Jim Beam Distillery
Taste Score: 93 (average from between batches)
Category: Bourbon, Cask Strength, Unfiltered
Whisky Cabinet Score: ★ ★ ★ ★
Does one ever forget their first sip of Booker's? My first taste goes back many years. Booker's was one of a dozen or so whiskies featured during an LCBO media event at their tasting lab. The proof levels of the whiskies kept increasing throughout this self-paced tasting.
The last two bottles of whisky were Knob Creek Single Barrel and Booker's Bourbon. Knob Creek is slightly lower-proof, and back then, thin on flavor (it's improved since). Booker's, though, blew my mind. It was a wild ride of flavor. I could feel alcohol evaporating on my palate and the resulting flavor, and dryness was not something I had experienced before.
The bourbon is named after Booker Noe, grandson of Jim Beam. Booker Noe occasionally bottled specifically select cask strength barrels of whisky from Jim Beam distillery. The lucky recipients were friends and family members. In 1992, Jim Beam released the first batch of Booker's Bourbon for purchase as part of their small batch series. While questions were asked whether or not high-proof bourbons would sell, it did, and it's created an enthusiast cult-following for each batch of Booker's released.
High-proof whiskies have become far more common and popular since 1992. While Jim Beam didn't invent the category of cask-strength bourbons, it popularized the category in modern times. While many rare whiskies are difficult to find, Booker's Bourbon remains in decently available. The bourbon packs the punchy flavors that proof-obsessed bourbon drinkers are looking for.
(Relatively) Unfiltered, Cask Strength, and Batched
Jim Beam releases Booker's Bourbon in batches. Each batch is aged to taste (somewhere between 6 yo 8 years), and has a unique proof level. The barrels selected for Booker's Bourbon are intended to offer a similar taste profile, but Booker's will never taste identical because of the uniqueness of the barrels that go into each batch. For whisky enthusiasts, comparing the flavor between batches is part of the enjoyment.
Most whiskies sold are watered down for flavor. Booker's is not on that list. Booker's Bourbon is bottled at around 64% ABV. This is a libertarian philosophy of whisky. You might find it too hot with alcohol, but if you do, you can always choose to water it down. No judgment. In fact, Fred Noe (Booker Noe's son and Master Distiller) recommends Booker's with a touch of water.
Booker's is filtered for barrel debris (otherwise you'd see charcoal chunks at the bottom of the barrel), but it's otherwise untouched. Most whiskies sold today do go through various types of filtration, including chill filtration, which removes heavier molecules. Filtration has mixed results. Some believe it doesn't change the flavor of the whisky, others feel it removes some of the heavier molecules that do add flavor. Some distilleries chill-filter for a lighter whisky product.
One of my favorite parts of any distillery tour is tasting the whisky directly from a barrel. It's whisky in its purest form. Rarely can consumers purchase a bottle that brings you closest to that experience. Yes, it'll burn and hurt going down, but on the second sip it will do much more. There's almost always a bottle of Booker's in my whisky cabinet. Cheers to that!
Nose: Classic intense bourbon notes of caramel, vanilla, and spice. Leather, tobacco. Charred oak. Licorice makes itself known after a touch of time, as does nutmeg. Smells like an overly boozy cake where someone figured the more booze, the better (otherwise known as any cake I've ever baked).
Palate: Hit of caramel and cinnamon spice, dark chocolate, sourness, and cherries soaked in booze. It's an oak bomb with a nutty characteristic. The finish is wonderfully long and dry. It's sharp, though, so take small sips and you'll be fine. Once your palate adjusts, the nutty notes familiar with Jim Beam Distillery will come out. Left in a glass untouched, the sharpness of the booze subsides, and warmer rich notes start coming out.
Conclusion: There's no doubt that many will find Booker's too high-proof to drink without a touch of water. But isn't that the American way? Give the people a whisky at the highest possible proof, and let them choose how they want to drink it. Booker's is delicious at cask strength for its intensity, and opens up with lighter notes down to 50% ABV. This is the bourbon that challenges the palate's pleasure and pain tolerance.