Batch 2014-05 (2014)
MASH BILL – 77% corn, 13% rye, 10% barley
PROOF – 127.9
AGE – 7 years 5 months
DISTILLERY – Jim Beam Distillery
PRICE – $70 at a corner store near me back in 2018
30th Anniversary Limited Edition (2018)
MASH BILL – 77% corn, 13% rye, 10% barley
PROOF – 125.8
AGE – small batch blend made up of 70% 9-year and 30% 16-year
DISTILLERY – Jim Beam Distillery
PRICE – I traded three Weller 12s for it in early 2019 ($200 at msrp)
I’m comparing two “older” Booker’s in two senses of that word. One bottle came out only three years ago, but contains whiskeys as old as 16 years. The other came out seven years ago before Booker’s had gone from $50 a bottle to its current $90 if you’re lucky. So inside these bottles there are whiskeys that went into their barrels as far back as 2007 and even 2002.
After 2015, no regular Booker’s release has crossed the 7-year mark. Center Cut Batch, the third release of 2015, was the last. Whether it’s that extra year, or that the pipes and warehouses were doing different things back when these older Booker’s were distilled and aged, or maybe the barrel selection was more selective, whatever the cause I always notice a difference compared to batches from recent years. Now Booker’s tends to pop with a dominant peanut or cinnamon note, always strong, always bright. But prior to 2016, Booker’s seemed to veer into darker, chocolatier, nut butterier directions more often than it does these days.
To date, my easy favorite Booker’s experience has been the C06-K-8 from 2012. Aged only 6 years, this bottle suggests it isn’t the age that makes the difference. An exquisite study in deep caramel, refined oak, rich chocolate, and dark cherry, it remains among the smoothest 130+ proof bourbons I’ve experienced. It was both a contemplator and a relaxer. One could dissect its complexities if one wished, or simply luxuriate in the sensation of them. I opened that bottle with an actor/playwright friend, Noelle Viñas, who was about to move to New York, and who appreciated a good whiskey. It made a great farewell toast, and added to the bottle a nice association with a kind, creative friend with whom I’ve had many meaningful conversations.
The Booker’s 30th Anniversary I opened for New Year’ Eve, popping the cork on the very stroke of midnight when 2019 rolled over into 2020. How could I have known I’d picked a mighty powerful whiskey to kick off an unexpectedly powerful year! But I had. Unlike 2020, however, Booker’s 30th was utterly enjoyable. Thick and oily, with rich caramel, brown sugar, ultra-refined oak. In my notes I concluded, “If heaven were a bottle of Booker’s, this may very well be it. And if hell were this bottle of Booker’s, I’d go there too.”
In June 2020 I compared it to the 2019-04 “Beaten Biscuits” batch, which gave the 30th a run for its money. After the 2019-04, I opened the C07-B-7 batch (2014), which, though not terribly complex, was exuberant and satisfying like a dance party heating up a cold Winter’s night. Then it was on to the 2020-01, nicknamed “Granny’s Batch.” This was fine, but I wasn’t too excited about it overall. It was like a spice rack of cinnamons had exploded on some peanuts. Lots of pizazz but not terribly interesting. So next I reached for the 2014-05, hoping again for the good ol’ days. After a reserved nose, the palate hit with dark peanut, caramel, vanilla, some chocolate, and toasted cinnamon. A classic Booker’s.
This pattern of alternating back and forth between more recent and older batches has been helpful in identifying the divide that seemed to occur around late 2015, when the 7-year age statements ended. There have certainly been some good batches in the last handful of years. But there was something in the water—or the warehouse, or the yeast, or the…?—pre-2016. The 30th Anniversary release brings some of that magic back with its 9 and 16-year whiskeys. And the 2014-05, situated near the 2015 border, also has that special something swirling in its orange-amber depths.
Well over a year after uncorking the 30th, very soon nearing two years, I still have some left. I figure I need to finish it off soon before it oxidizes. So here we are with another comparison. The 30th has been open 1 year and 9 months. The 2014-05 has been open 3 months. They were tasted first in wide-bottom tumblers, then Glencairns, and these brief notes combine both experiences.
2014-05 – vibrant and rich rusty-orange, slightly lighter with more yellow accents
30TH – vibrant and rich rusty-orange, slightly darker with more fiery accents
2014-05 – very nice oak, baked cinnamon in snickerdoodle cookies, strong caramel, almond butter, chunky peanut butter
30TH – less forthcoming initially, creamy honey-butter on cinnamon toast, a surprising sarsaparilla note, eventually whipped cream and butterscotch, a bit of organic chunky peanut butter
2014-05 – very dry but also complex oak notes dominate, with black pepper, some fudgy caramel, faint orange zest, the cinnamon blend sparkling
30TH – also very dry, with rich dark chocolate coating the ample oak, the black pepper, almond shell
2014-05 – burnt wood and a whiff of ethanol blowing amidst lingering cinnamons and toasted citrus sugars, some butter on dark rye bread
30TH – woah! Notably more so than with the slightly higher proofed 2014-05, there is a sudden flare of stinging heat at the top of the finish, gradually fading to leave sun-dried oak and just a dash of baked cinnamon to linger
2014-05 – a classic, dry Booker’s, ultimately emphasizing the oak at the expense of juicier, creamier elements.
30TH – This bottle may indeed be past its prime, the juicier and more decadent aspects having dried out to leave the oak and nutshells to define the experience overall
2014-05 – At $70, absolutely. At $100+, knowing now what I know, I’d skip it. It may not be the best standard-release Booker’s I’ve had. But it certainly makes a worthy step in the journey.
30TH – Despite its dry old age, all together it’s still one of the best trades I ever made. Three Weller 12s for this? Heck yes!
Very interesting to taste these in two very different glasses. I enjoy these wide-bottomed tumblers for Booker’s because they allow ample room for the bourbon to air out and reveal itself in waves. Then the Glencairns provide more focused blasts of flavors, heightening things in a generally brighter direction as compared to the tumblers.
But neither glass brought out the creamier, fruitier, sweeter aspects of Booker’s that I miss in both of these pours. Those aspects only come and go fleetingly. The whipped cream and butterscotch notes that eventually came out of the 30th subsequently vanished quickly. Over time, it was very evident that with both of these bourbons, it is the dry aspects that are the constant baseline.
I now have just one pour of the 30th remaining. I’ll savor it soon. I do believe time is no longer this bottle’s friend. The 2014-05, on the other hand, has a ways to go. I look forward to charting its journey, though I will admit it feels more an intellectual looking-forward-to than a purely pleasurable one. A Booker’s that leans predominantly dry, not balanced by those sweeter pulpy orange notes and creamy caramel notes that Booker’s sometimes offers, just doesn’t quite fulfill the brand’s promise and reputation. And given the price has now hit $100 most everywhere, this inconsistency makes it difficult to justify buying Booker’s when the similarly variable Elijah Craig Barrel Proof delivers one set of goods or another for $60 to $70 on average, plus a generous 12-year age statement.
For heresy’s sake, I poured the final sips of both into one tumbler. After letting them sit for a bit…
Not bad! On the nose I get the 30th’s whipped cream and sarsaparilla notes up front, then the oak and cinnamons. The taste then emphasizes the oak, with a cinnamon-sprinkled creamy butter note. The finish follows through on the experience of the taste, now without that fiery flare from the 30th and overall offering a very balanced, and long, fade of the full range of flavors in both bourbons. Interesting.
The journey continues…