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.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

So what happens to the other two? Are they simply put into the next "non-roundtable batch"?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Probably.

Jeff Mitchell said...

Can you tell us proof and age on that selection?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Proof is 130.5, which was highest of the three. I don't recall the age.

Anonymous said...

So they have 3 holding tankfuls of 360 barrels, 1 gets chosen and the other two just sit for 3 more months, maybe longer if they aren't chosen in the next roundtable?

Chuck Cowdery said...

They don't dump all 360 barrels for the samples. The samples are made from samples drawn from barrels representing one or several batches of barrels with the same specifications.

mbroo5880i said...

Can you tell us who the other participants were? I can understand if you can't, due to confidentiality or other reasons. Just curious.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I could if I remembered. Bad reporter, didn't take notes.

Oscar said...

Makes me want to go out and get a bottle of Booker's.
I haven't had one in years.

Funky Tape said...

So how does this 2014-4 compare to the 2013-6 and 2013-7? Loved the 2013-6 and still look for it on the shelves.

danz said...

This seems very smart on the part of Beam. They have me looking for Booker's now. If they release this like the 2013-6 batch, they may issue a press release with the participants' names in a couple of months: http://www.beamsuntory.com/news/press-releases/bookers-bourbon-introduces-its-first-roundtable-batch-of-2013

Anonymous said...

Help needed. I bought a bottle with batch No. 2013-7. I have spent hours searching and can' t determine if this is a roundtable batch. Does anybody know? Thanks so much.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I know that 2013-6 was Roundtable, so I'm going to guess that 2013-7 was not.

Keri said...

Thanks Chuck, now I know I can open and enjoy!

Anonymous said...

Chuck, Help Please!

I have a bottle of Bookers right now. I have been searching for a batch number similar to 2014-4 or 2013-6, whatever it is! But... I am finding numbers like C06-K-8. I just made that number up fyi, but it is a number like that.

I would love to go to my local store and or shop around and look out for 2014-04, but I can't find numbers like that on the bottle. Help! Is there some code I need to know? Am I just missing it on the bottle? Please help as I would love to locate and purchase one of those bottles!

Thanks,

John

Chuck Cowdery said...

You've uncovered a problem of which I was not aware. I don't have an answer for you but I've made some inquiries and will let you know. Watch this space.

Chuck Cowdery said...

The Beam folks got back to me very quickly with an answer. The marketing folks are trying to get manufacturing to use the easy-to-read "2014-4" numbering system. In the meantime, the most recent batch I helped select is labeled Batch No. C07-B-7. It's probably not in stores just yet, but watch for it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Chuck! Love the Blog!!

Anonymous said...

Hm. I think, the Beams changed the numbering system of the Booker's batches from examples like C-B-16-79 or B-K-28-84 (in which C stands for Clermont and B for Boston juice and 79 or 84 stand for the year of distilling) to numbers like B94-E-13 (Boston, distilled 1994) or C01-A-18 (for 2001 Clermont whiskey). All these batch numbers showed the distillery and the year of distillation. The now used batch numbers like 2013-6 and so on give us only the year of bottling (the label still gives us an age statement like 7 years 8 months).