Making Bourbon More Transparent

One of the current controversies in the whiskey world is the provenance and origin of each brand, especially since so many non-distiller produced bourbons and ryes are on the market. The recently settled lawsuit against the owners of Templeton Rye is a good example of how serious the matter is for many in Whiskey World, if not for the average consumer.

But as the number of distilleries selling unbranded whiskey to third parties for bottling under their own label decreases (currently, only one large distiller admits to doing so), consumers who want to know more about how and where their whiskies are made increasingly seek out details about production - mash bill, fermentation times, even the type and location of specific warehouses in which the whiskies age.

That’s one of the reasons that the journalists’ roundtable organized by the Beam Suntory folks for the high-proof pioneer Booker’s is so interesting. Before each release, Beam distiller Fred Noe and a handful of spirits writers - me included - sit down, either on a conference call, in Kentucky, or, as was the case last week, in the famed Keens Steakhouse in midtown Manhattan.

Whether by phone or in person, all assembled taste three samples of barrel strength whiskey, aged at least six and a half years and drawn from a number of warehouses. Last week’s batch samples, which when bottled will be called “Noe Secret,” appropriately enough, were compiled in each case from different barrels sourced from a variety of warehouses of differing sizes and from different floors - so, understandably the results in the sample bottles were very different.

If that process isn’t transparent enough, Noe shares detailed analysis of what’s on each sample. He identifies the barrel selection to pull for each batch, and works closely with Teresa Wittemer, a member of the Quality Control team, to make sure the final batch results are of high quality but different enough to make the sampling a challenge. As an example, one sample was derived 14 percent from the sixth floor of an old nine-story warehouse, while 25 percent came from the sixth floor of D warehouse, said to be the favorite of the brand creator Booker Noe and the one that most visitors to the Beam Distillery get to check out.

Noe pointed out that four of the warehouse still standing were built under Jim Beam himself so that the sun rose out the front door and set in the rear.

The three samples were as usual remarkably different, but the assembled group had a clear favorite, so Noe Secret will be made up of a batch with nearly 30 percent coming from the sixth floor of the nine-story warehouse H, we were told, and the final batch selected had for me that trademark black cherry and clove spiciness of Booker’s.

Now that Booker’s is selling five or six different batches each year (recent bottlings included the Oven Buster and the Center Cut), enthusiasts and collectors are scooping up the bottles fast. Fred is happy the bottles are selling, but like his father Booker Noe, thinks the best use of Booker’s is to drink it with friends and not save it. For bar and restaurant owners, the different iterations offer an opportunity to intrigue and satisfy bourbon fans. For any bourbon fan, the quality should be enhanced by the transparency of the selection process - it is for me.


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