Booker’s: Lost In Imitation

Lost in Imitation.

There is an idea that new adaptations of old work, work that inspired countless imitators, will tend to resemble the imitators more than the original. Think of how the Frankenstein Monster has become a shambling, mute zombie thanks to the 1930s movies despite the original character being verbose, intelligent, and vicious.

Booker’s is an old school classic of the Bourbon world but it’s not an ancient brand. Named for and started by the legendary grandson of Jim Beam, Booker Noe, the brand started out as a gift from Booker to close friends in the late 80s. It proved to be such a hit that it was released to the public in 1992 and it hit all of the right buzz words: Cask Strength, Non-Chill Filtered, Small Batch, 6-8 year old, Straight Bourbon Whiskey.

Except that in 1992 none of these were buzzwords, because bourbon was not buzz worthy. It was barely drinkable in most people’s eyes so this undiluted, turbo-charged whiskey emerging onto the shelves with a $40+ price tag must have seemed like madness. But people fell in love with it. Each batch offered something familiar yet different, all variations on a theme. It didn’t hurt that Booker Noe was one of the first “Celebrity” Distillers. It was the force of his personality and vision that made the brand a success.

Fast forward twenty-five years later and Barrel Strength whiskey is the hot commodity. Booker, the brand and the distiller, was a trend setter. Any bartender or whiskey enthusiast that came of age in the past 20 years has had Booker’s. But in this world of seemingly endless new options most don’t keep a place on the back bar for it. The premiumization of whiskey has driven bartenders and collectors to the next hot commodity, or name, or special release.

Now the trailblazer is reimagining itself in the image of what came after. Starting in the New Year Booker’s Bourbon is going to be nearly doubling in retail price with the number of batches being released annually being reduced from six to four. That’s a massive and immediate shakeup for a long established brand. It’s also following in the path of its imitators by increasing price and reducing supply.

On the one hand, it’s easy to understand this thought process from the higher ups at Beam Suntory. They see younger brands, many of them simply sourced whiskey, going for double or triple the price of Booker’s and want to position themselves against that. There’s also the desire to differentiate their owns brands. Their Small Batch Bourbon Collection (Knob Creek, Basil Hayden, Baker’s and Booker’s) all sit comfortably next to each other in price so there’s no drive towards one brand or the other. All of that makes sound business sense but the cynical view is equally as easy to see. The Booker’s Rye sold out immediately at $300 and won more awards than the Booker’s line has seen in years so it’s hard to not feel like Beam Suntory isn’t just seeing dollar signs.

The real question ends up being, is Booker’s a $90-$100 bottle? If it sells at the price it sure is. The problem is that Booker’s ubiquity also makes it forgettable. Like most of the mainline Beam offerings there’s nothing that makes it stand out. Even from the other members of the Beam family. Jim Beam Whiskey always tastes like Jim Beam Whiskey, no matter what label name they slap on the bottle. And that’s a great positive or negative depending on your point of view. That’s what gave Booker’s its edge, the raw unadulterated flavor of Beam. The last batch of the year “Noe Hard Times” is Booker through and through. Huge oak, vanilla, a massive heat at 127.8 proof, a toasted nuttiness, and that unmistakable bready Jim Beam yeast. It’s a great Beam Bourbon but I’d be hard pressed to call it a $100 bottle.

But while I can, as this incredibly trying year of 2016 draws to a close, I’m going to raise a glass of the past to toast the future. An act that I seem to repeat with more regularity, because change it isn’t a comin’, change has done come.

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