases like this one. I continue to hope for better batches to come from this once-revered range.
Lead image courtesy of Beam Suntory. Label image courtesy of Booker’s.