How would you feel if your favourite whisky doubled in price from one day to the next? In late 2016, Beam Suntory announced that in 2017, the price of Booker’s bourbon would double from US$50 to US$100. The resulting uproar wasn’t enough to stop the price hike completely, but Beam Suntory did decide to stagger the increase rather than implementing it in one fell swoop.
Was the price increase justified?
It was accompanied by a reduction in supply, from six batches per year to four. However, while limited releases can fetch higher prices, Booker’s batches are far from the most limited whiskies. While some single casks produce only 350 bottles, Booker’s batches are made from around 350 barrels, meaning they produce several tens of thousands of bottles. And many drinkers wouldn’t have been sold on the lack of supply considering that in some US states, Booker’s bottles often lingered on shelves and were discounted below the recommended retail price.
There are other justifications - and distractions - that whisky bottlers can use for high or increased prices. Perhaps the most common are indicators of higher production costs. These can make whisky drinkers happy to pay more. For example, age statements tell us there were storage costs and the angel’s share means less whisky was made with the same amount of base materials, which justifies price increasing with age. Another example is local grain, which will often be more expensive to source and have a lower yield of alcohol. Production costs aside, if a whisky has a unique selling point, such as a brand new mashbill or an extreme peating level, then people may pay more as they can’t get the same experience from any other whisky.
But Booker’s has a relatively typical age for a bourbon and no special grain, cask type or mashbill. One thing in its favour is the classy label it wears, but as the presentation didn’t change with the price increase, it is still associated with the earlier, lower price point.
On paper, Booker’s does not have a unique selling point that warrants the price increase. But perhaps its quality means it is still good value. Today, the batch of Booker’s we’re drinking is batch 2017-01E (the E is for export). It is aged 6 years and 1 month and was bottled at 62.7% ABV. You can find the latest export batch (2019-01E) available for sale in the UK from Master of Malt for £59.95.
Nose: Beyond the initial alcohol hit, the nose is dominated by oaky notes of vanilla, coconut and wood varnish. These notes are complemented by spirit-led aromas of corn, roasted peanuts and candy floss (or should I say cotton candy?). The more water you add, the more the varnish takes a background role. A few drops and toasted almonds appear. More water and vanilla, cherries and pears come up front, with touches of cinnamon.
Taste: Powerful entry with a coating and slightly astringent mouthfeel. There are heaps of vanilla and coconut, along with wood varnish and hints of cherry. With water, the mouthfeel is creamier and the taste has more candy floss, still the vanilla, and added toasted almonds. It feels as if the spirit is on the lighter side and has been somewhat overwhelmed by the oak. Adding water restores balance between the spirit and cask.
Finish: Vanilla and corn at first, then the smoky char and oak tannins take over. The more water added, the more the sweetness is on corn and the oakiness is on varnish.
Neat, this batch of Booker’s feels like how non-whisky drinkers experience whisky. It’s boozy, hot, and astringent. But with a good dollop of water, the booziness goes away, the mouthfeel is much more pleasant, and the whisky much more flavoursome. Do you want a cask strength bourbon that has to be diluted to flourish? The fun of drinking neat at cask strength isn’t quite there.
Doubling the price of Booker’s might be more justified in around a decade. By then, it will be a product of the Fred B. Noe Craft Distillery, which is currently being constructed. Now? Not so much. But the good news is that – perhaps due to customer backlash – the price has only increased by a moderate amount. Booker’s can still sometimes be found at £50 in the UK, and it is pretty good value at that price, even though it may not be the best option for neat cask strength drinking. More commonly, it is found for around £60 to £65, which represents fair value. As the price creeps higher and higher, it will become harder to recommend.