Booker’s is just one of many brands I’d love to continue exploring. Some things improve after you reminisce, and whiskey is hardly an exception. With Booker’s, it took multiple batches and exposure to other bourbons for me to fully appreciate it. What consistently stands out, regardless of how much I like a given batch, is how full-bodied the whiskey is (some may call it chewy). I’ve yet to find any expression that hits this mark the same way Booker’s does, least of all with such consistency. Between that and the flavor variety each release can possess, you could call me a recent and ever-curious Booker’s fan.
Those who’ve kept up with me long enough know that one of my first splurge purchases (around 2020) was for my first bottle of Booker’s, 2019-02 “Shiny Barrel.” Although my thoughts ultimately boiled down to “good enough,” its successor was a true fire-starter within the whiskey community. So much so that I had no trouble locating 2019-01 “Teresa’s Batch” and 2019-04 “Beaten Biscuits,” but the lauded 2019-03 “Country Ham” remained ever-elusive. Named for Booker Noe’s enjoyment of the popular Southern dish, Country Ham was comprised of 364 barrels from two rickhouses. Fortunately for me, a recent sample swap allowed me to try this legendary batch. Does it step that much higher than the other Booker’s batches I’ve tried, especially considering it’s been a hot minute since I last enjoyed a pour of this beloved Beam bourbon? Time to find out.
Nose: Rather closed off at first. Woody vanillin and almond butter with a lightly floral corn essence. Undercurrent of cinnamon and honey. Good mid-point between grain flavor and barrel age. Dark brown sugar with hints of clove eventually develop before a strong toffee note kicks into gear.
Palate: Full-bodied and flavored. Lots of caramel and toffee roasted nuts. Big barrel char on the front and mid-palates, but it’s kept in-check with the aforementioned notes. After adjusting to the proof, I get a rounded vanilla note with a layer of dried cherries or dates. Good dose of cinnamon with subsequent sips, namely as the finish begins.
Finish: Full-blown Kentucky hug. Oak, almond butter, and an impression of barbecue sauce. Fairly drying and throat-focused. Anise and nutmeg follow the cinnamon.
I find myself in an oddly familiar place here. The first sip drove home just how long it’s been since I last had a barrel proof bourbon of this caliber. Three sips and one fully recalibrated palate later I was ready to evaluate the bourbon proper. To put it succinctly, the ensuing experience could best be described as “really good.” Indeed, Country Ham is a strong demonstration of Jim Beam’s profile firing on all cylinders, from the corn-forward aroma to the ubiquitous nutty profile and welcome (but not overdone) presence of oak. Yet I can’t say with certainty whether I’d go much further than that.
Perhaps this is an example of hype getting the best of my expectations. I recently admitted this same possibility when looking at Barrell Seagrass. Yes, Booker’s and Seagrass are completely different beasts, yet my reaction to the overall experience from both left me wondering what all the fuss was about. Furthermore, after recording my notes on Country Ham itself, I poured three different Knob Creek Single Barrel picks to compare. Long story short? One of the picks handily trumped the other three pours while Country Ham traded blows for second place. Truth be told, I can’t even say this is my second favorite Booker’s batch.
All of this is without even acknowledging the combined elephant that is pricing and allocation. Booker’s has had an issue with value proposition for a couple years now, consistently coming under the 7-year mark while commanding a triple-digit price tag. The packaging and production process are common rebuttals, but the ultimate experience rarely seems to leave folks content with their purchases. Country Ham is undoubtedly a stellar batch of Booker’s, it just isn’t some transcendent beast that puts its predecessors and successors to shame. I still consider myself a more recent Booker’s fan when enjoying the whiskey itself, but that doesn’t automatically entail an endorsement for purchase.