Back when I knew very little about whisk(e)y, Knob Creek Bourbon held a special place in my heart. Even then, I liked whisky quite a bit, but mostly for all the wrong reasons. I enjoyed whisky’s ability to intoxicate (in moderation, of course) and I embraced whisky’s literary endorsements as some kind hall pass when my enjoyment of whisky’s ability to intoxicate surpassed the aforementioned moderation. If Faulkner, Hemingway, Twain, and the immortal Hunter S. Thompson spoke highly of whisky, well, then, wouldn’t reeking highly of whisky seem somewhat sophisticated? The flaw in my logic (granted, there were many flaws, but for the sake of this post, bear with me) was that I was mostly drinking cheap whisky. Grant’s and Old Crow were staples, along with the intermittent bottles of Heaven Hill which I bought solely because of the Hüsker Dü song, “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill”. I did, however, know that occasionally a special occasion demanded stepping up and buying a better bottle of booze. A visit from an old friend, celebrating the end of a school year, a birthday, every once in a while, I splurged, and in the early to mid 90’s, more often than not, that splurge was on Knob Creek. In 1992, Knob Creek made its debut alongside Booker’s, Baker’s, and Basil Hayden’s, the four making up Jim Beam’s “Small Batch” line. At the time, the bottle shape, graphic label, and black wax top made for, at least to my eyes, a formidably unique looking product, the high proof adding to the allure as well. I remember appreciating the higher quality, but I also remember thinking it was a rather strong ride on its own and usually poured it over several ice cubes.
Beam’s introduction of its Small Batch Collection was an important event in the life of bourbon. After stumbling through the 60’s, 70’s, and most of the 80’s, bourbon began showing faint signs of life in the wider market at the start of the new decade. Maker’s Mark’s initially risky luxury positioning of a booze style few thought luxurious seemed to have staying power, and stalwart brands like Wild Turkey began releasing barrel proof and single barrel bottlings. Beam entered the fray with arguably the first “line” of widely available, top-shelf bourbons and all four brands are today, still very popular whiskies. Sure, you’ll hear serious bourbon geeks roll their eyes about these four, but let’s be honest, one thing whisky geeks are really good at is rolling their eyes and forgetting that the vast majority of whisky drinkers don’t care what they think. Ask a normal, respectable bourbon drinker for a short list of their favorites and chances are one of the Small Batch Collections bottles makes the cut.
According to Beam’s Small Batch website, the idea was to make bourbons that harkened back to the pre-prohibition traditions of bourbon-making. I suppose back when the line was launched, that was a clever (and brief) way of saying, “we’ve spent the last couple of decades dumbing down our product, trying to snare drinkers who don’t want to drink bourbon no matter what we do to it, and it hasn’t worked out, so now, screw that crap, we’re going back to making good bourbon.” Today, all that prohibition marketing stuff fits in nicely with bourbon’s surge of popularity and the accompanying popularity of all that nostalgic prohibition stuff. Speaking of marketing speak…Knob Creek – the bourbon was named after Knob Creek – the creek which is a small stream in LaRue County, Kentucky. Abraham Lincoln lived on a farm along this creek from the age of two until he was seven (thank goodness Abe moved around a lot in his life, quite a boon for several state’s tourist boards.) In creating the brand, Beam and its master distiller at the time, the mighty Booker Noe, chose the Knob Creek name as way for the bourbon to honor and represent the values and character of ol’ Abe. That’s an admirable sentiment, but it does seem a bit of a stretch to pick a cool-sounding name of a creek that Abe Lincoln reportedly nearly drowned in once and somehow tie the ethical character of one of the most complex figures in American history to a bourbon, but what do I know, I’m no marketer.
I do know that Knob Creek is a 100 proof, nine year old, Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey . It’s described on the label as being a “small batch” whiskey, but seeing as it is a fairly ubiquitous bottle these days, either the small batch size is rather large or there are A LOT of small batches being made. The mashbill for Knob Creek is the more or less standard Jim Beam recipe of 76% corn, 13% rye, and 10% malted barley. It’s been a while since I’ve had a bottle of this one, aside from the crumbly, hard wax cap, I have to say I very much enjoyed having it on my shelf again.
The Nose: Breakfast bourbon…maple syrup, orange slices, a little red fruit jam on slightly over-toasted toast. After the initial sweetness, there are touches of burnt sugar and earthy vanilla bean. Pretty oaky with both the fresh-cut and polished variety, along with lots of cinnamon, some soft clove, and a little dried star anise. A bit of burnt popcorn and barrel char are found in the background. A bit of water calms the oak and bitterness and, surprisingly, brings out nice spiced apple cider notes.
The Palate: Initially, there’s more of that maple syrup and orange tinged sweetness from the nose, but that’s quickly subsumed by a big, slightly bitter wave of woody spice. There’s lots of tannic oak here in the form of both cut wood and barrel char. Quite a bit of vanilla, cinnamon stick, drying clove, bitter star anise, unsweetened chocolate, and more burnt popcorn towards the end. Water works quite well here, simply smoothing things out and toning down that bitter, oaky spice.
The Finish: Long, and quite tannic, slightly astringent, and drying. A bit of caramel sweetness hovers, but mostly it’s oak, unsweetened chocolate, clove, and char through to the last.
Thoughts: Still a very decent bourbon despite its mildly challenging flavor profile. This is definitely a oaky bourbon, and often teeters on the edge of being a little too oaky, but I feel like that’s been Knob Creek’s modus operandi since day one. There’s a consistency throughout a glass as well, with the wood and bitter spice playing a large role from the nose through to the finish. It’s sip-able and enjoyable at strength, but I think it really shines with a bit of water which helps quiet some of those over-eager, sharper-edged notes. At around the usual retail price ($30-$35 …even $40/a bottle), I think there are similar to better bourbons out there for the money, but for a higher proof whiskey with a somewhat unique profile, Knob Creek is still a decent buy. I last picked up a bottle for $21, which is a terrific value. Recommended.
Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Bourbon, +/-2013