Booker’s Night (or “What Is a Led *bleeping* Zeppelin?”)

If you drink Bourbon then you’re familiar with Booker’s.   If you aren’t familiar with Booker’s then you’re doing Bourbon wrong.  Booker’s was the first of the Jim Beam small batch series developed by long-time master distiller, Booker Noe.  Currently, there are four Booker’s batches released each year.  Since 2015 each batch has been named for people and places important to Booker and the Noe family.  Booker’s is an unfiltered, uncut barrel-strength Bourbon.  According to Booker, himself: “it is the way Bourbon used to be and the way Bourbon is supposed to be”.  Who am I to argue?

An Aggressive Bourbon

The lineup started as being every Booker’s release from 2017 and 2018, both releases of Little Book and the Booker’s 30th anniversary Bourbon.  As if that weren’t beautiful enough, we added in a few releases from previous years such as Off Your Rocker, Noe Hard Times and Center Cut.  I’ve always commented that Booker’s is “an aggressive bourbon”. So the problem is: with so many great high proof whiskies to sample, how do you organize a tasting and everybody’s BAC not end up resembling a Booker’s ABV?

From very early on, Booker’s has been the unofficial Bourbon of The Bourbon Fellowship.  Regardless of the theme for each night, a bottle of Booker’s seems to always find its way on the table.  So a special night to honor Booker and his namesake Bourbon was a no-brainer (Fun fact: if you drink too much Booker’s at one time you may also be a “no-brainer”). 

We started Booker’s Night with a pour of Booker’s 30th and then raising a glass to good friends, good Bourbon and the contributions to both made by Booker and Fred.  I really enjoyed this Bourbon.  It certainly fits in the profile of the best of the regular Booker’s releases, but the additional age gives this one more flair and complexity.   What a treat!

After sharing the 30th, the guys in the Fellowship mostly went one of two routes with their other tastings.  We had printouts available of the stories of each batch with some tasting notes.  I had also created a Booker’s lineup handout so everybody could keep track of what they tried that night and make some notes. To be sure, the notes at the first of the night were more detailed and more legible than the notes at the end of the night. 

A few guys sampled a couple of batches that they had not tried before.  A few others did blind tastings of three or four batches.  There weren’t enough blind tastings to draw definitive conclusions, however, a couple of batches were consistently rated higher than others. Those batches were Kathleen’s Batch (2018-01) and Sip Awhile (2017-04) from the 2017 and 2018 batches.  From the prior years’ batches, Center Cut (2015-03) was also a favorite. 

In addition to great drink, we enjoyed some great food, too.  Tom brought Booker’s Bourbon Balls and Mark brought a homemade Booker’s Bread Pudding.  I also grilled some Booker’s Pork Chop Flambe! I think Booker would have enjoyed himself. 

If you’ve drank much Booker’s in your day, you probably have a Booker’s story or two.  Laughing over a few Tales of Booker’s Past rounded out the evening.  I’ve got one story worth sharing with you, but I’ll save for a future blog post.

What Is a Led F*****g Zeppelin?

When I plan these Bourbon Fellowship gatherings with a brand-related theme, I’ll write the master distiller a few months in advance.  In my letter, I’ll explain who we are and what we do.  I’ll also invite them to attend (so far…no takers).  Finally, I’ll ask them to share some thoughts about the connection between bourbon and friendship (which is what Bourbon Fellowship is really all about).

Fred Noe wrote me a wonderful letter.  But, also, a few weeks before our Booker’s Night I got to speak to Fred at Westport Whiskey & Wine.  Since we have a “soundtrack” for each Fellowship, I took the opportunity to ask Fred what kind of music his dad liked.  “Dad liked old country music”, Fred said.  “We had a cassette player in the truck back in that day.  So, when I’d play ‘Bad To the Bone’, he’d asked me to rewind the tape and play it again”. 

“Dad didn’t care for a lot of hard rock music”, Fred shared.  “He always asked ‘What is a Led F*****g Zeppelin anyway?!’”.  So, the soundtrack for Booker’s Night was a playlist of old school country music, several plays of “Bad to the Bone” and a little Led Zeppelin tossed in for Fred.

Stay on the Beam!

In Fred’s letter he referenced several things that tie back to the connection between bourbon and relationships.  Here are a few cuts from that letter:

“I really appreciate the fact you are honoring my father and my son with the Bookers and Little Book releases you are going to enjoy.  The batches from the last two years all have great stories behind them and go back to the people, places and things that were important to my dad”.

“Tommy’s Batch, Kathleen’s Batch and the Blue Knights Batch were people that touched my dad either through work or socially”.

“The other batches were named for places or things that were important to dad.  We are naming all the batches so there is a tie back to the brand and my father.  I have enjoyed telling the stories that meant a lot to me growing up with my father creating Booker’s bourbon”. 

“Drink one for me since you guys will have a hell of a good time.  Thanks for the invite.  Stay on the Beam!”

Booker’s Night really was a lot of fun to plan and fun to share with the guys. Fred was extremely gracious in his letter and in our conversation. It is times like these that create the best memories and that is at the core of why we enjoy Bourbon.

Kevin Rose

The Riff Stuff

It only seems fitting to honor the anniversary of the passage of the Bottled in Bond Act (March 3, 1897) and the NCAA Basketball Tournament (occurring every March since I can remember…too lazy to look up the exact year it started). So, last week The Bourbon Fellowship held its First Annual Bottled in Bond Blind Tasting Bracket or FABIBBTB for short (or not so short, as it turned out). If you are unfamiliar with “Bottled in Bond” you can follow this link for more information.

The bracket was composed of 8 randomly selected bottled in bond (BiB) brands.  I put the names of 14 different BiBs in a box (a Booker’s box to be exact) and drew out 8 names.  Those 8 went back in the box and as I drew them out, I wrote their name on the bracket for pairings.  Each was assigned a letter (A through H) to identify them individually during the blind tastings.  The participants and the 1st Round pairings were:

These made the Big Dance!

A – 1792 Bottled in Bond (Barton)

B – E.H. Taylor Small Batch (Buffalo Trace)

C – Henry McKenna (Heaven Hill)

D – Old Bardstown (Willett)

E – Jim Beam Bonded (Jim Beam)

F – McKenzie Bottled in Bond (Finger Lakes)

G – Early Times (Brown-Forman)

H – New Riff Bottled in Bond (New Riff)

I poured the samples and counted votes as seven of our Fellowship made some tough decisions…and drank some outstanding bourbon.  As a group, they sampled one pairing at a time and voted on which bourbon moved on to the next round.  (For example, sample A and B then vote on which one they liked better.) We would proceed through each remaining pairing to complete the first round.  The semi-finals and finals followed the same pattern.

Quarter Finals

By a slim 4-3 margin, E.H. Taylor advanced over 1792.  It would be a shame if Colonel Taylor got bounced in the first round given that the Bottled in Bond Act wouldn’t have been passed without him.

In a somewhat surprising close match-up, Henry McKenna narrowly moved on over Old Bardstown by a 4-3 count.  An even greater surprise to me as I moderated the tasting was that a couple of long-devoted McKenna fans voted for Old Bardstown.  That is the beauty of a blind tasting!

Jim Beam Bonded also gained a 4-3 victory over McKenzie Bottled in Bond, but it wouldn’t be March and it wouldn’t be Madness without a buzzer beater and some hullabaloo.  After a first count of 4-3 in favor of McKenzie, Tom (known lovable trouble-maker of the group) abruptly changed his vote from F (McKenzie) to E (Beam).  Beam would move on, but in controversial fashion.

The last pairing of the Quarter Finals saw New Riff dominate 6-1 over Early Times.  Most of the guys said it was a close decision for them personally, but an overwhelming majority chose the newcomer.

Final Four

In a battle of the bottled in bond bourbon behemoths (say that five times fast), E.H. Taylor took on Henry McKenna for a right to punch a ticket to the finals.  Again, the vote was 4-3.  Again, known McKenna lovers voted against it. Again, McKenna still claimed a win and a chance at the title.

Maybe the youngster just doesn’t know it isn’t supposed to be this easy, but New Riff claims another 6-1 victory.  This time the freshman bests Beam and carries a lot of momentum into the finals.

The Bottled in Bond Finals

From one side of the bracket is Henry McKenna.  A 10-year single barrel bottled in bond that has been a daily drinker for many a bourbon enthusiast and has also been hailed as 2018 Whiskey of the Year.  McKenna is a true PTP-er (“prime time player” for those not fluent in speaking “Vitale”). Emerging from the other side is the upstart freshman, New Riff.  A four-year bottled in bond that is the very first bourbon distilled by New Riff Distillery.  This bourbon just hit the market in the fall of 2018.  It’s a diaper dandy and it’s awesome, baby!

Congratulations to New Riff.
Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa-oh…The Riff Stuff!

One would think that based on résumé alone Henry McKenna would be the heavy favorite.  But…the last time I checked: we don’t drink a résumé! New Riff (the New Kid on the Block) had the “right stuff” and took down the traditional favorite, Henry McKenna, by a 5-2 vote. 

Congratulations to New Riff on claiming the title of The Bourbon Fellowship 2019 Bottled in Bond Champion.  While it may not fall in the category of “coveted title” just yet, it will always be the first one ever.  And they can never take that away from you, New Riff (look for your certificate in the mail, soon)!

The results…

The blind tasting aspect of this was fascinating to watch unfold. In a day or two, I’ll blog about that and what my personal bracket looked like. I’ll also post reviews from our Bourbon Fellowship of the two finalists.

Kevin