A local whiskey community is something special, something to be treasured and encouraged. The symbiosis between small merchants and loyal customers can produce extraordinary things. Today, I’d like to introduce you to just such a scene in my little neighborhood, and a bottle of delicious Knob Creek whiskey that emerged therefrom.
First: a few words about Knob Creek, which until now has eluded the critical eyes of the MALT team. It is owned by Beam Suntory, having been introduced in 1992 as a pet project of legendary Jim Beam distiller Booker Noe. A member of Beam’s small-batch Bourbon quadrumvirate including Baker’s, Basil Hayden’s, and Booker’s, Knob Creek is known for its comparatively high bottling strength, typically 100 proof (50% ABV).
Knob Creek was historically labelled as 9 years old. A harbinger of industry challenges to come arrived in 2009, when demand exceeded aged stocks. Heeding Rahm Emmanuel’s advice not to let a serious crisis go to waste, the Beam company quickly realized it had a marketing coup on its hands. “The drought of 2009” was proclaimed in full-page newspaper ads, with empty bottles being sent out to journalists. This went on for about five months, generating a lot of free publicity and outsized interest in the brand, until the company was able to resume bottling at the stated age.
However, all was not well in Kentucky, any more than it was in Kyoto. Just as its Japanese cousins in the Beam Suntory portfolio started dropping age statements and discontinuing expressions, Knob Creek dispensed with the 9 year age statement in 2016. Fortunately, we know exactly how old today’s whiskey is, as it is a single barrel store pick selected by the friendly proprietor of Buena Park’s own GNS Market.
Oh, you’ve never heard of GNS Market? Let me describe it to you:
Imagine entering an upscale whisky boutique. There’s ambient lighting and slick lacquered wood all around. You are met with cool glances from a tall, slim salesman with a tailored suit and a sharp haircut. Next to him is a trim, coiffed blonde saleswoman in a designer dress. When they do deign to talk to you, you notice that he’s got a posh Scottish accent, while she speaks like she’s from the home counties. You peruse the vitrines full of attentively-curated and artfully-presented whiskies without price tags. You don’t ask, because you can’t afford them.
Now, imagine the exact opposite of that hypothetical boutique. That’s GNS Market, a local convenience store that just happens to be run by a whiskey fanatic. Though the posters on the windows advertise $13.99 cases of Busch Light, the aisles are stocked with a relatively diverse and interesting selection of Scotch, American, and other whisk(e)y. George, the owner, invites other Bourbon lovers into his shop every Thursday to swap drams and shoot the breeze.
The bottle in question is a selection co-credited to GNS Market, George’s pizzeria across the street, and his deli down the block. There’s a sticker on the bottle attesting to the same, though I doubt this will catch the attention of the store-pick cognoscenti among us. Or maybe it will? “I don’t even know what’s good anymore,” quoth David Bowie as Andy Warhol.
This is single barrel #5701b, from Warehouse E, Floor 4, Rack 17(2). It entered the barrel on 3/5/2008 and was bottled 9 years later on 10/30/2017, at 60%. It has not one but TWO stickers, for the folks that care about that type of thing. I paid $45 for a bottle.
Knob Creek GNS Store Pick – Review
Color: Rosy chestnut.
On the nose: Jumps out of the bottle with an estery nose jammed full of pine needles, walnut wood, unsalted cashews, a creamy vanilla note, and the earthy aromas of dried tobacco and cigarette ash. Like wandering through a Christmas tree farm while eating a bag full of nuts and smoking a Parliament Light.
In the mouth: Starts sprightly. Plenty of pine tree nuance, but also a bright burst of lemon juice that evolves organically into a round, densely woody and fruity monolith that overwhelms the palate with an all-over completeness. This persists through a woodily astringent finish that is suddenly revived with the most potently concentrated rosewater flavor, coating the back of the tongue and re-asserting itself in rhythmic waves of flowery piquancy.
This is hardcore Bourbon. It has a ferocious intensity that grabs you from the moment you pull the cork and won’t let go through a potent, never-ending finish. It’s not for everybody, but I adore it. So much flavor (and double sticker-ness) for under $50! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to buy another bottle from George.
I love your enthusiasm for this and some excellent tasting notes too. Just like the Four Roses I’ll never get to try the store pick. I do, however, have a little supply of the Single Barrel Reserve at 60%. It’s not easy to purchase in the U.K but well worth trying. I recently bought three bottles (2 for me, one for my brother) for £35. That is amazing value for such an excellent bourbon. Very drinkable even at full strength. Cheers Taylor. WT
WT: Thanks again for the kind comments. Indeed, I liked this one; though I hope that my enthusiasm for the merchant and my enjoyment of the goods can be credibly separated. While I know that the majority of the MALT readership (being UK-based) may find articles like this a bit of a tease, I am hoping to open some eyes to the fine bottles at large… and perhaps even catalyze a holiday or two to Chicago? Either way, your ongoing support is appreciated in the utmost.
This is a great bourbon. Knob Creek has been smart in the way theyve handled the marketing of these casks. They send 3 cask samples to interested bars, stores, etc from which selections are made. The eatablishment then purchases thr wntire cask theyve chosen (from among the 3) and gets to out their label on it. Retail proce is arounf $57. Not bad at all. Ive sampled several of these proprietary bottles. All good. I dont see any flaws here in the model. Why cant other distillers do this? It’s brash in a very American way. In the very best American way
Jessica, thanks for stopping by. Love the enthusiasm for this format. To address a few of your points: regarding the flaws in the model, you should read Alexandra’s store pick piece. The risk is that you get left with a cask that has been passed over several times. I’m glad to hear you haven’t run into this issue yet, from the sounds of it.
In terms of this being a brash American innovation: I’ll respectfully disagree. I think the model owes a lot to the long-establish Independent Bottlers from Scotland. In our case, there seems to be tighter control from the distilleries, and less of a range of choices, as you note. That said, I think both approaches have their benefits, and am happy these bottles are available for us to try. Thanks again!
Youre right about the long history of independent bottlers of course. The part that I think is so American is precisely what you point out: the way the distillers have given the illusion of choise where there really isnt much. There’s a bit of the snake-oil selling going on here. Not surprising of course: distillers and pharmacists share a long, storied history…
It seems your reviews increase dramatically if you have some sort of contact with the distiller or owner of a business. Can you explain this?
8/10 for peerless, a 4yr bourbon and a store pick KC? Really? How have you rated all of the 15 yr KC store picks floating around this area, a 13 out of 10?
Please stop doing reviews. You’re biased and fairly transparent.
Mark, a brief perusal of other reviews this site would argue otherwise. I rated the Knappogue Castle store pick (from this same store) a 4/10. Cedar Ridge sent me four whiskies which I rated 3, 5, 5, and 6. Single Cask Nation sent me a 30-year-old Bowmore (with a $400 retail price) that I scored a 5. Hardly the type of marks that I’d be giving out if I were trying to curry favor or fish for freebies, are they? Not to mention the fact that I’ve spent way more on bottles to review for this site than I have received in free whiskey, either from distilleries or friends, which is always disclosed.
Setting that aside: all we’ve got on MALT is our integrity. It’s why people read us every day, and I’m sure Jason and Mark protect it hawkishly. Your comments have come to their attention and they’re free to step in if they have any concerns about bias on my part.