Friday, May 2, 2014
In Which I Help Pick Your Next Bottle of Booker's
A few weeks ago, I participated in a tasting panel to select the next batch of Booker's Bourbon. This is the third Booker's panel of which I have been a part.
The backstory is that Booker Noe would choose the whiskey for Booker's with help from an informal panel of friends, assembled around his kitchen table. We do it over the phone. It's Booker's son, Fred Noe, and three or four writers. Usually some Beam PR folks are on the line too.
We are sent three samples to taste. Fred explains the provenance of each (distillation date, warehouse, warehouse location, barrel proof, that sort of thing). We taste, discuss, and ultimately vote on which of the three should be the next Booker's.
Booker's was the first bourbon to use the term 'small batch.' Beam never explained what the term meant unless asked. Many people assume it means small from beginning to end, starting with a unique recipe and a small fermentation and distillation. The producers are happy with that misinterpretation, but it's not that and never has been. 'Batch' means bottling batch, the contents of one bottling run, which in turn means the contents of one tank into which some number of barrels have been dumped.
Just as the whiskey from each barrel is unique, so is each combination of barrels, and it is that combination that allows a batch to be tweaked to better match the brand's profile.
In the case of Booker's, a batch is 360 barrels and lasts about three months at retail. Although Beam Suntory (we might as well get used to it) has rackhouses at various locations in Kentucky, the whiskey for Booker's always comes from Clermont, usually from the older, seven to nine story, rack-style houses.
Since they're only sending us three samples, all three are pre-determined by Fred and his panel at the distillery to be suitable for the Booker's profile, yet one of the most revealing parts of the experience is how different they can be. This is why single barrel bottlings are interesting too. I've participated in private barrel selections at several distilleries and had the same experience. Even within a brand profile there is a lot of variation. So, yes, it is possible that the bottle of Old Whatever you bought last week tastes a little different from the one you bought two years ago.
Matching a brand's profile is how whiskey-makers ensure consistency from batch to batch and no taster for that purpose works better than a human one. The large producers typically have a rotating panel of tasters, maybe 30 to 40 people. They are employees who normally work in some other part of the operation. They receive special training and every few weeks they participate in a tasting.
It's a little different from what we did, as we were given three choices and asked to pick the one we liked best. Tasters at the producer are usually given a glass of the standard and two candidates, and asked to pick the candidate that best matches the standard. Or they may be given three or four candidates and asked to rate each one's similarity to the standard on a four-point scale.
Every company does this for every brand they sell, but it's fair to assume they use more care with their best-selling and highest-priced products than they do with their cats and dogs. Still, it's reassuring that humans still do this job better than any known machine.
Booker's puts the batch number on the label. The batch I helped select will be Batch No. 2014-4.