How old is too old? Or, put differently, what’s the best age for a bourbon whiskey?
We’ve been conditioned to think of age as a proxy for quality in (Scotch) whisky and, increasingly, in (Bourbon) whiskey. Not long ago, I marveled at how so many Bourbon brands adopted the moniker “old” regardless of the actual age of the products in the bottle. This appeals subconsciously to the sense of heritage, history, experience, tradition, and all the other nebulous feelings that whiskey producers emphasize in order to distract us from the specifics.
On the other hand, I’ve personally railed against short maturation which – along with quick fermentation, wide cuts, and small-sized barrels – is more frequently becoming an issue as craft distillers pull every lever possible to make the nut. Rushing whiskey to market is a way to produce much needed cash flow, with quality sacrificed on the altar of economics. There is a reason, after all, that the TTB stipulates at least 2 years of aging for a whiskey to be eligible for the “straight” designation.
So, between these two polar opposites, where lies the happy medium?
The answer, as with so many things in life, is “it depends.” Higher wheat mash bills are reputed to lend themselves to more extended aging, which is why we see Pappy Van Winkle expressions in the 15-23 year age range. Higher rye mash bills, however, typically show better in years topping out in the high single digits. Overall, though, you’re looking at considerably less time than would be required to mature a Scotch whisky of comparable quality.
There are several reasons for this. The first is the legally-mandated use of new oak barrels in bourbon, which will naturally exert a more forceful influence than the used ex-bourbon or ex-sherry casks utilized for maturing Scotch. The other factor is temperature; as you’ll remember from high school chemistry class, heat accelerates reaction times. In this case, the hotter highs and greater fluctuation of temperatures in Kentucky (relative to temperate Scotland) mean that the reactions which comprise maturation are sped up, with additional impact from expansion and contraction of the wood itself. Hence, less time needed for aging bourbon, comparatively.
This is complicated by the fact that rickhouses, especially those without climate control, will necessarily have hotter zones and those which feel less air flow. An entire subset of the industry exists which is centered around cherry-picking barrels, often from the middle floors of the rickhouse, based on their microclimatic conditions.
Tired yet? I am, and powerful thirsty to boot. I’d love a glass of bourbon to wet my whistle… maybe something on the older side?
Ever a pusher of boundaries, I am interested to taste the outer limits of barrel age to determine if, in fact, these aforementioned rules of thumb hold true. Fortunately, a well-timed trip to my local liquor chain offered the opportunity to do just that.
I was intrigued when a helpful Binny’s associate pointed me towards their most recent batch of Knob Creek store picks. She singled out this barrel for special attention, noting its relatively high age. I threw the dice and purchased a bottle for review, forewarned but also hopeful that some special alchemy might have overcome the pitfalls of extended exposure to all that wood.
As for my expectations going into this: the bar has been set high by the previous Knob Creek store pick I reviewed, though the overpriced and underflavored Knob Creek Quarter Oak took some of the shine off the marque. In general, though, we’re dealing with a reputed mash bill of 75% corn, 13% rye and 12% barley, making this typically more suited toward shorter aging. We’ll see if this can stand the test of time.
What else to say about this one? This features the new look labels, which are stamped with “Knob Creek Distilling Company, Clermont KY.” You and I know, however, that this is a façade for the Jim Beam Distillery, a pointless practice which I have decried in prior reviews.
The facts: this is Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey from barrel #9691, distilled on 6/8/2004 and bottled on 8/15/2019, at the age of 15 years. It is from Rick R-024 on floor F-04 of Warehouse W-W. Bottled at 120 proof (60% ABV), I paid $45 for 750 ml.
Knob Creek Binny’s Store Pick – Review
Color: Rosy golden orange
On the nose: Incredibly appealing. There’s a heaping dollop of vanilla straight off, but patient sniffing reveals layers of aromas underneath. Maple syrup, tangerine peel, semi-sweet chocolate, dried firewood, and apricot marmalade, all surrounded by the faintest stony accent.
In the mouth: An ashy entry yields immediately to a surprisingly cheery burst of freshly-squeezed orange juice. At the middle of the palate this becomes dry, thin, and brittle. It then becomes slightly bitter into the back of the mouth with an acrid bite of stale cigarette butts, before mineralic flavors of limestone and fluorine flicker across the back of the tongue.
There’s an added complexity to the nose relative to the 9-year-old store pick I previously reviewed. However, this has withered somewhat on the palate. I personally value Knob Creek single barrel picks for the plump and muscular mouthfeel, which has clearly atrophied here with increased time in the barrel.
In total: this has weaknesses (for my tastes) to offset its strengths, but overall still represents a decent result given the high ABV and competitive price. Thus, I’m scoring it in the middle of the range. If you’re tolerant of more musty and dusty flavors then you may find this more appealing, in which case I wouldn’t dissuade you from seeking out a bottle. For my part, I’ll stick with the young’uns!