Saturday, May 14, 2016

Labor of Love. What I Did for Booker's Rye

Fred Noe demonstrates the proper way to apply the wax 'B' emblem and ribbon to a bottle of Booker's Rye.
That is Fred Noe, the great-grandson of Jim Beam, showing us how to finish a bottle of Booker's Rye. After Fred's photogenic demonstration we were trained by the Beam employees who do this for a living. Then our band of ink-stained wretches was ready to try our hands at it.

Booker's Rye is a limited release and each bottle is hand-numbered. If you get one of the first 120 or so, you can enjoy our handiwork.

The bottles were already filled, corked, and labeled when we got them. We just applied a few finishing touches.
  • Write the bottle number on the neck label.
  • Affix the self-adhesive wax 'B' and ribbon emblem to the bottle.
  • Apply tear tape to the bottle closure, leaving a small tab.
  • Dip the bottle in green wax. Remove and angle it so the excess wax drips off.
  • Place it in the rotating drying rack.
  • Remove bottle from the rack, inspect the wax, and trim if necessary.
  • Position bottle in its wooden box.
  • Slide the clear front of the box into position.
  • Fasten the front to the box by looping the leather thong over the screw head.
  • Place finished package in the shipping case.
In case you haven't heard, Booker's Rye is a limited edition that will be in stores soon. It is a genuinely small batch of whiskey that Booker Noe made shortly before his death in 2004. It uses a different mash bill from the standard Beam rye recipe with a higher rye content. They won't give exact amounts, but the standard Jim Beam rye recipe, like most, is 'barely legal' at not much more than 51 percent rye. Booker's Rye is probably 60 to 70 percent rye, based on how it tastes.

And how it tastes is quite good. They probably chose just the right time to harvest it because there is a good balance between the grain and barrel notes, always a concern when age gets into double digits. As we know from the MGP 95 percent ryes, you need some corn for body. Booker's Rye gets that balance right too.

It's a very good whiskey but because it is so limited, it will cost $300 a bottle. It should be in stores soon, but it won't last long. If you are interested, the time to consult your whiskey monger is now.

The room set up for the finishing tasks was adjacent to one of the automated high speed bottling lines. That room probably bottled and labeled 1,000 bottles for every one of ours. It was hot in there and the pressure of that kind of work is to be very precise while also moving at a reasonably fast clip. What Fred is using in the picture is a guide that helps put the 'B' in exactly the right place, at a particular height and aligned between the 'e' and 'r' in Booker's on the main face label. You also have to get it on straight. Applying the tear tape is surprisingly difficult, because you have to be careful about allowing any wrinkles. You have to wear protective gloves to dip the bottles in the hot wax. Holding it by the base, you lower the top of the bottle straight down into the wax until it just covers the 'B.' Then you pull it out and hold it at an angle, aligned so that the excess wax drips off the tear tab.

The rotating drying rack was obviously made just for this purpose. Bottle are inserted so they are angled down, with the tear tab at the lowest point. You have to put it in carefully to avoid damaging the wax, but you can't take too long because it is moving. The wax sets up quickly so that by the time the wheel has rotated 180° the bottle can be removed and boxed.

We weren't told in advance that they were going to work us so hard. The itinerary just said "Booker's Rye experience." But it was fun and it's always interesting to meet some of the many Beam employees who make Fred and the other bosses look good.

In an attempt to make him look too good, the Booker's Rye fact sheet says "Fred Noe personally tastes and selects every barrel of Booker’s Bourbon before it is bottled." This is not true. Each batch of Booker's consists of 350 to 375 barrels and they produce six batches per year. Fred works hard but he isn't tasting and evaluating 2,250 samples every year just for Booker's. (He has many other things to sample too.)

What Fred does is sample a barrel from each production run that has been nominated to be a component in a Booker's batch. That amounts to a dozen or so samples, not 375. Other people taste them too.

A bottling batch usually contains three to five different barrel lots. Each lot consists of 50 to 100 barrels, all made on the same day and aged in the same warehouse location. In the case of Booker's Rye there were only 100 barrels made. They were all made on the same day but they were stored in a couple of different warehouse locations. Again, every lot was tasted but not all 100 barrels.

Still and all, a lot goes into making a bottle of whiskey so all we have to do is open, pour, and drink it.


Shooter Flatch said...

Everyone's price threshold is different, but based upon your sample taste would you buy this at SRP? Part of me hopes that I don't have the opportunity to decide.

Anonymous said...

You consider 100 barrels a small batch? Is that standard? I've heard of Dickel and A Smith Bowman doing 10 and 8 barrel batches.

Chuck Cowdery said...

There is no standard meaning for 'small batch.' It means whatever the producer wants it to mean.

Chuck Cowdery said...

The main thing I would say about the 'value' of Booker's Rye is that it is authentically one-of-a-kind, for whatever that is worth to you.

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

I'm a Booker's bourbon fan. The rye looks to be a little out of my price range---but maybe I'll manage a taste or two at a good whiskey bar.

Hopefully you got a bottle, or two, for your efforts. Thanks for the report.

Curt said...

In an attempt to make him look too good, the Booker's Rye fact sheet says "Fred Noe personally tastes and selects every barrel of Booker’s Bourbon before it is bottled."

So a lie to falsely justify the price. How is that any different than a craft distillery making up some crap story behind origin, recipe or process?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Differences in degree matter. This is an exaggeration that is false on its face, a mistake, as the Beam folks subsequently admitted. The offending document has been changed, they tell me. When I see bullshit I call it out, but I try to keep some perspective.

Unknown said...

Thank you for clarification on what actually gets tasted. I've been wondering quite a bit about this subject. I must assume that other companies follow close to the same guidelines. It does not give me much comfort though buying a single barrel product that may not have been tasted for quality. It's tough to get a bum barrel at a high price.