Thursday, February 12, 2015

More on How Booker's Bourbon Is Made

A lot goes into 'making' a bourbon. It starts with grinding grains, cooking them with water to liquefy the starch, letting the enzymes in malt convert the starch into sugar, adding yeast to convert the sugar into alcohol, and distilling the result to remove unwanted water. Then the spirit goes into barrels, where it becomes whiskey, but even when aging is complete the whiskey isn't entirely 'made.'

As we talked about recently, filtration affects what goes into the bottle. So does batching. 'Batching' is a term Brown-Forman coined to get around the negative connotations of 'blending,' which is what it amounts to.

When whiskey is barreled and put away to age, they don't start at the bottom of an empty warehouse and fill it up. Instead they place the barrels, in lots of 60 to 100, in various warehouses and warehouse locations. All of the barrels in a given location will age similarly but barrels in different locations, even barrels distilled on the same day, will age differently.

Which brings us to Booker's Bourbon and the Booker's Roundtable, in which I participated.

Many people think of Booker's son, Fred Noe, as primarily a brand ambassador. They underestimate the work he does at the distillery. For Booker's Roundtable, Fred and his team do the heavy lifting. The rest of us just taste, discuss, and vote.

Fred shows up with a sheath of work sheets, page after page filled with dense columns of numbers representing the contents of the warehouses and the locations of various bourbon lots. For Booker's, they start by selecting lots that have reached the minimum age of six years. 'Batching' consists of taking samples from several of the selected lots and mixing them together to match the Booker's standard taste profile as closely as possible. One consideration in the plan is how each proposed batch will scale up to the approximately 350 barrels needed for a bottling batch.

For Booker's, this is done about six times a year.

Booker's has always been made this way and this is, more or less, how this stage of the 'making' is done for every bourbon or rye.

For the Roundtable, three candidates are batched in this way. When scaled up, each candidate will consist of a certain number of barrels from each of several different lots. The selected lots will be from different production dates, so they will have different ages. Because evaporation rates are different in different locations, each selected lot will have a different proof.

All of this information flows up to Fred, who normally makes the selection himself with help from an internal tasting panel. In the case of the Roundtable, the helpers are outsiders like me. Booker did something similar with a group of his buddies who gathered around his kitchen table. Our group has done several over the phone. In October, they brought us to Bardstown for an in-person Roundtable.

Fred tells us the specs for each lot in the candidate batch: age and proof, where it is, and how many barrels from that lot will go into the final batch. We taste them, talk about them, and vote (secret ballot). Then we drink some more and eat country ham until the bus takes us to the airport.

When the winning sample is scaled up and bottled, the age on the label is the age of the youngest whiskey in the batch. The proof is the actual proof of the entire batch, as gauged before bottling.

These Roundtable batches have apparently been well-received because Beam-Suntory has just announced that 2015 will see a series of specially-labeled batches. The first, Booker’s Bourbon Batch 2015-1, named “Big Man, Small Batch,” features a custom label inspired by the iconic image of Booker sipping bourbon in his rocking chair with his dog Dot by his side. According to the press release, the batch’s name "honors Booker’s role in the creation of small batch bourbons and the larger-than-life personality for which he was known."

Personality aside, Booker was a big man, as am I. He once said to me, "Chuck, we're full-growed men." I've never heard it put better.


Kyle Henderson said...

This is great. I love hearing about the behind the scenes type stuff becoming more well known.

gaz regan said...

What a great insight behind the scenes. Thanks, Chuck.

Anonymous said...

Will Big Man be of higher proof?
Crown Point Marc

Funky Tape said...

Was there an official press release on this or a COLA?

Good on Beam for actually changing up the label, unlike the 2013-6 which I bought and had at home for a month before realizing it was the 'Roundtable' (as per their PR which preceded its actual retail availability by a few months as store sold through older stock).

x3 on the backstory. Bourbon geeks love that stuff. Thanks.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Since Booker's is already barrel proof, Marc, I don't see how they can increase it.

There is a press release announcing "Big Man, Small Batch," Funky.

Anonymous said...

I like the idea of the custom labels for the roundtable batches, but I sincerely hope they don't try to sell it for more than the standard offering. That would just seem like a cash grab.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the behind the scenes look at the Booker's process. Fascinating stuff and a great whiskey.
Can't get excited about the "specialty labeled batch" thing though.
There's been such a proliferation of specialty bottlings of bourbon lately. And these bottles invariably carry exorbitent price tags like the one Beam has out now for $200.

Anonymous said...

Nice piece. But as a distiller I don't know if I necessariily agree that we ply our craft by "removing unwanted water". I prefer to think that we carefully " remove our spirits", while leaving the water where it belongs, in the pot.

Semantics perhaps, but quite true in fact. Process like prose, is all in the details :)

RWBadley said...

Funny, for years I have called my spirited drinks 'water removed beverages' as in... "I like whiskey, it doesn't have all that pesky water in it." I'm not sure 'spirit extracted beverages' has the same sort of ring to it. ;-)

B.K.ROTHMAN said...

Hi chuck what do you think of the newest release I forget the name but it has a bottle with a message in it ?

Chuck Cowdery said...

No opinion. I think what Beam has done with these special releases is great, but I can't keep up with them.