The bourbon road, while focused around one spirit, still cuts a long and wide swath on the palate. Each bourbon brings something different to the table, not just by virtue of the flavors they impart, but by the stories they tell. Some have humble but inspirational beginnings and stay small and focused — crafted for the devotees alone. Others emerge from the bigger spirits manufacturers, with creations crafted for the mass market or smaller-batch specialties looking for their own niche of greatness.
Booker’s 7 Year Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey ($50) falls into the latter group, and though it might be a Jim Beam bourbon (eliciting thoughts of big brands with more concern about revenue than true drinkability) it’s a far cry from the Jim Beam bottle you’ve relegated for cooking purposes. As the story goes, Master Distiller Booker Noe started bottling his own bourbon in 1992 — but it was never meant for public consumption, only for his close friends. It was a cask-strength bourbon, heading straight from barrel to bottle without adulteration. Hence, it is uncut and unfiltered, imparting a purity that’s difficult to match with small-batch (or big-batch) bourbons. It’s aged between six and eight years, significantly more than the two-year aging minimum for straight bourbons. Booker’s distillation quickly made it from friends to the public, and it’s been a hit ever since.
For those faint-hearted friends who tend not to like strength in their booze, be forewarned that Booker’s hits hard.
Booker’s is designed to go up against the smaller distillers’ small-batch bourbons, and it clarifies those lofty intentions with a waxy seal and a handwritten label. The bottle I tasted was, according to the label, aged 7 years, 2 months, with a 65.4% ABV (that’s a stratospheric 130.8 proof). It’s a lot of alcohol, even for a straight bourbon, but despite the strength, a high-grade bourbon — like any high-quality spirit — must first be consumed straight. It was purposely bottled without being altered, so to cut it first would seem like an insult.
Nothing about Booker’s is light and airy, including the rich brown color. The nose is a big bouquet, but not overpowering, with pleasing but short honey and vanilla notes. The first sip is hot and intense — but though the bourbon doesn’t hold back, the flavors are immediately apparent. Caramel and an obvious oakiness stand at attention, and the finish keeps with a bourbon spice that resonates on the tongue. For those faint-hearted friends who tend not to like strength in their booze, be forewarned that Booker’s hits hard. For those who want an experience unlike most bourbons, it won’t let you down. It goes up well against the likes of the powerful Noah’s Mill, but with more strength.
Since part of the drinking experience involves trying spirits in different permutations, we caved in and cut what was once uncut. Add a splash of water on round two, drink it slowly and patiently — and it opens up beautifully with more woodiness and clear flavors of coffee, vanilla, raisins and dark chocolate. Though the heat doesn’t disappear altogether, the initial sip and the finish level out and the experience becomes more complex. For all the boldness, Booker’s offers a bourbon that’s impactful not simply because of potency, but because of the complexity that accompanies it.