The Little Book series at Jim Beam remains one of the most interesting corners of the whiskey giant’s portfolio, named to evoke the cask-strength releases of Booker’s, but with a far more experimental and free-wheeling twist. This series is designed by eighth-generation Beam distiller Freddie Noe, the son of current master distiller Fred Noe, and the various releases to date have displayed a tantalizing combination of heritage and experimentation. Some Little Book releases, such as Chapter 4: Lessons Honored released last fall, function like a deep dive through Beam family/company history, with Freddie Noe showing off the various pieces of knowledge he’s picked up along the way. Other chapters, meanwhile, are considerably more experimental, and include mash bills and grain varieties not seen anywhere else in the Beam product portfolio.
The new 2021 release, Chapter 5, is subtitled “The Invitation” and falls somewhere in the middle of the novelty matrix. The name simply implies that the bottle functions as a literal invitation to bourbon drinkers “to expand their palates” by exploring this blend of four whiskeys, which includes bourbon both young and old, along with some more unusual rye whiskey. Most of the liquid in the bottle has special significance to Freddie Noe, being projects that he personally had a hand in developing over the years.
The four components of Little Book Chapter 5: The Invitation are as follows:
— 2-year-old Kentucky straight bourbon: One of the stand-out aspects of Little Book Chapter 5 is the fact that it contains some very young Beam bourbon, but that bourbon is still quite unusual. What makes this bourbon odd is the fact that it was distilled to a much lower initial proof than the federal maximum of 125, which is where most bourbon from the likes of Beam or Heaven Hill is initially distilled. Instead, portions of this 2-year-old whiskey were distilled to only 105 and 115 proof, which results in a significantly more flavorful (but less efficient) spirit. In fact, this whiskey represents the lowest proof point that Beam has ever purposefully distilled and aged in oak, and it is said to be very “viscous” and concentrated in its flavors. Such a bourbon is unlikely to ever be produced in higher quantities, given that distilling to 125 proof is much more profitable in that it ultimately produces significantly more barrels of whiskey once dilution is taken into account, but this experiment is clearly intended to fool around with producing small quantities of a more flavorful spirit. After aging in oak, the strength of this portion ended up at 123.6 proof.
— 3-year-old 100% malted rye whiskey: The most unique whiskey in this batch of Little Book is this 100% malted rye whiskey, which is a very unusual thing for Beam on multiple levels. First of all, traditional rye whiskeys and bourbon uses exclusively unmalted rye, which contributes the drier, spicier profile we all know and love. Secondly, most Beam rye whiskeys are made in the traditional Kentucky fashion, as “barely legal” ryes that contain 51% rye and quite a bit of corn. This rye whiskey, on the other hand, is entirely rye driven, and that rye has also been malted, which typically yields a sweeter, toastier, bready/”doughy” or yeasty flavor, in my experience, rather than the traditional rye spice. This whiskey ended up at 112 proof after its time in the oak.
— 5-year-old Kentucky straight bourbon: This appears to be the most conventional of the whiskeys involved in Little Book Chapter 5. It’s Beam’s standard bourbon mash bill, and was produced by Freddie Noe a few months after first joining the distillery team. It ended up at 114.6 proof after aging.
— 15-year-old Kentucky straight bourbon: And finally, there needed to be some well-aged bourbon in the mix to give this blend some structure, so Freddie Noe pulled some of these 15-year-old barrels. Unsurprisingly, this stuff brings more wood influence and an oaky, tannic potency to balance out some of the younger whiskeys in the blend. It ended up at 117.2 proof after its long 15 years of aging.
Those four whiskeys are all joined together to make Little Book Chapter 5: The Invitation, with a final strength of 116.8 proof (58.4% ABV). Its MSRP is a somewhat steep $125, but Beam can at least point at the novelty of the product by way of rationale. Still, that price point may make it inaccessible to some Beam fans who are happy to stick with the likes of Knob Creek Single Barrel for a mere $50.
With all that said, let’s get to tasting.
On the nose, there’s plenty of immediate caramel corn to be found here, and a gentle (classic) Beam nuttiness—peanut shells and roasted pecans. You get traces of older, mustier oak, but also some fresher graininess, along with orange citrus, brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. It’s a very pleasant nose, with ethanol character that is quite nicely subdued for the proof point, and the ultimate impression is that it smells almost exactly as you’d probably expect it to smell while reading about the combination of young and old Beam mashbills. That’s by no means a bad thing. It’s not the most bombastic nose, but it is very composed.
On the palate, the first things of note are significant caramel and fresh vanilla bean, which segue into more deeply caramelized sugars and considerable old oak. There’s much more of a spice presence here as well, and it’s quite a bit hotter on the palate than on the nose. Cinnamon rushes to attack with notes of red hot candies, into orange peel and darker plum fruitiness. A whole lot more rye spice is present here than I was getting on the nose, and it lingers with a prickling sensation on the tongue, like Sichuan peppercorns. This is interesting to me—the mash bill has that malted rye whiskey, but I’m not getting much of the breadier, doughier rye character I usually associate with malted rye as a grain. Instead, this is bringing more of the pure rye spice, which works well here.
All in all, there are definitely some unique aspects to the production of this blend of whiskeys, but the actual result still feels fairly familiar. The results don’t stray too far, when all is said and done, from Beam’s flavor wheelhouse—certainly, you wouldn’t taste it and say something like “I can’t believe that’s Beam.” Some drinkers will perhaps wish that the novelty factor had been turned up even more in the final flavor profile, but the results still speak for themselves in terms of their objective quality. If you’re not turned off by the price point, this is an intriguing bottle to pick up.
Distillery: Jim Beam
City: Clermont, KY
Style: Blend of straight bourbon/straight rye
ABV: 58.4% (116.8 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $125 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.