Saturday, November 14, 2009
Rodney Dangerfield & Bourbon
The late, great comedian, Rodney Dangerfield, and bourbon share at least one common characteristic: “No respect.”
A lot of my scotch drinking friends and the whisky media regularly scoff at the idea of bourbon being a spirit that can be used in the same sentence as scotch. “Why?” you ask. They claim bourbon lacks the ‘complexity’ of flavors that scotch can deliver. While I will concede bourbon is probably less complex than top end scotches, nevertheless, it can offer complexity that beats out many scotches and provides a most enjoyable drinking experience.
It all comes down to how much you want to spend. Famous Grouse or J&B blended scotches are hardly complex in terms of flavor profile. Similarly, Jim Beam White Label is not complex. However, if you move up the Jim Beam product line (premium bourbon aged 8 yrs), complexity emerges. Jim Beam Black has some complexity but not a lot. Move into the ultra premium bourbons like Knob Creek (owned by Beam Global Spirits) and you will discover impressive complexity.
Knob Creek bourbon is aged nine years in new charred American white oak barrels. Nine years is around the very high end of aging for bourbon. There are very few bourbons aged longer than nine years. When bourbon first goes into the barrel it is white, crystal clear. The longer it ages, the darker it becomes, taking its’ color from the wood of the barrel. Those barrels are subjected to fire in order to char the wood. This is done because sap or sugars of the wood become absorbed by the bourbon resulting in color change and that charcoal / caramelized sugar taste that is unique to bourbon. Hence, the longer it ages, the sweeter the bourbon.
Barley, corn (at least 51%) and rye grains make up bourbon plus pure water and a particular strain of jug yeast (the type of yeast is unique to each distiller and contributes to the signature taste). In the case of Knob Creek, a much higher percentage of corn is used than the minimum 51% requirement. No other additives are permitted. Also added to such a mash is a bit of mash (called the ‘setback’) from a previous distillation, which functions to ensure consistency of flavor and a signature flavor profile. These basic ingredients, by law, must originate in the United States.
All of the grains used in this bourbon come from within Kentucky. Specifically, within about 80 miles of the distillery.
Ultra premium bourbon like Knob Creek is about twice the price of its entry level brethren. However, even at its price, it is still cheaper than most, if not all, entry level (ie. Glenlivet/Glenfiddich 12yr) scotch. From that perspective, it’s a bargain, as entry level scotch does not have the complexity exhibited by Knob Creek.
You also have to appreciate that a standard bottling of bourbon only has to be aged for two years. Naturally, aging additional years drives up costs.
All 2009 Knob Creek has been sold by the distiller. Apparently, no further orders to the distillery can be filled. Next year’s Knob Creek bottling commenced in October.
The Jim Beam group that owns this brand ran advertising in the Wallstreet Journal and the Washington Post about this ‘shortage.’ Much was made of this shortage, but I would not read too much into it. Their definition of such scarcity is a little self-serving. Oban, Lagavulin and many other single malt scotches have a limited production run each year and typically sell out too within the same calendar year. These distillers do not describe the sold-out situation as a ‘shortage.’ I guess the Jim Beam people just have more creative advertising/marketing people.
Sniff deeply, tilt the glass, so the bourbon almost touches the bottom of your nose. Big yellow dandelion flower up front, followed by minty, honeyed, rye and orange scented marmalade aromas. Southern refinement and sophistication is what you are enjoying.
The secret to drinking bourbon (and enjoying it) is a tiny sip. Very tiny! Take a big swig of this and you will instantly regret it as you feel a nasty burn triggering thoughts of air sickness. By taking a little sip the burn is limited or eliminated and in its place are many warming flavors to savor like: sweet corn, crème brule, maple sugar, slightly burnt caramel (but in a most pleasing manner!), a little dark chocolate, big oak, expansive smoked hickory and of course classic Jim Beam charcoal and vanilla.
Sweet honey/caramelized sugar and vanilla play a tug of war with drying charcoal/oak that eventually wins, as it evaporates across the palate with impressive spiciness.
Add ice and you have a great party drink! I had a little Christmas party and was pouring this with ice and it was the surpsise hit of the night. Most of the guys were skeptical, but I urged them to try it and within a couple of sips I was hearing "That's good . . ." I must admit that drinking it neat is more for the serious bourbon fan, but with ice, it becomes enjoyable by anyone who likes a little hard stuff on the rocks.
A total pleasure! Big bodied with larger than life flavors of smoked hickory, vanilla, oak, charcoal and maple sugar just impress the heck out of me. This is refined, sophisticated, and balanced. Every element of the flavor profile fits. I wouldn’t change a thing, even if I could.
That being said, I think if you are new to bourbon, this would not be suitable as your first ‘toe in the pond.’ Why? For the novice, if they make the error of taking to big a sip of this spirit, they will likely find it revolting and forever after never try bourbon again. That would be a terrible mistake! I want you to discover the secrets and wonderment of bourbon. So, if you are novice, start with Jim Beam White label or Wild Turkey, add a little ice and take a sip. Once you become accustomed to the standard bottling, it will be time to move on to Black label and other premium bourbons before finally arriving at Knob Creek, Wild Turkey 101, Woodford Reserve and others. A process that would take several months in my opinion if not a year.
Woodford Reserve is direct competition for Knob Creek. I tasted them both side by side and preferred the Knob Creek by a wide margin.
A fantastic, big bodied bourbon, serving up maple sugar, vanilla and charred oak flavors with sophistication and charm that the American south is known for! This is the reason Knob Creek is the No.1 selling ultra premium bourbon in the world.
© Jason Debly, 2009-2011. All rights reserved.