Small batch bourbon and Jim Beam might not seem to go hand-in-hand. Most associate Beam with the ubiquitous bottles of inexpensive but tasty bourbon that are found behind every bar in the country and usually mixed with something before being served, made by a massive distillery that generates huge quantities of product every year. Small batches, meanwhile, are crafted bourbons thought of as sipping drinks that are taken neat or on the rocks and should not be sullied with soda or anything else. Many would no more assume that Beam was behind a quality small batch than they would guess that a fast-food joint was also in charge of a chain of fancy steak houses.
But; in fact, Jim Beam makes some of the best small batch bourbons around. It just calls them by other names.
Knob Creek, Basil Hayden’s, Booker’s and Baker’s are all Jim Beam small batch bourbons. While they are distilled and processed alongside the flagship Beam brands that are impossible to miss and rarely seen as luxurious, these four bourbons are crafted in unique ways that give them a power and subtlety that is missing from the company’s other options. That comes at a cost, of course – a bottle of Booker’s will cost you perhaps five times as much as a bottle of Beam, and if you’re a very casual drinker and you know that both are made in the same place, you’d probably save the cash and choose the cheaper option. That’s why, from a marketing perspective, it’s probably a good idea that they keep the small batch bourbons clearly separated from the proverbial home office.
But from a quality and taste perspective, these bourbons have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, and it’s not like it’s a big secret where these come from. Each is named after something related to the Beam bourbon diary, whether it is a geographic feature or a Master Distiller who inspired the drink.
And give the distiller credit: these are four very distinctive tastes. If you have any kind of a palate at all, you’ll be able to guess which is which in a blind taste test, since each has a different strength, degree of mellowness, taste and finish. These aren’t all minor derivatives of a single recipe, but instead stand on their own as among the best bourbons available.
Knob Creek gets its name from the body of water that runs just south of where the bourbon is distilled. As the distiller points out, the same creek that runs by Abraham Lincoln’s childhood home. When his father sold that house, part of the purchase price was paid in bourbon. Who doesn’t love the image of Honest Abe breaking out the good stuff after drafting the Emancipation Proclamation?
There’s a reason why that’s a part of the literature, and why the label is designed to mimic the handmade ones used by bootleggers. It’s supposed to represent old-school craftsmanship, even though frankly the newer bourbons are probably a lot more sophisticated than were available back then.
At nine years, Knob Creek is the longest aged of the Jim Beam small batch bourbons. It also may be the sweetest, but in a complex way. The sweetness doesn’t overpower, but it teases the tongue when it augments the natural oak and earthiness of the bourbon. It’s as different from Jim Beam as a bourbon can be, worthy of sipping neat or on the rocks. One word of advice with this one – if you like your bourbon chilled, try storing it in the freezer rather than diluting it with too much ice.
I survived the drought of 2009
It’s no secret that Knob Creek isn’t usually someone’s starter bourbon (the website will tell you that itself), but a lot of drinkers wind up with this as their go-to bourbon simply because it offers a lot of quality for a not unreasonable price. One issue with this: It has sometimes been hard to keep in stock when its popularity outstrips demand. In fact, if you were a member of their fan club a couple of years ago, you got a letter apologizing that they briefly ran out of bottles, and perhaps received a commemorative T-shirt advertising the shortage. They also sent a commemorative 2000-2009 barrel bung announcing that the drought was over.
Basil Hayden's is named after the Master Distiller in 1796, Mr. Basil Hayden Sr. (If you want to get a sense of what he looked like, check out a bottle of "Old Grand-Dad," which one of his grandsons named in his honor and which features his likeness on the label). At 80 proof, it is the lightest of the four small batches, and also uses additional rye and small grains to go with the mandatory corn in the mashbill. In fact, the bourbon, which reportedly uses a similar mashbill to the one Hayden advocated more than two centuries ago, has twice as much rye as the other three small batches profiled here.
This makes it the most user-friendly of the small-batches for those who aren't used to bourbon or who like a smoother beverage. It goes down very easily, with little burning and a comforting hint of peppermint to go with the ideal balance of sweetness and spice. Though there are recipes for mixed drinks provided by the Jim Beam folks, this is also just as good neat or on the rocks.
One thing for sure: If you give a newer bourbon drinker a taste of all four of the Beam small batches, odds are close to 100% that they will like Basil Hayden’s the best simply because it is so smooth and drinkable. If you’re picking one bottle for a social gathering where you aren’t sure what your guests will be into, this is a safe pick to impress and delight.
Booker's, on the other hand, is a lot more intense. It is named after Master Distiller Booker Noe, who originally produced this for himself and select family and friends before making it more generally available in 1992. He would use the barrels from the center of the rack house where the distillery aged its bourbon, and hand-selected only one that met his exacting standards. True to those roots, Booker’s is a straight-from-the-barrel bourbon, uncut and unfiltered, aged six to eight years with a proof between 121 and 127.
This is a bourbon-lovers bourbon in every sense of the word. It is strong and powerful, intense and complex from nose to finish. Many find that a couple of splashes of spring water or distilled water can help bring out the flavor, and if you’ve never tried Booker’s before, you should definitely do that before tasting it neat.
Booker’s usually is sold in a wooden box, which makes it easy to give as a gift (and with the price tag above $50 for 750ml, this is a pretty solid gift to bring anywhere). Note: This isn’t the bourbon to give to your 21-year-old nephew, who will likely be overwhelmed if this is one of his first times trying bourbon. But for someone who is a real bourbon aficionado, this gift may well become the standard to which all other bourbons are measured afterwards.
Finally, there’s Baker’s. Named after Baker Beam, Jim’s grand-nephew, the distinctive part of this bourbon’s distillation process is the the yeast, a strain that has been in the family for more than 60 years. Though Baker’s is aged for seven years and bottled at 107 proof, it has a surprisingly smooth and mellow flavor that has to be savored to be appreciated.
Baker’s is a medium-bodied bourbon that is complex without being too intense, and the comforting sensations of vanilla and caramel make this go down easy The folks who make Baker’s recommend that you serve it in a snifter with a splash of spring water, which is especially useful in bringing out the bourbon’s aroma, and deepen the natural weight of the drink. Like with Booker’s, this is the option to use if your usual bourbon is an 80-proof or close to it, because otherwise your initial impressions are just going to be about how strong and intense Baker’s tastes in comparison. But the combination of flavor and impact – after all, this packs a punch at 107 proof – makes this popular among those who usually drink a single-malt scotch, or those who need to be warmed up after coming inside after a chilly fall or winter’s day.
Each of these four bourbons is worth trying. Knob Creek and Basil Hayden’s are the versions that are most likely appeal to the casual bourbon drinker, while Booker’s and Baker’s are designed for those with a serious palate who can appreciate the flavors hidden inside the extra intensity. And while they may be made by the people who brought you the original Jim Beam, you’ll enjoy these even if that isn’t your style.