By Richard Thomas
Jim Beam’s grandson, the late Booker Noe, introduced his namesake bourbon in 1988. The original Booker’s started out as bourbon hand-selected by Noe and bottled straight from the cask, which was then given out only to a select group of close friends and family. The practice of creating what amounts of a private reserve of bourbon whiskey is an old one in Kentucky distilling, and dates back to the very foundations of bourbon whiskey in the 1780s and 1790s. The idea of producing a hand-selected, cask strength premium small batch label of bourbon for the public at large, however, did not reach fruition until Booker’s hit the store shelves in 1992,
Booker’s looks like a serious, big bourbon, with a dark and smoky amber hue that endows what would otherwise be a plain and cheap-looking bottle and label with a sense of character. In terms of presentation, a whiskey aficionado will recognize Booker’s as a bourbon that speaks for itself.
The nose is thick with charred oak, interwoven with hints of vanilla. The flavor of Booker’s is very intense, mixing a certain distinctive fruitiness with big smokiness, more like tobacco than oak char. The finish is clean and smooth. I’ve always described Booker’s bourbon whiskey as a sucker puncher. It is cask strength whiskey and therefore very strong, but Booker’s is so smooth you would never know that simply from tasting it. Drink a double of Booker’s and you won’t really know how much alcohol you’ve consumed until you try standing up.
Reportedly, Booker Noe said a splash or two of branch water brought out the flavors of the whiskey better, but branch water is in short supply where I live, and in my opinion putting this whiskey on ice or adding tap water is a sin. Try it straight.
Much of the Booker’s experience has to do with how the bourbon is made. The whiskey that goes into Booker’s is selected from casks aged six to eight years, which is then blended and bottled. The resulting bottle of Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey is therefore undiluted and unfiltered. As a result, the alcohol content of a bottle of Booker’s varies between 121 and 127 proof (60.5 to 63.5%). It should be noted that while Booker’s is a small batch, it is not a single barrel bourbon. Just about the only thing Jim Beam does with Booker’s prior to bottling the whiskey is blend it, but that one step places it in a different category from some bottles of Pappy Van Winkle or George T. Stagg.
Booker’s bourbon whiskey typically retails for about $55 a bottle. Given the quality of a bottle of Booker’s, that is a very reasonable price tag.
Booker’s won the Wine Enthusiast’s Gold Medal for Bourbon.