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.
My comments on this:
“Nice & woody. Needs a lot of water! `Issues with hotness and wood’, as Kravitz very well put it. 83pts”
Well, it turns out I was just paraphrasing Michael, who was also speaking of Booker’s in general terms, not this bottle in particular. I received this bottle as a present from my real estate agent when we closed on our house 3 years ago. (Just wanted to put that out there.) Also, compared to another Booker’s that you might review, it is more balanced, and it has less of the Beam’s signature peanuts flavor that some people, including me, love to hate.
Odd, I didn’t find as much oak—I’m usually sensitive to it. I wonder if those notes subsided from the time you took your notes to the time you poured the sample. I find—with malt whisky too—that high strength bruisers tend to be much rougher in the early life of the bottle.
Your sample did come from the bottom end of the bottle, but so did my comments, so to speak. I don’t remember it starting any differently. I quite liked it, and it wasn’t as much as a bruiser as I expected, probably because of the nice balance of wood and other flavors (cherry, tobacco, caramel, and the like). I am not one to drown my whiskies, but this one in particular seemed to take a lot of water to tame. My score is a very good one but it’s not in the “love it, I want another bottle” range. For all it’s worth, it’s the best Booker’s I had. I’m fine with opening one every 5 years or so.
I’ve just had another session with this whiskey and I agree very much with your notes. Yes, it’s a quintessential bourbon – a bourbon drinker’s bourbon! The perfect drink for watching Justified or Popcorn Sutton make moonshine well into the night. Uncompromising, full-on flavor, with the barrel char arm-wrestling the corn fruitiness in a tight fight. The flavors are way too concentrated for me at bottle strength – it feels like they put charred wood scrapings in a blender; the bitterness is numbing. But with lots and lots of water it blooms into this delicious liqueur, reminding me of a Belgian Kriek, with the sweetness tempered by the not-so-bitter-anymore wood. Plus tobacco, leather and spices. If I were a bourbon drinker – or even for myself on the right day – this is a 87-90pts drink. But it needs the right setup: a cool evening, lots of water, and attention.
Thanks for the review. Since you mention price, just thought I’d mention you can often find Booker’s for $40 or so, which makes it pretty tough to beat for quality/price in my book. Is there another contender for you at that price point? I also wanted to point out that while there isn’t a quintessential difference among various batches, some are significantly better than others; the “Center Cut” was especially good.
Yes, at $40 or so it becomes hard to argue against Booker’s as a good deal. As for your question about contenders at that general price point: while they’re very different bourbons from Booker’s, I quite like the Old Grand-Dad 114 (not as much but it is much cheaper) and the Four Roses Single Barrel. The old Elijah Craig 12, when it was around, would have been my pick for quintessential low rye bourbon—this Booker’s is better than any of those I’ve had but it’s also twice the price they were. Haven’t tried the NAS version that replaced it yet.