August 6, 2012
For a bachelor party the other weekend in San Francisco, our group found ourselves at Rickhouse. Rickhouse is supposed to be a go-to destination for bourbon in SF. Unfortunately for this whisky lover, the very loud and very dark bar was revamping its whisky list. This is a conundrum when faced with a massive wall of completely unlit bottles of what I assume were whisky. Knowing about this blog, some of my co-revelers asked me to pick a whiskey for them. So like any whiskyhead, I flagged down the very apathetic bartender and started casting around for names that I knew would satisfy: Pappy Van Winkle? Of course not. Ok. Maybe some scotch… Glenmorangie Nectar D’Or? All out. Oh. I needed a mid-level bourbon that they’d actually have in stock. Booker’s? $11 please. (Actually he told me $10 and then gave me change for $11. pfft.)
Of course, I forgot that Booker’s is always bottled at cask strength, which almost knocked out my compatriots. They wanted water and ice to cool down their flaming palates. Mission failed. So much for Rickhouse, and my credibility.
Booker’s, named after creator Booker Noe (Master Distiller for Jim Beam for 40 years) is bottled unfiltered and at cask strength in small batches after 6 – 8 years of age. Here are my notes for this fiery cask-strength Kentucky Straight Bourbon.
Color: Very dark, even for a bourbon – mahogany.
Nose: Spicy rye and cinnamon accost the nose, like red hot pokers of nutmeg and chai directly to my sinuses. You’ll want to approach this one carefully. Under the spice is a deep sea of woody caramel, and fruit verging on red plum and cinnamon applesauce. Every note is big and bold, and accompanied by a fiery nose burn that is more pummel than tickle.
Palate: Expected torrents of fire course across the tongue. When the burn (and the tears) subside, one is left with a roiling sea of dark chocolate, cedar chips, applewood smoke, burned simple syrup, charcoal, and unfathomable depths of woody corn sweetness and caramelized sugars.
Finish: Long, and very astringent (drying). Cinnamon dominates, oak tannin, walnut skins, and on the tail end, marshmallow cream. Cries out for water.
With Water: After a liberal (and, I have to admit, somewhat vindictive) dilution with water, I now get a bright piercing peach note on the nose, clove, maple sugar candies, and I can actually get my nose in the glass. The palate, though still fiery, shows a neater, more orderly array of bakery sweets, nuts, cereal sugars, and wood sap. The finish might be somewhat more bitter and herbal, with notes like rosemary and raw ginger coming to mind.
Overall: With or without water, this is a big drink. While I’m relatively comfortable with the sipping of cask-strength whiskies neat, something about the craggy mountain of flavor that is Booker’s was a big challenge for my nose and palate. The alcohol, although mature, is aggressive and untamed from the assault on my nose, through the river of fire on my tongue, until the tail end of the desiccating dryness of the finish. The usual characters are here in abundance: cinnamon and nutmeg, implied fruitiness (although not a clear cherry note like I find in other bourbons), charcoal, heavy oak, and sticky-sweet caramelized corn syrup. Do yourself a favor, though, and dilute this one heavily with water. Put some hair on your chest with a first sip neat, if you must, but you’ll likely burn out your palate if you drink an entire dram as-is. Also, water seems to both tame and educate this beast, revealing new notes and cleaning up the sloppy wildness of the original ones.