Google “Booker’s” right now and you are most certain to find some rants and raves about the audacity of Jim Beam to raise prices. You will find slams on Booker’s and promises to never buy it again.
I hear you. I want to be able to buy the same great bourbon at the same old prices, just like my millions of other friends and growing.
But I’m not here to complain about prices. And I’m not here to defend them either. Instead, I’m here to defend some really good bourbon: Booker’s. It’s wonderful stuff at $75 (yes I said it) and probably good stuff at $100 (yep, quote me on that). It’s unbelievable stuff at $50 (I really don’t hear anyone disagreeing).
Ask Jim Beam, and they will likely tell you we are exactly the problem. Our demand is increasing, yet we want to ignore the effects of that demand on suppliers. I have a theory, or maybe just a concern. If demand has truly increased for a product, it would be natural for a supplier to try to keep up with that demand by taking some slight corners on production. If you can eek out just a few more bottles by reducing age, or by grabbing some less than perfect barrels for a blend, then you can stretch your supply, meet demand, and make a profit. But at some point isn’t a consumer benefited by a reduction of supply, and increase in quality standards, and the resulting upshift in pricing? Feel free to debate.
So how do Booker’s batches compare over the past few years? Has quality suffered as Jim Beam sets out to satisfy demand? I set out to find out. Without hiding conclusions (or giving any credibility to my theory), I’ll simply state that I hope that Jim Beam’s business plan for Booker’s includes returning to the glory of year’s past.
I’ve always enjoyed the Jefferson’s lineup. The Straight Rye is historically one of my favorite ryes, and the Reserve bourbon is delicious. I’ve sampled the Very Small Batch on several different occasions. And I’ve tasted several different voyages from the Ocean Aged at Sea and I will say I’ve appreciated each of them (although there is certainly some winners and runner-ups in the group). I’m very excited to try (soon, I hope) the Cask Strength Voyage bottling.
But despite my overall enjoyment of the line, I’ve often wondered whether the “aged at sea” gimmick has any real merit, at least as it concerns my palate.
The only way to know might be to compare for myself the land version of what I believe to be the most closely related: the Very Small Batch (without knowing much more about mash bills, sourcing, and age, there may not be a way to knowing exactly what compares, but I’m willing to make the comparison anyway). And what better to compare than a couple of store pick single barrels?
For some odd reason, Heaven Hill has always been one of those distilleries that I subconsciously discount and thus largely ignore. Why? I’m not exactly sure. Maybe because I’ve never viewed them as “top shelf” like some of the other distilleries (save Parker’s Heritage, which I’ve never seen on a shelf)? Just maybe I ignore the quality mid-shelf products that I historically love (Pikesville Rye is outstanding, Larceny (wheated) is delicious and I’ve always been a fan of Elijah Craig 12-year), and only consider Heaven Hill to be “bottom shelf”?
The “Evan Williams” and “Henry McKenna” names have never been much of an interests to me. Until now.
A few weeks ago, I again read through the mash bill breakdown on www.bourbonr.com. It’s a great read, and it coincided with the purchase of a bottle of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof (which has to rank in my all-time top-10 bourbons). These series of events got me realizing that Heaven Hill does produce some top-notch bourbons, and deserves some much needed attention.
After a bit of research, I decided to focus on small batch and single barrel bourbon offerings from Elijah Craig, Henry Mckenna and Evan Williams. So I picked up a few new bottles, including a No Age Statement Elijah Craig, the Henry McKenna 10 year, and two varieties of Evan Williams. I’ve intentionally excluded anything barrel-proof, as those tend to be a different animal in my opinion.
This past weekend, I’ve gave them all a whirl in effort to decide whether I could enjoy the lineup, and whether I could discern any differences in five small batch/single barrel bourbons that all originate from same mash bill and only span roughly 4 years of time (excluding the Evan Williams 1783, which I believe is a bit younger).