Could we be reaching peak bourbon? As this intrinsically American spirit continues to grow in popularity, brands are scrambling to come up with fresh products, whether it’s a new barrel finish, a different mash bill, or another bottled-in-bond whiskey. Over at Jim Beam, the brains behind the bourbon have been experimenting with some of these tactics, but they’ve also been getting into blending. This past spring saw the release of Legent, a blend of Jim Beam bourbon overseen by Suntory’s chief blender (Jim Beam of Kentucky and Suntory of Japan are both part of parent company Beam Suntory). And this month, Little Book Chapter 3, “The Road Home,” will hit stores, the third installment in Freddie Noe’s series of blended whiskeys.
The first Little Book brought together a variety of straight whiskeys, and the second blended Kentucky rye with Canadian whisky and rye. This time, Noe is taking an unusual approach by using the entire Jim Beam Small Batch Collection: Knob Creek, Basil Hayden’s, Booker’s, and Baker’s. At its core, this was a sentimental project for Noe—the point of blending these four bourbons together was to create a whiskey that paid tribute to his grandfather, the legendary master distiller Booker Noe, who is the reason we can drink them all (separately) today. “The inspiration for me was trying to get to a liquid that has the flavors that Granddad enjoyed and was looking to share with the world,” Noe said.
The whole “blended whiskey” category can be a little confusing. According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), a blended whiskey only must contain 20 percent whiskey (the rest can be neutral grain spirits), while blended bourbon must contain 51 percent bourbon and can include “harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials.” Got all that?
For years, whiskey fans steered clear from blends, mostly due to these regulations that allowed the addition of neutral grain spirits, flavor, or coloring. You can find cheap blends on the market today that are basically whiskey-flavored vodka, like Ten High and Kentucky Gentleman, which cost less than 10 bucks for a reason. You don’t have to be a whiskey nerd to realize how inferior these headaches-in-a-plastic-bottle are.
Whiskey fans can be a fickle bunch, and often don’t want their favorite products messed with in any way at all, so it was a bold step for Noe to combine these popular Jim Beam whiskey brands into one bottle. But in the case of Little Book Chapter 3, he felt that the sum could be greater than the parts, or at least offer something that combined the best qualities of each whiskey.
“If you asked me if I would ever blend these four [whiskeys], I would have said ‘hell, no,’ because they were really precious to me,” he said. “But these are the best [whiskeys] to tell the story of my childhood growing up in Kentucky.”
Little Book is actually more of a conceptual blend than a legally defined one—per the TTB definition, it’s labeled as “Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey.” The liquid (straight bourbon at barrel proof) all comes from the Jim Beam distillery, with no color or flavor added to the final mix. The components are older (with one exception) and higher-proof versions of the whiskey you can buy in stores: 9-year-old Basil Hayden’s (123 proof), 9-year-old Knob Creek (117.4 proof), 11-year-old Booker’s (129.2 proof), and 12-year-old Baker’s (126.6 proof). As far as proportions in the blend, Knob Creek makes up the biggest percentage, followed by Baker’s, Basil Hayden’s, and finally Booker’s.
On their own, these are very different whiskeys, making this release kind of like a Jim Beam infinity bottle of very high proof whiskey. Booker’s is a barrel-strength bourbon usually aged for around six years that packs a punch, with a proof exceeding 120. The underrated Baker’s is now a 7-year-old single barrel whiskey. Knob Creek is a 100-proof step up from Jim Beam White Label. And Basil Hayden’s, the weakest of the bunch, is an 80-proof bourbon often used in cocktails. The resulting blend is bottled at 122.6 proof, but drinks without much burn and is full of notes of vanilla, oak, caramel, and cinnamon.
And sure, you could buy these bottles at home and make your own blend, but the use of the liquid in its barrel-proof form adds flavors and texture that you won’t get from the store. According to Noe, each whiskey is made with different operating parameters, ranging from equipment used to mash bill to barrel entry proof. These factors actually do add up to very different whiskeys, as you can clearly tell if you taste them all side-by-side.
Other higher quality blends are starting to hit the market as well, often from startup distilleries that have yet to release their own aged product. Old Elk is a new distillery under construction in Fort Collins, Colorado, and its initial release is a blend of bourbon from MGP, the giant factory-like distillery in Indiana, and two other unnamed distilleries. MGP itself released a blended bourbon called Eight & Sand this past winter. Widow Jane is a blend of whiskey from different states that is bottled in Brooklyn. Hotaling & Co. has its J.H. Cutter Whisky, a blend of Kentucky bourbon and in-house distilled rye. And well-respected brands like High West and Barrell Bourbon have literally built their entire reputation upon the art of blending different types of whiskey from different states.
With Little Book, Noe didn’t just randomly select whiskeys to blend; each one served a purpose in creating the final product, whether it was with particular flavor notes or the length of the finish. “If the liquid has a place in the final blend,” he said, “something needs to be driving it.” Given Beam Suntory’s global reach, Noe doesn’t rule out expanding to blending whiskey from Scotland, Ireland, or Japan with bourbon in the coming years. In the meantime, with this third Little Book release, he has proven that he’s more than capable of carrying on the family legacy.
Source : Esquire