If you have never had an opportunity to select a “single barrel” whiskey, you are missing out.
Now, I’m not being superior or snobbish, I sincerely mean that it is an incredible experience that allows you as a consumer to truly influence the quality of whiskey brought to market. I’ve personally been involved with picking a half-dozen or so barrels, and we have written about some of those experiences as it relates to the Knob Creek Bourbon, Knob Creek Rye and Buffalo Trace.
But as with all attempts to influence comes risk. How well will this given selection proof down to its bottle strength? Will the barrel we pick be well received? How will it compare to other selection in our market? Will it sell?
Recently I met up with Brian Davis of the Davis Liquor family of stores here in Wichita, Kansas. Brian had recently received his shipment of Knob Creek Single Barrel that he and a group of friends picked some months ago. I was there to purchase one of his Knob Creek Single Barrel for (first) my own enjoyment, as each of these Knob Creek Single Barrels are unique, delicious and a great value, and (second) to help Flight Club document the various “store picks” available in Wichita.
Brian took pride in his pick, and justifiably so, as I will foreshadow that I am very much enjoying my bottle and would recommend picking one up. But Brian did something unexpected – he offered that I sample what was left of his tasting kit and let him know how well he did.
These barrel selection processes are stressful. As I’ve mentioned I’ve been involved with the selection side. I’ve picked barrels, allowed several months’ time to elapse, and then sampled the final product. I’ve utilized only notes and faint memory to determine whether we who picked the barrel succeeded.
But Brian’s offering let me try this from the reverse. What would happen if I took a final product, and matched it up blind to three barrel strength samples? How would my palate do in identifying the source of this bottle? And how might the final product compare to the samples?
First, my tasting notes from the final product, then my notes of each sample in order.
Knob Creek Single Barrel Davis Barrel 1 Pick (9Year) (120 Proof)
Nose: Polished oak; leather; toffee; dark chocolate; apple cider; mixed berries; vanilla; rich baking spice; dry peanut. Very light burn given 120 proof.
Palate: Creamy and briny. Brown sugar; leather; toffee; dry oak; vanilla; apple skins; ripe plum; baking spice.
Finish: Honey roasted peanut; salt; plum; brown sugar; drying dark chocolate leaving apple and plum skins with some dry leather.
Nose: Peanut butter; almond extract; pencil shavings; slightly briny; brown sugar; cherry drink; fresh pastries. This doesn’t seem to have the berry flavors or the toffee of the selection. It is not as sweet. Overall, this one doesn’t come across as complex.
Palate: Creamy caramel; spice; leather; sweet chocolate; chewy fruit. This is pretty sharp, almost coming across as salty. Punchy alcohol burn.
Finish: Honey; brown sugar; light apple; lingering pencil shavings. A slightly drying texture, again almost like pencil shavings or even chewing on a #2 pencil.
Overall: I suspect this isn’t the selected barrel. The nose is pleasing, albeit somewhat muted. The remaining experience is a bit overpowered by the pencil shavings. I’d doubt the dilution would have considerably changed that quality.
Nose: Leather and toffee; chocolate covered cherry; faint blackberry; salted peanuts; vanilla; brown sugar. There are some familiar smells here compared to the selected barrel, but the selected barrel is more fruited and a bit sweeter. If this is the source, I’d say the dilution possible opened this up a bit.
Palate: Brown sugar; baking spice; RICH toffee; fruit leather; dry oak; vanilla.
Finish: Peanut brittle; baking spice; some lingering plum or grape; vanilla syrup; some chocolate covered fruit.
Overall: While I haven’t tried Sample C yet, I’m suspecting this is the source barrel. If so, the bottled version is a bit more briny on the palate, which is something I enjoy, and much richer in flavor. My sample here is small, but I’d say the dilution also upped the spiciness and the heat, which I wouldn’t have quite expected. That might be the only drawback I’m seeing to the dilution.
Nose: A bit funky, like an old port wine; raw leather; dusty; apricot/peach; vanilla bean; brown sugar/caramel. This doesn’t seem to have much in common with the selected barrel, or with the Knob Creek profile generally. Its very good, but very different.
Palate: Bright and numbing alcohol; almond and peanut; caramel and chewy chocolate. There is some fruit here (apple and maybe some apricot), but the alcohol overwhelms. Baking spice. I’m not pegging this for the source barrel, but if it is, this proofs down amazingly well.
Finish: Hot. Just hot. Some lingering ginger and baking spice; honey roasted peanuts. A bit of cardboard.
Overall: I don’t think this is it. If it is, it is really fooling me. The nose isn’t a typical Knob Creek nose, but I love it. But the experience goes down hill from there. If this is the source barrel, then the proof down killed the nose, but greatly improved the palate.
Result: Sample B was the sample selected.
Well, I did correctly pick this one. And I’d say Davis did too.
All the samples came from Warehouse E. Sample A I learned was only 121.4 proof, less than 1% difference in alcohol than the bottled product. Again, it was best defined by that pencil shaving flavor and texture. It was the older of the bunch, but only by a week over Sample B and by almost 2 months over Sample C. Sample C was 136.6 proof. It sat much higher in the warehouse than A and B (floor 6 versus 3).
So how did Sample B change from barrel to bottle? Well, it was diluted from 123.1 proof to 120. It would have remained in the barrel a bit longer from sample to barreling. But all of those differences would seem to make very little change to the final product. But there are differences. I won’t fully repeat the notes from above, but the added water did help open the nose and added some nice brininess. It also added a bit of spice and diluted down some (not all) of the rich toffee. I’m not offended by these changes. Overall, it probably increased the enjoyability of the final product.
Scott is a co-founder of Flight Club and a frequent writer and reviewer on the Club’s blog.