What’s the strongest force in the universe?
Gravity, entropy, nuclear fusion, love? For me, it seems as though it’s a recommendation. I’ve noted before how much I value the unsolicited tips from readers pointing me in the direction of whiskeys that interest or intrigue them. I can’t seem to help myself from running right out to snatch up a bottle of this or that, so long as I’ve got the strong urging of a correspondent.
I was therefore thrilled when MALT’s friend and mine David Jennings, a.k.a. Rare Bird 101, dropped me a line to let me know he was enjoying the recently-released Knob Creek Quarter Oak. Saying that David is a guy who has tasted a lot of whiskey is like saying Steph Curry is a guy who sinks a lot of threes. Thus, when he speaks up in favor of a whiskey, I tend to listen.
MALT’s first look at Knob Creek was my review of the GNS Store Pick, which set Jason and Mark tittering. Yeah, I get it; knob means something else on that side of the pond. If they’re prepared to act their ages rather than their shoe sizes, we’ll take another trip down the creek with a review of this new limited edition.
Since my first review, Knob Creek has undergone a bit of a facelift, with redesigned labels that eschew the Dadaist word salad collage style of the old-look bottles. They’re also leaning more heavily on the “P-word,” with official materials talking about “Pre-Prohibition” style whiskey. “What, pray tell, might Pre-Prohibition style whiskey be,” you ask?
There’s a blurb on the site asserting that the rush to move whiskey following the repeal of the 18th Amendment resulted in shorter maturation times and a sacrificing of flavor. Knob Creek, by contrast (says them) is aged in maximum-char barrels and then bottled at 100 proof. Setting Prohibition aside (please, for the love of God, set Prohibition aside) that’s fair enough. Though they have dropped the age statement, the standard Knob Creek bourbon represents a reliable go-to, widely available at a reasonable price.
So, what sets this new expression apart from the everyday Knob Creek? On the bottle, this states “a portion of our bourbon is rested in quarter cask barrels and married with Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.” You’ll note the weaselly words “portion” and “rested” in there. The press release is more detailed, specifying that the standard Knob Creek bourbon is finished for “a minimum of four years” in quarter cask American oak barrels, then “mingled” with Knob Creek bourbon to produce the finished product we have in our glass.
This is Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, bottled at 100 proof (50% ABV). At $50 for 750 ml, it carries a hefty price premium over de rigeur Knob Creek (also 100 proof/50% ABV), which is typically $30 but is on sale at my local for $22 right now. It’s even more expensive than the store pick single barrels, which are $45 and are bottled at 120 proof (60% ABV).
With all that in mind, this Quarter Oak will really need to blow the doors off in order to justify its price tag.
Knob Creek Quarter Oak – Taylor’s Review
Color: Rusty orange
On the nose: A big wave of vanilla and caramel to start. This quickly develops a plethora of spicy notes: cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, paprika, cardamom. I get a faint scent of banana in here, as well as some autumnal notes of overripe red apples.
In the mouth: This fluctuates between dry and sweet notes initially, with mint and limestone flavors playing against airily sugary tastes of cotton candy. A mute transition to the midpalate reveals a momentary note of butterscotch, as well as a twinge of woody bitterness accented by some spicy notes echoing the nose. I lose this once more between the midpalate and the finish. Come to think of it, there’s not much of a finish; some lingering off-sweet notes of cola and perhaps a little residual oak.
I can’t say I loved this, considered in isolation, on its own merits. Rather than adding any additional flavor dimensions, I feel like the extra-matured Knob Creek was battling against a lot of subpar blending bourbon.
When I see limited edition cask finishes, my most cynical self jumps to the conclusion that this is a way to gussy up some weak inventory and move it at a premium price, spurred on by novelty. My experience with this particular Knob Creek is not a convincing refutation of that hypothesis.
Considering value for money, this falls well short of expectations. As noted above, Knob Creek fans are spoiled for choice, with both higher-strength and more economical options sitting on the store shelf.
In all, this is OK whiskey at a less-than-OK price, for which it has been docked a point.
As you can see, my opinion differed significantly from David’s on this one. However, as I have noted time and again here: no review on this site (least of all mine) represents the final word on a given expression. Palates and preferences differ; what leaves me cold might rev your engine. With that in mind, I invited David to tell us what he thought about this one:
Knob Creek Quarter Oak – David’s Review
On the nose: Reminds me of a Pay Day candy bar. Dark caramel, honey-roasted nuts, vanilla, dense sweet oak, brown sugar, hints of maple & orange peel.
In the mouth: Oily mouthfeel. Butter toffee, vanilla syrup, charred oak, Bit-O-Honey candy, toasted sugar, molasses, caramel apple, faint leather & black pepper. Finishes medium-long. Sweet, yet earthy. Oak char, burnt caramel, vanilla spice, nutmeg, sassafras, diminishing leather & salted maple.
When I first sipped Knob Creek Quarter Oak I was considerably impressed. Now that I’m down to the last third of this bottle, I’ve realized that it’s lost a little oomph (unfortunately, an enjoyable oomph). But wait! I’m not saying that it’s not excellent whiskey. It damn sure is. In fact, I’d put this 100-proof Quarter Oak expression over a good many Knob Creek Single Barrels I’ve enjoyed. Not every one, but a good many.
At the end of the day, this release may not be for everyone. If you like the hyper-aged, robust and heavy 15-year Knob Creek private selections, this may not be suited for you. Conversely, if you like the younger, sweeter 9-year selections, this may not be your jam either. I guess it’s fair to say that Knob Creek Quarter Oak does its own thing within the Beam Small Batch Collection. It may not taste as impressive as when I first tasted it, but impressive enough to maintain my recommendation.
Thanks, as always, to David for sharing his acute palate and insights with us. I love looping in other tasters, particularly when our notes and/or conclusions don’t match up. It reinforces that whiskey is an extensive landscape full of all types; this applies to both what’s in the bottle as well as who’s consuming it. Differences in opinion can become battlegrounds if we choose. On the other hand, we can just as easily celebrate them as examples of the wonderful diversity of this hobby of ours. With that in mind, I hope you all will keep the recommendations coming!
Photo courtesy of Beam Suntory