Mash bill. Barrel char level. Which rickhouse floor. There are many variables that contribute to what makes each bourbon brand unique. But, even within a particular brand, a slight variation to any particular variable also yields notable differing characteristics. What if you could isolate a few variables within a particular brand to compare the results?
Scott Hill and I were fortunate enough to engage in this exercise. Thanks to R&J Discount Liquor‘s willingness to share, we were able to test three samples of Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve. The store received the samples to select which barrel they will used for their own store pick Knob Creek Single Barrel selection.
For those who enjoy single barrel bourbon, a store pick adds another level of intrigue. The process goes like this – a producer, such as Knob Creek, pulls several barrels aside for retailers to sample and select their own particular barrel. The retailer’s input varies and samples may or may not be provided. Once the barrel is selected, all the bottles produced are sold to that particular retailer. Sometimes, the barrel itself is provided, too. The particular bottles bear the producer’s regular label, but also contain some insignia bearing the retailer’s name. If there are characteristics unique to these bottles that differ from the standard label, this information is typically included on the insignia.
In the case of Knob Creek, the samples were provided at barrel proof. However, once the barrel is selected, the bottles are diluted down to the standard 120-proof.
It is often the case that a store pick is an enhanced version of the typical bottle. If you like the standard bottle, you will hopefully like the store pick even more.
But how much variation can there really be between the samples the store receives? We decided to find out.
The standard Knob Creek Single Barrel is a 9-year, 120 proof straight bourbon. It is one of Jim Beam’s low-rye, small batch bourbon brands.
For the samples, Knob Creek provided three – Barrel A, Barrel B, and Barrel C – and provided the corresponding information for each barrel. The vital stats are as follows:
Barrel A – Barrel filled and entered the warehouse on October 15, 2004. It was stored on the 4th floor of a 9-floor warehouse. The sample is 133.7 proof.
Barrel B – Barrel filled and entered the warehouse on June 8, 2007. It was stored on the 5th floor of a 9-floor warehouse. The sample is 128.6 proof.
Barrel C – Barrel filled and entered the warehouse on June 13, 2007. It was stored on the 5th floor of a 7-floor warehouse. The sample is 127.3 proof.
For the sake of context, we also sampled the standard Knob Creek Small Batch (9-year, 100-proof) and Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve store pick from JJ’s Wine, Spirits & Cigars in Sioux Falls, SD (12 years, 120-proof). We decided to order the tasting by age. Here are our notes:
Knob Creek Small Batch
Nose: light caramel and oak, floral after some time.
Palate: peanut (“Beam funk”), oak, then sweetness on the back end.
Finish: more peanut Beam funk, oak, and caramel.
There is nothing to complain about here, unless you dislike the peanut Beam funk that underlies nearly all Jim Beam products to some degree. The finish is short, but the palate is pleasant. A good mixing bourbon for sure, but also holds up on its own.
Sample C (9 years, 127.3 proof)
Nose: so much heat, Beam funk, subtle oak.
Palate: intense heat, Beam funk, caramel after diluted with some water.
Finish: medium length, hot, and nutty.
We could hardly stand the heat on this. After we initially nosed it, we set it aside and tried to let it breathe as long as we could. The heat overwhelmed every aspect of this bourbon. While no one would maintain that 127.3 proof is low, the burn was far higher than what we expected.
Sample B (9 years, 128.6 proof)
Nose: vanilla, sweet cream, subtle oak.
Palate: rich, warm, Beam funk, caramel, brown sugar.
Finish: very long, Beam funk, lingering bitter dark chocolate.
What a contrast between these first two samples! Even at a higher proof, Sample B was far more inviting than Sample C. The contrast exemplified Sample C’s harshness. The rich flavors present here made for a pleasant drink. This was a good one.
Sample A (12 years, 133.7 proof)
Nose: little heat, oak/age, dark chocolate, subdued.
Palate: pepper, caramel, Beam funk, brown sugar.
Finish: long, Beam funk, warm, dry oak.
The extra time in the barrel showed with this sample. The additional age and oak were immediately present. And again, though a higher proof, it was far more tame and inviting than Sample C. More flavors were present in this sample than the others. However, the finish was actually not quite as long as Sample B.
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve – JJ’s store pick (12 years, 120 proof)
Nose: Beam funk, oak, fig.
Palate: Brown sugar, Beam funk, oak, dark chocolate.
Finish: A long, smooth, and straightforward transition from the palate.
This is what we can likely expect that Sample A would taste like after being diluted down to 120-proof. The sweeter notes were more easily apparent in this one as compared to the samples. Anyone who likes Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve would certainly enjoy this even more.
The contrast between the three samples was more stark than the tasting notes may depict. We anticipated differences between the three, but were surprised at how distinctly different each was from the other, and particularly between the two 9-year samples.
We should be seeing the bottles from the selected barrel hit the shelves this Spring. When we do, we will provide another post regarding the particular selection. Thanks again to R&J for the experience!