What if a bourbon distillery released a “limited edition” and… nobody cared?
It’s hard to imagine, I know. The Instagram-ification of whiskey means that whiskey enthusiasts have become conditioned to ferret out anything with a whiff of exclusivity like pigs hunting for truffles. Random blends in an annual edition? He’s a C-note. Pappy? Buyers in the secondary market will offer you 10x MSRP. Sourced bourbon finished in port barrels and sold for $200? PUNCH ME IN THE FACE!
Though this may seem like an obvious way to manipulate consumers for financial gain, the limited-edition gambit is no sure thing. As it turns out, not everybody can slap an inflated price tag on some uninspired stock and make out like a bandit. Without logic, rhyme, or reason, certain high-priced expressions inspire frenzied scrums while others languish on the racks of sadder and wiser retailers.
At this point I’ll be introducing some colorful terminology, a bit of it with a scatological bent. Though I don’t have much of a taste for potty humor (as I get more than my fair share of it from my six- and four-year-olds at home), I’m obliged to introduce the Malt readership to the genus of whiskey dubbed the “shelf turd” (a term borrowed from the craft beer community).
Shelf turds are different from “dusters,” which are themselves different from “dusties.” Working in reverse: dusties are old bottles of bourbon from days of yore. The dust that has accumulated on them is due to their being stored in a back room and forgotten. Rather than being a stigma, this dust is a marker of provenance. As a time capsule into a bygone (some would say better) era of whiskey production, these dusties are highly desirable among the bourbon cognoscenti.
Dusters (note the change of suffix), on the other hand, are perfectly good bottles of bourbon that have been marked up above MSRP by retailers. They are so-called because the greedy shopkeeper can look forward to a long sentence of dusting them off while they fail to sell. Dropping into my local “opportunistic” merchant recently, I noticed the top shelf behind the counter stocked with all manner of coveted bourbon. The prices, however, had been put up to levels that left me suspecting a nitrous oxide leak in the store. Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year Old (MSRP of $60) was marked at $500, while George T. Stagg (MSRP of $100) carried an asking price of $600. Until someone exceedingly well-heeled and foolish drops in, these bottles will stand as silent rebukes to the avarice which infects high-end bourbon.
So, if it’s not a dusty and not a duster, what is a shelf turd? Put simply, a shelf turd is a bottling with an elevated MSRP that fails to generate the necessary enthusiasm to drive sales. These bottles don’t exactly putrefy in a manner justifying their fecal cognomen, but they do linger unwanted, becoming less attractive propositions with each passing day.
It’s worth noting that this is typically not bad whiskey, in the sense that most of our readers would understand it. Seldom are they flawed or foul; more often, they’re “meh” whiskeys that someone thought they could dress up and sell at a premium price, based on some aggressive labeling and a press release full of buzzwords.
Nor are shelf turds the sole preserve of brands lacking prestige; even the more highly regarded distilleries are not immune to laying an occasional egg. For example, Wild Turkey released a “Diamond Anniversary” bottling commemorating Jimmy Russell’s 60th year with the business. This is a blend of 13-to-16-year-old whiskeys, albeit at a relatively low 45.5% ABV. Overall, though, this struck me as the type of thing that would fly out the door at the retail price of $125. However, a recent trip through North Carolina led me to a Charlotte-area liquor store where I found not one, but nearly a dozen bottles of this sitting (or settin’, given this was in Dixie) undisturbed a full five years after the release date. Thus, it’s not easy to identify a consistent source of shelf turds (bar WhistlePig); rather, this seems to be an expression-by-expression phenomenon.
I offer all this as the prelude to a review of a Knob Creek Limited Edition that may fit the bill for turd-ness. In considering the particulars of this bottling, we’ll perhaps isolate those factors that cause a collective shoulder shrug from would-be purchasers.
Pricing is certainly a key factor; our bottle here has an MSRP of $130, while the standard Knob Creek is $30, and single barrels store picks have been hitting shelves for more like $45. You might also compare this with the 9-year-old Single Barrel Reserve, which runs about $50. As noted above, there’s a temptation (for sellers) to see whiskey as a Veblen Good, one where demand is positively correlated to price. At the highest end of the Scotch whisky market (Macallan bottles with 5-figure price tags) this may be true, but the effect is not replicable in the $100+ range. Rather than viewing these expensive bottles as extra desirable, whiskey enthusiasts just view them as overpriced.
Overpriced is a relative judgment, though, and I suspect that some of these suffer in comparison to other offerings with the same label. As noted above, this carries a price tag that is more than 4x the baseline Knob Creek, and even 3x the higher strength single barrel picks. What does this bottle give you that those others don’t?’
The press release states that this was “made from some of the last barrels laid down by the late Booker Noe in the final years of his life,” which has some sentimental appeal but doesn’t really tell us much. This is also “the longest-aged expression ever released from Knob Creek,” though, as we discussed recently, age and quality do not necessarily go hand in hand in the case of bourbon getting into double-digit years in the barrel. In addition, the recent surge of store picks in the 14+ year range means that such an old Knob Creek is not exactly a rarity.
So, this is bourbon distilled in 2001, coincidentally the year that Booker Noe was inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of fame. It’s also the year Booker passed responsibility for Knob Creek to his son, current Jim Beam Master Distiller Fred Noe. The whiskey was bottled at the age of 14 years, in three batches meant to accentuate different flavor profiles. This particular bottle is from Batch #2, which the official materials indicate is “Higher in wood and oak notes; more tannic in nature.” Given that excessive cask influence is the downfall of many a superannuated bourbon, this does not sound encouraging.
What else? It’s bottled at 100 proof (50% ABV), which is in line with the standard Knob Creek and lower than the 120 proof (60% ABV) of the single cask store picks. It’s not even as though there’s a heightened degree of exclusivity; each batch comprised 12,000 bottles (this is #8708), as compared with the 140-odd bottles that one 14-year-old barrel would probably yield.
To recap: this is comparably aged but lower proof than some of the currently available Knob Creek store picks, but costs triple the amount. Ecce shelf turd. There’s a reason this was released in 2016 and is still available nearly four years later. The only saving grace, in this case, is that I was able to find this on “sale” for $100. Apparently, the owner of the liquor store got tired of staring at this and decided to cut his losses. Still, this would have to be awfully good bourbon to justify the cost. Here goes nothing:
Knob Creek Limited Edition 2001 Batch 2 – Review
Color: Medium-dark auburn
On the nose: Hot damn, this smells delicious! A woody aroma of furniture polish plays against sweet and salty peanut brittle scents. There’s the smoky, sugary smell of burnt caramel, as well as the savory heat of chili powder. Overhanging all this is a cloud of lighter aromas like raw bread dough, dried flower petals, and a sprig of spearmint. There’s also the meaty scent of Brazil nuts floating around in there somewhere, accompanied by some more organic scents of soil and twigs. I’d never get tired of sniffing this, so densely packed and thickly layered are the scents playing across my nose. However, I’m also desperate to move on and taste this.
In the mouth: At first this has a roasty mocha-inflected flavor and astringency that stops just short of bitterness. On the front of the tongue, there’s a textural feeling that is more akin to single malt Scotch whisky in an uncanny way that I find difficult to describe. It’s got the drily burnt flavor of cigarette ash, which becomes once again a varnish-infused note of antique furniture as this progresses through the mouth. More of the woody furniture polish notes come back as the whiskey passes across the tongue. The finish is comprised of some relatively sedate earthy notes: clods of soil, twigs, and fallen leaves.
If you’re looking for a plump and fruity bourbon profile, you’ve come to the wrong place. This is entirely comprised of woodland notes, with a helping of old library nuances on top. However, while the older store picks can thin out in the middle of the mouth, this maintains a lean and firm texture that supports the development of various flavors as the bourbon moves over the palate.
I actually revisited my prior store pick bottle of 15-year-old Knob Creek to gauge whether or not this was any better. As before, the nose was a highlight; these are exceptionally fun to swirl and smell. The biggest improvement, as noted above, is in the mouth. This takes on the autumnal, earthy influences that emerge with extended maturation, while not atrophying in terms of body. It appeals more to my palate, though – at triple the price – it would have to in order to garner a respectable score.
So where does that leave us? Fans of these distinctive earthy notes will love this, and it might be the only option to access that flavor profile in areas without some of the older store picks. Beam got over their skis with the $130 MSRP; even $100 seems punchy compared with the competing options from this distillery and others. If it were foul or completely underwhelming, it would be very easy to consign this to shelf turd-dom and move along… but it’s not. It’s really tasty old bourbon that probably would have flown off the shelves and become legendary at, say, $75.
That’s perhaps the wackiest thing about limited editions: the difference between treasure and turd might be reduced to hitting the commercial mark in a way that moves enough bottles that they truly become “limited;” not conceptually, in the sense of having it written on the bottle, but practically, in the sense of not being widely available.
Selling a capital-L capital-E Limited Edition at a more modest ask may not produce more net revenue (higher quantity being insufficient to fully offset the lower price) but surely it would be better marketing for the brand than having these flops laying around as eyesores? On the (very remote) chance that someone empowered to make these decisions is reading this, I’d encourage you to reflect on this when the next Limited Edition comes around. You think you’re birthing an icon, but you might just be dropping a turd.
Photograph kindly provided by The Whisky World.
Great review as usual Taylor.
I passed this one up several times because of that price tag; if I was able to get a just-under 15yr Knob Creek store pick for $50, I failed to see why pay just under 2.5x for this one.
Too kind as usual PB. To reiterate: this was tasty whiskey. It just fell well short of what the price tag would demand. In fact, I know a serious bourbon enthusiast who has straight-up said “very few whiskeys are worth more than $100.” There’s too many competitive options out there if you’re willing to spend $50 and do some patient legwork, as you note. As always, cheers for the engagement and GO BLUE!
A really interesting point about whether a bottle can gain limited status based purely on its retail price. Or Visa versa how a supposedly limited bottle can become one of those shelf turds after being priced too high. Thinking about it I’d definitely agree. From the world of scotch the Diageo ‘special’ releases come to mind, often available for years after each release. That mortlach 26 will probably survive on shelves till the sun burns out. On the flip side the Kilkerran 8 sherry gained cult status almost as soon as it hit the shelves. A double whammy because the price and quality are exceptional, but the point still stands.
Cheers, Sleuth. Will be interesting to see how this plays out now that times are tighter. These don’t require care or feeding, but you have to imagine retailers decide to cut their losses at some point and discount the bottles to move them? That was clearly the case in this instance.
The lament of the Shelf Turd is, in large part, due to the way distribution works. The distributors tend to break or limit the cases of the “fly-off-the-shelf” premium releases and extort the retailer into purchasing loads of slow-moving stock. To recoup, the retailer is then forced to charge more, or lose money, and then the bottles get dusty. The most recent example at my shop is last year’s McKenna 10. I happily bought the first 6, over time, at $35ish, and watched as my retailer turned out two cases. As soon as the whiskey won at San Francisco, the distributor limited my retailer to one case, and to get it, he had to overstock various garbage like the Natural Light Seltzers. As a result of the restrictions on the McKenna, the per-bottle price doubled to $70, and I’ve been staring at the same 6 bottles, unwilling to shell out, for a YEAR.
I hope that was articulate enough to understand.
Perfectly clear, thanks Brendon. For those who haven’t yet listened to it, the recent Bourbon Pursuit podcast with the distributor is eye-opening. There is so much favoritism, pay to play, and other shadiness that goes on behind the scenes. This ultimately impacts what you and I can pick off the shelves as customers, and more light needs to be shed on this issue. Cheers!
Great insight as ever, Taylor. Thanks for the piece.
Coming from the craft beer world, I guess I always saw a shelf turd more as a forgotten gem hiding in plain sight (e.g., Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout). In my eyes, they are beers that the extremely fickle craft beer geek scene passes on because they’ve been around forever, and thus are boring and passed over for the next new thing. Rotation Nation, as it were. In this way, I’ve elected to take on the mantle of “Shelf Turd Crusader” when it comes to beer (and whisky). I find that the term “craft” has lost a bit of its meaning these days in both beer and whisky. A Summit EPA that’s been brewed consistently and excellently for over 30 years is much more gratifying and truly well-crafted to me these days than the next Mad Libs-fill-in-the-hop-blank IPA or kaleidoscopic fruited sour that’s sure to give you a cavity or three. These demand absurd prices and yet they never seem to satiate the aficionado as they move on to the next thing. It’s just chasing the dragon. True, well-crafted quality comes from perfecting and zeroing in on a recipe after having made it many, many times.
In whisky, I find things like Wild Turkey come to mind when thinking of a shelf turd. Not that these don’t sell well, but at least in the circles of the crazed bourbon folk chasing trucks to find the next limited edition—I find I’m happy to be sitting with an always available, quality pour such as 101, Rare Breed, or Russell’s. Wild Turkey will always have my heart in that way. Whiskey for the people—to be drunk and enjoyed in good company.
Anders, thanks for the kind compliment and continued support. Good points all; thankfully whiskey doesn’t seem to be suffering the same fate as craft beer. Unfortunately it’s got its own problems. Thanks again and Skål!