Saturday, November 14, 2009

Knob Creek Bourbon

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.

Bourbon Ingredients
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.

Nose (undiluted)
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.

Palate (undiluted)
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.

Finish (undiluted)
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?
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.

General Impressions
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.

Bottom Line
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.


  1. Nice post, Jason. I agree with you about the potential reaction of new bourbon drinkers, as I reacted the same way!

    Knob Creek was one of my first whisky purchases, not long after I bought a bottle of Maker's Mark. At the time, I really liked the sweet, easy to drink Maker's, but found the Knob Creek to be a bit much.

    Fast forward about a year and I much prefer Knob Creek now. A very nice whisky at a great price.


  2. Bourbon is like scotch in the sense that it is better to start with something gentle (blended scotch) before venturing into the more robust whiskies (ie. single malts and cask strength).

    Thanks for the pose Jeff!

  3. Jason, first I must say thank you for your thoughtful opinions expressed in this blog. I have found them to be quite accurate and insightful, and a pleasure to read.

    Knob Creek is certainly a fine bourbon which, due to its high proof, in my opinion, is better suited to drinking on the rocks or otherwise diluted, rather than neat as we both seem to prefer.

    When you get in the mood to sample another premium bourbon I would be interested in your opinion of Elijah Craig 12yo, which I personally liked quite a bit.

    I am not affiliated with them in any way, just someone who enjoys good whiskey like yourself.

    Happy Holidays!

    - Joel

  4. Thanks! Joel for the compliment on the blog.

    Yes, Knob Creek packs a lot of punch that welcomes ice or water, and is a must for someone who is new to whisky drinking.

    As for the Elijah Craig, I have heard many great things about it, but can't get it where I live. However, my brother, who lives far away, can probably bring a bottle over the holidays!

    Thanks for the post!

  5. I used to hate hard alcohol, mainly whiskey, until someone offered me a free shot of old grandad. OG is not the classiest, but I really enjoyed the taste. After reading several reviews I decided on the Knob Creek as my first bourbon purchase. What can I say - I was hooked, I loved the dark, sweet caramel and oak-y taste with a hint of vanilla, pure heaven on my palette

    so for a newbie, why not? It's not offensive in any way, it's sweet (which is good for beginners, especially americans) - it's not a bad price considering the quality you're getting. I really think it depends on the person and how adventurous they are about trying whiskey.

    I'm currently working on a bottle of Elijah Craig and even though it's grown on me, it misses the complexity and dark notes of the knob.

    As I move towards irish Whiskey and Scotch, I will always consider my first love to be Knob Creek, this is why I would recommend it to beginners.

  6. Thank you for commenting. Another great bourbon for people venturing into the hard stuff for the first time is Wild Turkey 101. It is unbelievably smoooth yet interesting. I am currently working on a tasting note for it. It is very affordable, nearly 50% cheaper than Knob Creek. Therefore, less complex but very satisfying.

    The other great bourbon I like to recommend to someone new to this spirit is Jim Beam Black.

    Have a great day and don't hesitate to post your thoughts (whether positive or negative) on anything you read on here.



  7. Cheers to all,It is a pleasure to read the varied comments on here.I started my bourbon experience years ago with Jim Beam and have graduated to Wild Turkey 101 as my favorite to date-but I know I will try the higher end bourbons one day but for now I'm very happy with 101.The initial taste is not as edgy as some of the other types and it finishes just as fine.I agree bourbon isn't a guzzler by any means-with a little ice it goe's a long way.
    As of late I added a twist to my drink by using cut & polished soapstone cubes that I have made-put in the freezer and then used in place of ice brings enough of a chill to the bourbon without washing out the finish.
    Thank you for your honest insight.
    Cheers & happy sipping

  8. Wow! Knob Creek is fantastic. Thank you for recommending it. I am enjoying some right now.

    Perhaps it is because I am a fairly newbie bourbon drinker (my only other bourbon experience is with Jim Beam white label, and thankfully, that bottle is almost gone for good), but I find that I have to let a dram of K.C. rest for about 15 minutes before I can really enjoy it neat to its fullest. At first pour, I get an overwhelming aroma similar to acetone which overpowers everything else.

    After it rests, the nose I get initially is blueberries soaked in rum. Then I let it rest even more. After the second rest, my nose and palate get almost a carbon copy of everything you describe. Wonderful!

    I mainly wanted to recommend to other "uninitiated" readers such as myself to give this one some time if at first you don't understand what all the fuss is about.

    Thanks Jason, for your insightful tasting notes.
    Tom in Texas

    1. Thank you for your comments Tom! Many of the readers of this blog are 'newbies.' I agree letting a bourbon set for a few minutes can be helpful.

      I am glad you didn't give up on the bourbon category based on your experience with Jim Beam white label. People should really avoid it as it is sweet, raw and all round disappointing other than as mix. However, Jim Beam Black (aged 8yrs) is amazing and very affordable. Give it a go sometime.


  9. Hi Jason,
    This is my dilemma. I have a budget of under $30. My options are: Elijah Craig 12 yr($23), JW Black ($25), Knob Creek 9yr ($27), Woodford Reserve ($28). I'm buying this for someone who likes JW Black, so if it's not JW Black, it has to be something equally gud or better! What'd be your pick?

    1. Johnnie Walker Black is smoky with caramel. None of the bourbons in your list are smoky. Bourbon and scotch are different beasts. Both great in their own right.

      If I were buying for someone who liked Johnnie Walker Black, instead of the bourbons you have listed, I would opt for a low priced blended scotch that delivers a great taste. I am thinking:

      (1) Te Bheag (may not be available in your area)

      (2) Black Bottle (cheap price but great)

      (3) White Horse

      (4) Jameson 12 (Irish whiskey, but good).

      If you still would rather buy a bourbon, Knob Creek is the best of your list.

      Good luck!


    2. Thanks a lot Jason

  10. Love Knob Creek. Love how you describe the charcoal, burnt wood flavors that bourbon offers. I also love the high corn Bourbon. I'm really put off by high rye bourbons. Rye is way too overpowering a flavor to invite into a corn whiskey.

    Old Grandad, Evan WIlliams, Beam Black are all pleasing Bourbons that are heavy on the corn.

    I'm even ok with Beam white as it's nothing special, but unoffensive, sweet and cheap.

    Of the next level Knob Creek and Four Roses Small Batch are excellent. I'm sure the entry level 4 Roses is also good, just never had it.

    one little note, is that for those concerned about GMO corn, WIld Turkey and 4 Roses are the only two distillers that I know of who do NOT use GMO corn.

  11. Thanks for a thoughtful review, Jason. I've got a bottle of Knob Creek on my birthday this week, and was slightly dissapointed - the first impression was that it cannot be seriously compared to Scotch single malts, which I'm mainly familiar with. However, I'll gladly take time to retaste it again and again, carefully following your commentaries and recommendations. A vague intuition tells me that a bourbon flavour profile is supposed to fit my personal taste more than many Speysiders.

    1. I would avoid comparing bourbon to scotch whisky. They are different flavor profiles entirely. Just a suggestion but when drinking bourbon to other bourbons. I think you will enjoy it more over time.

      Knob Creek is very powerful stuff. There are bourbons with more subtlety. Explore a bit. Thanks for commenting.

  12. Have to say I disagree about comparing bourbon and scotch- both are essentially luxury lifestyle accessories. Anyway, I love this stuff. Uncomplicated, powerful, slightly peppery, gently sweet. For 50%, this is smooth. When you compare it with the "premium" malts (that this student can afford!) at 46% and higher,it has much less capacity to suddenly anaesthetise one's mouth. Also,in summer particularly, it seems to be less effort than scotch to drink.Lazy? No. If I couldn't relax when enjoying a drink, I'd do something else. With half an ice cube, melted,it is simply beautiful- and great for sharing!

    1. Hi! I must agree that in the hot summer, complicated single malts just seem to be wasted on me as I am looking for simple pleasures offered up by bourbon and Scotch blends. Ice is nice in the summer!

      Thanks for commenting!

  13. Why describe KCSB as "ultra premium"? Knob's Creek was never 'ultra premium'. Mid range, middling complexity for a bourbon. There were and are plenty of premium or 'ultra' premium Bourbons of higher quality.