Once upon a time, everyone in Kentucky made the same type of Bourbon. Distillers were aware that superior barrels existed in each warehouse, but it never occurred to them to isolate those barrels---primarily because the demand for a more exclusive Bourbon didn’t seem to exist.
When the demand did arrive, it came from an unlikely source: Japan.
“The Japanese were great lovers of American whiskey,” explains Larry Kass, Corporate Communications Director for Heaven Hill Distilleries in Bardstown, “but there were no status symbols for them at the high end of the price range---exchanging expensive gifts is an important part of Japanese business culture. So they approached the American distillers and asked for something more upscale. Up to that point, we were all essentially producing a basic style of Bourbon. We didn’t have the equivalent of a single malt Scotch or an XO Cognac.”
The mastermind of the Small Batch Collection was the late Booker Noe, grandson of the legendary Jim Beam. The Collection today consists of four Bourbons (Knob Creek, Basil Hayden’s, Baker’s and Bookers), along with the newly released Knob Creek Rye. They are aged from six to nine years and released in small quantities.
The lightest of the group is Basil Hayden’s ($42), bottled at 80 proof/40% ABV. The whiskey is soft on entry but has a forceful, peppery mid palate. The style is lean, clean and angular, with herbal and floral overtones leading to a moderately long finish. Knob Creek Bourbon ($38) is aged for nine years and released at 100 proof/50% ABV. The nose is high-toned and floral, with accents of fresh herbs, honey, caramel and mint. It enters the mouth smoothly; in the mid palate, the rich texture is nicely balanced by a rush of spice that continues on the long finish. The Knob Creek Rye ($40), released in July is silky and generous in the mouth, sweet in the mid palate and spicy on the long and resonant finish. Like the Bourbon, it shows considerable balance without a trace of heat.
Baker’s ($47) is seven years old and 107 proof/53.5% ABV. It is sweet on entry, with a creamy texture and a solid core of spice that continues on the finish---a concentrated and satisfying Bourbon, with a remarkable smoothness despite the high alcohol level. Booker’s ($60) became an underground legend as the personal Bourbon of Booker Noe, something he used to serve at home and give as gifts to friends and family. It comes in at an amazing 128.5 proof/64.5% ABV. Explosively rich and ripe in the mouth, it has a sweet, unctuous texture balanced by pepper and spice. The finish seems to last forever. Jim Beam advises adding some distilled water before attempting to drink it, and you’d be wise to do so.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot); for more information, go to http://www.iconicspirits.net.