Everything I wrote the last time I reviewed a batch of Jim Beam’s Booker’s Bourbon still holds true, so allow me to simply restate the following:
Jim Beam’s Booker’s Bourbon brand has been a semi-frequent target of whiskey geek grumbling for a few years now, owing to the fact that its price point has provided a real time reflection of the ever-increasing demand for American whiskey and the inflation of MSRPs that has accompanied it. As recently as 2017, Booker’s was still being found in the wild for $60, but that price tag has steadily crept upward in the last few years, to the point that its starting MSRP is now $90. That’s a significant jump, and one that reflects not only bourbon mania but also the normalization of close to three-digit pricing for cask-strength bourbon brands, regardless of whether they can boast an impressive age statement along with the high proof. After all, Jim Beam also sells the likes of Knob Creek 12 Year for $60, at 100 proof, a product roughly twice as old as most Booker’s batches. There’s a clear argument being made: Cask strength bourbon represents a facet of the whiskey game that is impossible to replicate elsewhere, and the consumer is willing to pay extra for it.
With that said, I’m actually of the opinion that the value of Booker’s has increased, rather than decreased, in the last year or so. And there are a couple reasons for this.
First, the rampant price gouging and steady creep of pricing for “limited” bourbon brands has continued unabated, and there are a lot of small companies now trying to charge $100 for a bottle without any significant age statement, and often without being cask-strength expressions as well. This makes the $90 Booker’s price tag feel more reasonable in comparison.
Secondly, the Booker’s brand has seen a slow, steady creep upward in its age statements in the last few years—after a period of time in which it was usually in the 6 year range, several batches for 2022 have been 7 years or more, which is a decent little upgrade. That’s also true of the final Booker’s batch for 2022, the just-released “Kentucky Tea,” which is aged 7 years, 4 months and 14 days, at a final cask strength of 62.25% ABV (126.5 proof). In fact, that appears to make “Kentucky Tea” the oldest regular batch of Booker’s that has ever been released, as far as I can tell, although only by a few months.
As with all Booker’s batches, this one is inspired in some way by the legendary Master Distiller Booker Noe, and specifically by what the company calls his “signature drink,” which he apparently referred to as Kentucky Tea. This is an interesting little gimmick, and a story I haven’t heard before—apparently, Booker was fond of heavily diluting his cask-strength bourbon to create a long drink of bourbon and water, and this “Kentucky Tea” was a favored dinner accompaniment for dishes like his legendary country ham. And when we say “diluted,” we mean seriously diluted—one part bourbon to four parts water.
I have never in my life consumed bourbon that way, and I have to say it really didn’t sound appealing on first consideration. It is easy, however, to imagine an old-school Kentucky bourbon magnate perhaps using this technique to lengthen his drink, or to enforce some sense of moderation on his own drinking. And so, I’ll absolutely be trying a Kentucky Tea preparation along with the standard whiskey review, which you can find at the end of this piece.
So with that said, let’s get to tasting Booker’s “Kentucky Tea Batch.”
On the nose, this Booker’s is notably on the woodier side, with notes evoking lumberyard, creamed corn, clove and licorice. There’s not as much of the nuttiness as one gets on many Booker’s/classic Beam batches, having been smoothed out a touch perhaps by an increased oak presence. There is, however, plenty of rich vanilla bean, combined with sweet corn and subtle spice. All in all, though, not an especially dynamic nose.
On the palate, however, the Kentucky Tea Batch opens up nicely—the sweet, praline-like nuttiness is here more prominently, while the oak has not been diminished. The flavors are big, bold and punchy, especially in the more wood-oriented dimensions, but it also has a solid sweetness, with candied nuts, vanilla, gingerbread, clove and spicy oak. Notably, the ethanol is quite mild here for the proof point, especially on repeated sips—over time, I’m starting to think that this is one of the more accessible and gentle Booker’s batches I’ve sampled in recent memory. I think it’s safe to say that it’s drinking well under the 126.5 proof point, something that some drinkers may find attractive, while others may want a more rollicking experience. All in all, though, this is a quite solid batch of Booker’s.
NOW. Let’s also do right by this batch theme, and mix up a Kentucky Tea drink in the style of Booker Noe, with 1 part bourbon to 4 parts water.
As a tea, this is still surprisingly strong and unmistakably Beam-like on the nose. In fact, if anything the classic Beam notes are more unmistakable this way than they were before I added the water—the nose is absolutely full of peanut brittle, warm toffee and wet oak, along with caramel corn and vanilla. To be honest, it’s quite a pleasant nose.
On the palate, though, that’s where things perhaps unsurprisingly get a bit strange. The flavors do carry through, but in a way that is sort of disconcertingly weak. I’m getting brown sugar, wet oak, faint peanut, a little earth and leather, but what’s really odd is the total lack of burn or ethanol presence, coupled with a very strange mouthfeel—no surprise there. As a tea, the drink also reads as somewhat dry, because it’s as if all the sweetness has been spread thin throughout the drink. All in all, it’s actually better than I thought it would be at this dilution, but it’s still a very odd experience. I will say, you could only do this with cask-strength whiskey. I can only imagine how gross this would probably be with an 80 proof bourbon, and it’s a credit to the bold flavors of Booker’s that this still smells as nice as it does in a mixture that is only 20% bourbon, and 80% water.
So there you have it. A solid new batch of Booker’s, and a very unusual way to enjoy bourbon with far more water than you’d expect. I’d say that if you want to test making Kentucky Tea for yourself, start on the small side.
Distillery: Jim Beam
City: Clermont, KY
Style: Straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 62.25% (126.5 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $90 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.