Barrel-proof bourbon is everywhere these days, but that wasn’t always the case. There was a time when people weren’t so eager to drink whiskey that wasn’t watered down to 80 proof (maybe slightly more depending on the distillery). Usually, whiskey is cut to proof with water before bottling, with 80 being the lowest level legally allowed in the U.S. in order to be called whiskey. Barrel proof, on the other hand, is essentially like drinking whiskey straight from the cask (more on this in a bit). Proof affects flavor, because the more water you add to a whiskey, the more diluted it becomes. And the amount of water you need to add often depends on the proof the whiskey is distilled to. The lower the distillation proof, the less water needed (bourbon can be distilled to no more than 160 proof, but it’s usually less than that).
The reality is that barrel proof might not actually mean that the whiskey is bottled at exactly the proof at which it came out of the barrel. Per TTB regulations, it can be bottled no more than two degrees lower than the proof of the barrels when they were dumped (at which time taxes are also determined). But when a whiskey is labeled “barrel proof,” it’s pretty damn close to the actual proof at which it left the barrel. And that is usually a fairly high number, ranging anywhere from about 115 to some truly hazmat (and arguably undrinkable) bottles that head north of 140.
Which brings us to Booker’s, which is produced at the James B. Beam Distilling Co. (the home of Jim Beam), one of the best-known (and best overall) barrel-proof bourbons you can find. It was created over three decades ago by the legendary sixth-generation master distiller Booker Noe, whose son and grandson Fred and Freddie are now seventh- and eighth-generation master distillers at Beam. Booker’s is released in four batches per year (sometimes three), uncut and unfiltered except for char, as the distillery likes to point out. The age usually ranges between six and seven years old, and the proof hovers somewhere in the mid-120s—strong but not overly powerful. There are perhaps more consistencies than discrepancies between each batch, but there are flavor differences worth noting.
The last two batches of 2022 were released just about a month apart. Each has its own nickname, and the third one of the year was christened Kentucky Tea Batch. That name refers to the way Booker used to like to drink his bourbon: one part whiskey to four parts water. Yes, the man who created this famous barrel-proof bourbon would not have really chosen to drink it neat, and neither do you (adding a little water can go a long way with barrel-proof bourbon). This release was actually one of the older ones, having spent nearly 7.5 years inside a barrel. It was bottled at 126.5 proof and has notes of vanilla, oak, caramel, milk chocolate, and dark fruit (particularly juicy berries, grapes, and cherries) on the palate, underlined by Beam’s classic grainy nuttiness, of course.
The latest batch of 2022 is called Pinkie’s Batch, and it’s rolling out nationwide now. Pinkie was the nickname for Booker’s father, Frederick Booker Noe (yes, this family likes to reuse family names). Pinkie’s Batch is bottled at 122.4 proof and is precisely six years, 10 months, and 10 days old. There are notes of vanilla custard, red apple, espresso, and oaky char on the palate, as well as some licorice and astringent menthol. Despite its lower proof, it reads a bit hotter on the palate, and if I had to choose one of these two whiskeys, I’d have to go with Kentucky Tea Batch.
Booker’s has gone up in price over the years and now has an SRP of $90 with secondary prices ranging even higher, something some bourbon fans are not very happy about. That said, this whiskey is worth the money, even if it is more expensive than barrel-proof expressions from Elijah Craig, Larceny, Wild Turkey, and Maker’s Mark. Give it a try to see what you think for yourself, and if you can grab a few bottles, taste them side by side to see how each batch differs.
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