When it comes to the Jim Beam Small Batch Collection, Baker’s has always been the odd brand out, and both the company and whiskey fans know this all too well. In comparison with the likes of Booker’s, Knob Creek and Basil Hayden’s, Baker’s has just never had the name recognition, and it has always found itself sitting in a “halfway” position between other, more established brands, leading to many whiskey geeks wondering why it existed at all.
Consider the products that surrounded Baker’s in the Beam lineup. On the lower MSRP side, there’s the reliable Knob Creek, which recently regained its 9-year age statement, and is a better whiskey for it. It retails for around $35, and weighs in at 100 proof. On the other end of the spectrum, you have Booker’s Bourbon at cask strength, coming in at an MSRP around $80. How much room does that really leave for Baker’s, which was a small-batch bourbon with a 7 year age statement, and a 107 proof, and a price tag around $50? Is a younger, slightly stronger bourbon worth the hike from the Knob Creek price? And if you’re making the jump, why not keep going all the way to Booker’s? Or, for that matter, the single barrel version of Knob Creek, which was often 10 years or older, and 120 proof, for around $60?
The message was clear: Baker’s needed an additional way to define itself. It needed something to help it stand out, and Beam responded with a revamp of the brand in late 2019, transforming the small batch Baker’s into a new single barrel expression. I somehow missed this happening at the time, and am only getting around to it now, but it’s a move that makes a lot of sense to me. It gives the consumer a particular choice around the $60 price tag level: You can explore extra aging via something like the new Knob Creek 12 Year Old, or you can explore additional strength/single barrel variation with the new 7-year Baker’s Single Barrel. The point is, each brand should have enough individuality to now justify itself. Of note: There will also be occasional, limited releases of a 13-year-old Baker’s Single Barrel, but these will no doubt be harder to come by. That brand has a $100 MSRP.
Things to note about the new Baker’s 7-year single barrel flagship, meanwhile:
— The small-batch bottling has been phased out, but Baker’s will remain at least 7 years old, and will still be bottled at 107 proof.
— There will be significant variation from bottle to bottle, and the neck label of each bottle includes the date barreled, serial number, warehouse and exact age. My bottle is from warehouse CL-Z, and is actually 8 years, 3 months old. That’s a not-insignificant uptick from the minimum of 7, so you’ll want to check the neck tags when you see these in stores.
— Baker’s has a new, straight-walled circular bottle shape, with an attractive faux metal stopper, which whiskey geeks will note looks pretty much exactly like the bottle Beam used for its Legent bourbon. One wonders if they had warehouses left over of these bottles and decided they might as well keep using them, but they look nice regardless.
With all that said, let’s get to tasting.
On the nose, this immediately smells like classic Beam, mid-aged bourbon: Sweet peanut butter and roasted peanut shells, along with caramel corn, slight char and whiffs of cinnamon stick, fennel or anise. There’s some brown sugar, and moderate hints of musty oak, but less of the maple/red fruit that I often get in Knob Creek single barrel picks in the 120 proof range.
On the palate, the heat here is a little prickly, but not too much overall. You can’t accuse it of being lacking in flavor, although it favors the roasted nuttiness that younger Beam bourbons often have, even at more than 8 years of age. The thing that stands out here most for me is the big spice notes—this is more baking spice-heavy than most Beam bourbons are for me, with pleasant notes of ginger candy, allspice and prominent rye spice as well, followed by caramel and vanilla. There’s a green peppercorn note that is a little exotic, and a fair amount of oakiness that also seems a bit green in flavor.
In comparison with say, the Knob Creek 12 Year Old, this version of Baker’s understandably doesn’t have the depth of oak, tannin or spice that is present there. Rather, it’s a bit sweeter and more boisterous, falling back on those classic bourbon notes of caramel corn and vanilla. Certainly, you have to think it would be very much at home in a characterful, boozy Old Fashioned cocktail.
As for how much this bourbon will vary from barrel to barrel, it will be interesting to find out. I’d be curious to see what a more fruit-forward barrel of this particular bourbon might taste like, but I believe the single barrel framework will be a good thing for the Baker’s brand. It’s a brand that needed a central tenet to build itself around, and now it finally has one.
Distillery: Jim Beam (Beam Suntory)
City: Clermont, KY
Style: Single barrel bourbon
ABV: 53.5% ABV (107 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $60 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.