By Richard Thomas
Booker’s Rye first hit store shelves less than two weeks ago, and instantly sparked a buzz so large as to certainly make it the biggest thing in rye whiskey for 2016. The whiskey’s pedigree and assumed quality was what most focused on, although some chose instead to bemoan the $300 price tag and darkly ruminate about where the fact that Beam was asking so much for it was taking American whiskey (answer: nowhere new, because American whiskey is already there).
Booker’s has been a fan favorite brand for two decades now, having carved out a niche as a high octane, cask strength offering that somehow manages to be imminently mellow at the same time. In recent years, Booker’s was expanded with a series of limited edition expressions, and Booker’s Rye is the latest of those.
Drawn from stock laid down by brand namesake Booker Noe, the whiskey is based on a non-standard mashbill. Little is known about it past that, but by default it must be higher than the legal minimum 51% rye, high corn recipe Kentucky style used by Beam. Fred Noe has said that based on Booker’s notes, it is probably in the 70s or 80s for rye content. Aged for just over 13 years and bottled at the cask strength level of 136.2 (68.1% ABV) proof, on paper it promises to be a whopper of a rye whiskey. And it delivers.
That this is a big whiskey jumps out at you from the start. In my eye, rye tends to have a more orange tint than bourbon, and this stuff has an appearance that speaks to not just that, but also time in wood and potency. The liquid’s color is as deep as the most superb of maple syrups, an essence of red sunrise with earthy brown stirred in. When I look a it from the top instead of the side, however, it turns to glistening dark orange. The legs are runny, but heavy.
After making my notes, I freshened my glass up, and I find I keep looking at it as I type this. It’s certainly an pleasing sight.
The signature of the Booker’s brand in my opinion has been its sucker puncher status. It’s strong stuff, but also mellow, so sipping on it blind you would have no idea how strong a whiskey it was until you rose from the bar stool to your feet. In keeping with that, the nose didn’t suggest an almost 70% alcohol content. No burn on the nostrils, only heavy citrus, plums and blackberries seasoned with a dollop of vanilla and pinches of cinnamon, anise, and dill, and all presented in a box of pine.
While the whiskey didn’t start hot on my palate, it increasingly became so as it sat on my tongue. So, no sucker puncher there. I recommend a splash of water or an ice cube, doubly so in view of the furnace blast finish that comes on drinking it neat.
The flavor starts out as an oaky vanilla bomb, opening up to add blasts of spicy, prickly cinnamon and ginger and more modest notes of fruitiness. The liquid is hefty and leaves an oily sensation long after the swallow. It’s big, bold and ballsy, and in no way subtle, but supremely delicious. The finish is a long, warming embrace, leaving lingering oaky, fruity, spicy and herbal notes to dwell on minute after minute before taking another sip.
Too full-bodied to be what I think of as complex, this is instead a whiskey with a huge, absolutely out-sized character. It comes into the room and everyone pays attention to it, not in spite of but because of the direct, plain speaking style. Ice doesn’t even so much as faze it. If you can find it, don’t blink at the price tag. Buy it while you can.
As previously mentioned, the recommended retail on this big boy is $299.99. While I understand that is more than many an enthusiast can afford for a single bottle of whiskey, it’s not an unfair price. Those who think otherwise either haven’t tried it, are living in the distant past, or both.