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Friday, October 18, 2019

Little Book: Tasting the 3 Chapters with Freddie "Little Book" Noe

Chapters 3, 2, 1; left to right
Pulling Apart Beam's Little Books

Just a warning: we've got seven whiskeys to get through, plus comparisons, plus some reflections on blending. So why not get a drink before starting? 

Beam Suntory (hereafter referred to simply as "Beam") turned out three surprising and excellent whiskeys over the past few years. The "Little Book" bottlings are named for the man who blended them, Freddie Noe. Freddie is the son of Beam master distiller Fred Noe, the grandson of distilling icon Booker Noe, and the great-great grandson of Jim Beam himself. He's said to take after his grandfather, and so he's been known as "Little Book." 

That's all interesting Beam family and company history, up to the point of the release of the first "chapter" of Little Book. Because at that point, two things happened. 

First, "American blended whiskey" took a huge leap upward in respectability. We were used to thinking of things like Kessler's, Four Queens, and the old, pre-Kirin Four Roses, and Seagram's 7: a little bit of whiskey and a lot of grain neutral spirit. 

That's not what Freddie had in mind with these blended whiskeys. He wanted to try things, work with different characters of spirit, while maintaining full transparency for the drinker. While Four Roses has been blending their ten in-house bourbons for years, we don't really think of Four Roses as blended whiskey. Freddie didn't dodge that label, and the industry has responded.

"It's new stuff," he told me a couple weeks ago. We were on the telephone for an hour or so, each of us with a supply of these three whiskeys, and the component whiskeys of Chapter 3 (more on that later). "Our competitors are talking to us and each other, asking questions. It's been real cooperative."

Freddie's been using his position as Fred Noe's grandson to take advantage of tasting widely of what Beam has to offer. "I have a curious palate," he said. He's been tasting whiskeys in the warehouses for years. 

"I get to taste the whiskey through its full lifecycle; I know what they're like at different ages," he said. "I see all the levers you can pull for flavors." It was interesting to hear that; "pulling levers" is a bit of jargon I've started hearing in the last two years from blenders and distillers alike. 

That's the second thing. When that first Little Book hit, those of us who were watching immediately started taking Freddie seriously. He was obviously more than just Fred Noe's son working on a vanity project. 

Freddie started talking about age, and time. "There's a lot of time in blending," he said. "I'll spend a lot of time working on the blends, and then spend a lot of time not working on them. Step away. You have to be able to get away so that the whiskey isn't just your expectations. I have to make sure that the levers we pull still make it Beam. 

"And that means that you've got to know what defines your whiskey," he said, sounding awfully damned experienced for his age. "Even new distilleries have a history. We're all doing it for a cause, a tradition, or a passion."

Then you can take what Freddie called "asset liquids," the core barrels that contain the classic components of Beam whiskeys, and start putting them together in different ways. "A strong base drives the blend," he said. "A younger whiskey will quickly fall behind an older, bolder whiskey. I'll start with equal parts and let the whiskey drive the blend. See what's driving the flavors you like, and move toward that.

"Then I focus on details: a longer finish, more vanilla up front," he said. "I love the process. Blending is a tool, though. I'm a distiller at heart, I will not stick to just blending."

We did some tasting.

Chapter 1 -- 120.4°, a blend of 4 YO straight bourbon, rye and malt whiskeys (both at 6 YO) and a 13 YO corn whiskey. You've got a bourbon, and the component grains of bourbon; it seemed like a good place to start, since you already know they go together well. The nose is full of oak, dusty grain, and vanilla. It's a full, gentle entry on the palate, almost lush, and smooth for the proof. There's a big fat heart of sweet cereal, orange slice candies, and fresh-cut oak. Tasty, juicy bourbon without restraint until the whiskey rolls off the tongue and the finish sets in and dials up the oaky, spicy heat a bit.

Chapter 2 -- 118.8°, a blend of 8 YO Kentucky straight rye, 40 YO (that's right, 40!) 100% corn Canadian whisky, and 13 YO Canadian rye whisky (which I'm guessing is probably Alberta Distillers 100% rye); definitely the lightest in color of the three bottlings. Freddie admitted this one was difficult. "Not every blending idea works out," he confessed. But he'd tagged along on a trip to Alberta Distillers and tasted through their inventory. "I picked up a fruity, floral note, and made a note to work with Canadian whisky. I was interested in whether our aged rye would dominate the Canadian." It is floral and sweet on the nose, with vanilla and caramel, if not the heavy Canadian caramel. Taken on the tongue, it's roly-poly sweet, with grassy rye mint, cinnamon candies and oaky spice on the back end. There's a long finish, especially for a Canadian: oaky, hard candies, and horehound drops. The spice of rye is definitely there, and the lazy sweetness of that 40 YO corn whiskey is like a comfy blanket on a cold night.

Then we tasted the four component whiskeys of Chapter 3.

Knob Creek 9 YO, 117.4° -- Knob has a place in my whiskey heart. The first whiskey I had as a pro was Knob Creek. Took my breath away, bulged my eyes a bit. But damn! Freddie said the Knob is a lot of the flavor of Chapter 3. "It's not the predominant volume in the blend," he said, "but it does add a lot. Booker spoke about its boldness." There's a lot of vanilla up front, with crackling, 'two-legged oak,' my notes say. "Young Knob is more corn forward," Freddie noted. "Watching it transition to more oaky is an eye-opener." On the tongue, there's a lot of cracked corn and more vanilla with a good dose of oaky, almost smokey heat.

Basil Hayden 9 YO, 123° -- There's a big hit of rye spice in the nose; it's weirdly delicate without being shy. "The Basil has twice the rye of Knob," Freddie points out, "but younger Basil has less rye aroma. And this barrel proof Basil is so different from the Basil Hayden bottling." And it is. There's a big wall of sweetness around the inside of my mouth, almost like a firebox lining, with all that spice and oak heat kept inside. "I like to have a bit of a 'Kentucky hug,'" Freddie said. "I like it to squeeze me back." Weird to taste big boy Basil Hayden, but welcome.

Baker's 12 YO, 126.6° -- I'm a huge Baker's fan, and was excited to taste this overproof version at five extra years of age. (This was before I knew about the new single barrel Baker's and the 13 YO version...separate post to come on that!). You can smell and taste the extra age: a lot of barrel char here, and the corn is like a roasted cornmeal cornbread (like Brinser's Best, the roasted cornmeal my family has used for at least three generations). It's just a darker, deeper version of a bourbon that's already dark and deep. The corn and oak cling and grip to the palate, exemplifying how the barrel changes and, really, transmogrifies the simplicity of corn spirit. Baker's is a master class in itself.

Booker's 11 YO, 129.2° -- I got a few other Booker's samples out (I get samples of most of the releases, which is an embarrassment of riches, and I'll be sharing more of those now that the blog's back up) and compared them to this one. I was very surprised with how fresh and vital this whiskey smelled at almost twice the average age of the others. Hot caramel, lively spicy oak, and prickly blackberry fly right into your nose on this one. All that, in spades, on the tongue, but now you get that big sweetness wrapping it all up. The finish is long, with a good tannic grip. Booker's at 11 years old is quite a bird.

And finally...the whiskey we came to taste:

Little Book Chapter 3: The Road Home, 122.6° -- So Beam, so Booker: Full-bore bourbon, hot corn, polished oak, vanilla, Red Hots, and dried cherries. Two-stepper on the tongue: the first hit is all hot, sweet corn and spicy, firm oak (can't help thinking of my favorite Parker Beam quote here: "I put corn in my bourbon, and I age it in oak, and when I drink it, that's what I taste: corn, and oak!"), but then it's like the pressure lifts and a big shot of dried fruit comes through, bright and almost juicy, with baking spices. As it fades into the finish, the oak and vanilla come back, and float you off.

Can I taste the component bourbons? Well, yes, and no. Yes, in that I taste that big vanilla from the Knob, the grip of the Baker's, the sweetness of the Basil, and that long Booker's finish. No, in that I don't really taste them that way; I taste a bourbon that has all those things, and more. That distinct two-step palate; the dried fruit, the subdued baking spice. Like Knob, but smoother; like Baker's, but not as dark; like Basil, but richer; like Booker's, but even more drinkable at the full proof. A damned good blend.

And so, overall? Chapter 1 is a new blender, having fun, making a tasty, sweet bourbon out of pieces (Lego Bourbon?). Chapter 2 works with new components, quite different ones (40 year old corn-built Canadian!), and creates something completely new from them. The aptly-named Chapter 3, "The Road Home," is an epiphany, where the blender takes known whiskeys, at full proof, and makes something more out of them, when it would have been easy to screw up, and make something that wasn't really as good as any of them alone. Chapter 3 is a blender coming into his own. Chapter 3 is leveled-up from Chapter 1. 

This was a lot of fun, and a learning experience. I continue to gain respect for the work of blending, and I'm glad to see distillers working with more imaginative blends. Did the whole thing start with High West's Rendezvous Rye, a young and old MGP rye blended together? No, but maybe the modern era of American blending did.

I'm just not that excited to see some blenders jumping the gun entirely and blending completely different spirits together -- bourbon and rum, cognac and tequila, gin and mezcal -- when there's so much to be explored without stunts like these. Am I an old fart? Sure. And things like that don't excite me. But neither do CBD drinks or hard seltzers or juniperless gins. Traditions aren't prisons; they're playgrounds, sandboxes. Play within the rules, and see what you can do that others haven't. That's exciting.

My thanks to Freddie Noe and the folks who put us together.

(All whiskeys tasted were samples, delivered by Beam to me. I'll always tell you where they came from.) 


Bill said...

Good to have you and the blog back! Articles and reviews suggest Chapter 3 was released this past summer-- do you think there is any hope finding it in stores at this point?

Lew Bryson said...

The bourbon market is so competitive that I don't really have a good idea of what does and doesn't sell. Check online?

Bill said...

Wow! The high-end chain and the middle-range chains/co-ops near me don't have it... but a three-store chain near me has at least one of the versions at the old price point, so either Chapter 1 or 2 didn't sell there, or it's Chapter 3 and they didn't adjust for the new price. Guess I'll add a new stop on my list of errands this weekend! Thanks for the advice.