So far my reviews of Beam’s extensive line of bourbons have not extended past two expressions of Old Grand-Dad (the 80 proof and 114 proof versions). Booker’s is at the other end of their product line in terms of status. Along with Knob Creek, Baker’s and Basil Hayden’s it is part of Beam’s “small batch” collection. And where Old Grand-Dad is made from Beam’s high rye mashbill—shared by Basil Hayden’s—Booker’s is made from a mash bill that is only 13% rye. It’s a high octane bourbon though, bottled at barrel strength (though not from single barrels), and regularly comes out in the early-mid 60s abv-wise. It is said to be routinely 6-8 years old. Until recently the year of distillation could be easily derived from the batch code on the bottle. My sample, for example, comes from the CO5-A-12 batch, which apparently means it was put in barrels in 2005 (I guess the entire batch is always from the same vintage). The newer batch codes are apparently harder to decipher but that’s neither here nor there. Booker’s probably has the strongest reputation of all of Beam’s high-end bourbons among bourbon aficionados, and its high strength in particular often seems to me to be part of its appeal—it’s not unusual to come across bourbon drinkers who never seem to add any water to their implausibly strong bourbons (whether Booker’s or George T. Stagg). I’m afraid that’s not going to be the case with this review.
Booker’s (65%; Batch CO5-A-12; from a sample from a friend)
Nose: Caramel, corn, toffee and some cherry liqueur off the top. Quite expressive despite the high strength and not particularly oaky. On the second sniff there’s some cinnamon and some orange peel and just a bit of the oak. Very well balanced. As it sits the cinnamon gets stronger and there’s some sour fruit now—somewhere between the cherry and orange. Brighter and fruitier with water—back to the orange with some apricot mixed in.
Palate: Spicier on the palate (cinnamon, pepper) and, as on the nose, surprisingly approachable at full strength. That’s not to say that it isn’t hot because it is. More of the wood here too (more in the pencil shavings family) and there’s a dry, leafy quality as well. A couple more sips and I’ll add some water. Gets sweeter as it sits but other than that not a whole lot of change (some leather maybe); and oddly it seems to get hotter with each sip (you’d think my palate would adjust to the strength). Okay, time for water. Water mellows it out and emphasizes the fruit here too, pushing back the wood..
Finish: Medium. The wood is the lead note here with some bitter notes (charred wood, very bitter chocolate). There’s some sort of separation that happens late leaving something like the taste of blood in my mouth. The finish is expectedly longer with water and the same plus/minus happens with the wood and fruit.
Comments: A big bourbon and quite a quintessential bourbon in many ways. I have to say though that as someone who doesn’t really enjoy drinking bourbon (or whisky) of this strength neat, I’m not so sure that it has so much to recommend it over other quintessential bourbons, some of which are a fair sight cheaper. And I liked it better with water.
Rating: 87 points.