It’s hard to imagine today, in the midst of the biggest boom in American whiskey since just after Prohibition, but things looked pretty bleak around 25 years ago when Booker Noe selected the first barrels of bourbon from what he considered the sweet spot of various warehouses, aged longer than usual and eventually to be bottled at an uncut proof. It was Jim Beam juice, but a very special selection that would eventually bear his name.
It was the first of what Beam would call the Small Batch Collection, a group that also includes 100 proof Knob Creek, rye-rich Basil Hayden and 107 proof Baker’s. Knob Creek especially has found a growing audience, but among many, the seasonal releases of each batch of Booker’s are keenly sought out.
Long before bartenders started seeking out higher proof expressions that could stand up to an array of intense and potent flavors in cocktails, Booker’s was ready to go. But most aficionados prefer theirs with some water or ice rather than in cocktails.
The 25th anniversary year included a casual meeting in Bardstown, Kentucky, at the Noe household with Beam distiller and Booker’s son Fred Noe in his man cave, where a few samples of contenders to become the latest batch of Booker’s were served for a handful of spirit writers. We’ve been doing this sort of thing by telephone for a year or two - gathering glasses of mailed samples and opining about which selections yielded the spirit most closely aligned with the robust, full-flavored signature Booker Noe created. The differences are telling - at this sampling, I found one version fiery and assertive but well-knit and tangy, while another had more chocolate and red fruit notes, and a third bore a resemblance to strong brewed and brown sugar flavored black tea. These are all roughly 125 - 128 proof, batched together from various ages within a few months of one another and taken from different sections of warehouses, but all from the same Beam mashbill.
Consistency isn’t paid much mind in the new world of micro-distilling - I find some of the new brands so changeable from bottle to bottle as to be unrecognizable. And while the panel that advises Beam is rarely uniform in its opinion, there is generally a consensus about what Booker’s should taste like, even though each batch is distinct and any sampling of a few different editions should yield some subtle differences in aroma and flavor. But its potency, heft and complexity make it hard to mistake for anything else.
Making something this good, batch after batch, year after year, takes planning and persistence, and a commitment to doing things right. We may only be at the dawn of the American whiskey renaissance, but few whiskies can dream to be as authentic and important as Booker’s, or as the man who gave it his name.