Who’s coming up the ranks?
For reasons best known to my Creator, I maintain a mental heatmap of sentiment around whiskey distilleries and brands. There’s no tallying of scores; rather, in this wholly unscientific approach, I rely on my perceptions of whether I am seeing more praise or criticism for each whiskey.
Since my first run-in with a preternaturally excellent store pick of Knob Creek bourbon, I have noticed that more folks (at least, the ones whose opinions matter to me) have been lavishing praise on this label from Jim Beam. The release of many single barrels in the mid-teens age range seemed to have ramped up enthusiasm for Knob Creek in the latter part of 2019. Though I didn’t much care for the Quarter Oak, I thought the maligned Limited Edition 2001 was pretty good, as was the Single Barrel Reserve.
Following this string of modestly priced and very tasty bourbons, Knob Creek has become more of a consensus favorite. I’ve noticed the positivity (again, measured by nothing but my own subjective sense of things) extended to the brand’s rye whiskey, and especially the single barrel rye whiskey picks that are increasingly available at retailers.
I’ll not re-hash all my thoughts about the barrel pick format, other than to say that not all picks are created equal. Familiarity with the person or groups doing the picking is the best method of ensuring that you don’t end up paying up for a remainder barrel or one that is disappointingly on-profile.
Because I’m an idiot, I went ahead and abandoned this practice during a recent trip to my local Meijer outpost. Meijer is Western Michigan’s answer to Target and Walmart, a big box retailer carrying everything from fresh avocados to fishing lures. Their whiskey section is predictable bar the occasional appearance – with no promotion or fanfare – of a barrel pick. I’ve stumbled upon Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel and Buffalo Trace, to name but two, bearing tags or labels indicating that they’re a barrel pick, sometimes referencing Meijer itself.
My operating assumption in these cases is that this is a “pick in name only,” in that nobody employed by the store actually had anything to do with selecting the whiskey. No offense to anybody at Meijer, but their business is volume; curating a selection of weirdo off-profile whiskeys with a handful of bottles available isn’t really the best use of their time. As an aside: if anyone at Meijer is reading this and cares to educate me more about the pick program, I’d enjoy that conversation very much.
So, without an individual to pin the pick on (or with whom to even discuss the pick), I am flying more or less blind. I’ve got only the details on the bottle, which are often scant. This is the case with the Knob Creek Rye I’ll be reviewing today. Before I get into it, though, a word about Kentucky Rye…
I love bourbon, and I love rye, but I’m not sure that I love it when bourbon distillers make rye. Bar the reincarnated Pikesville Supreme from Heaven Hill, most of the positive scores I have awarded for rye whiskey have gone to rye specialists. Folks like Dad’s Hat and Far North appeal more to my palate than the “barely legal” ryes from Kentucky, with the statutory minimum 51% of that grain in the mash bill and a helping heaping of corn to round things out.
There’s no disclosure of the Knob Creek Rye mash bill, so – despite my suspicions – I am suspending my prejudice. I’m walking into this tasting with a heart hopeful that the more-or-less good quality for money across most of the Knob Creek bourbon range will be evident in these ryes as well.
Back to the first of our whiskeys: this is a single barrel from the “F-RYE-DAY POUR BATCH – MI.” I am presuming the “MI” refers to Michigan, the state where I purchased this bottle. Some cursory Googling reveals no additional details about this designation.
This is from Rick 025 on Floor 3 of Warehouse Z. Barreled on 9/25/2015, bottled on 5/13/2021, this comes to us at just over five and a half years old. Bottling strength is 115 proof (57.5% ABV).
I paid $60 for 750 ml, which represents a meaningful premium to the $30-ish you’d expect to pay for a bottle of the 100-proof “Small Batch” straight rye whiskey from Knob Creek. Some research indicates that a regional whiskey chain is selling their Knob Creek rye pick for $45; I’ll try not to let the revelation that I relatively overpaid bias my assessment:
Knob Creek Single Barrel Select Rye (F-RYE-DAY POUR BATCH) – Review
Color: Medium golden orange.
On the nose: Restrained at first, this takes some energetic sniffing before I am able to tease out some vaguely citric and creamy notes. Underripe orange and vanilla buttercream meet an emergent aroma of butterscotch candy. With a bit of time in the glass, a more corny sweetness emerges, as well as a subtle accent of lemongrass. There’s another smoky and woody note here of hickory chips but, again, in an especially quiet form.
In the mouth: Upfront, a slightly peppery nip yields to tart citrus, this time in the form of lemon juice. As the whiskey moves toward the center of the mouth, these notes are overtaken by tannic, off-bitter woody notes. Into the finish, this again tacks toward the corny flavors; I’m tasting a buttery richness that helps offset the sharper woody flavors. There’s a spicy heat that prickles the back and roof of the mouth as this finishes with a slightly odd aftertaste of soap.
There’s not enough rye in this rye, by which I mean that the intrinsic qualities of the grain are varnished over with flabby sweetness from the corn, which trades blows with unpleasantly bitter notes from the wood. If this were my only example to go on, I’d be passing on Knob Creek Rye henceforth.
I’m always cautious about generalizing my experience tasting a whiskey, given the natural variation in even batched expressions. This is doubly so in the case of single barrels. Fortunately, I have a second barrel pick of Knob Creek Rye to taste. This is a sample from Ryan labeled “IBN PRESENTS RYENAPPLE EXPRESS.” Not being familiar with IBN, this moniker is as cryptic to me as the one on the prior bottle, though it’s clear that rye remains a fertile source of potential puns. If anyone involved with the pick sees this and cares to fill me in, kindly get in touch.
This rye was barreled on 9/11/2015 and picked on 2/13/21 at a similar age of five years, five months. It is also bottled at 115 proof (57.5% ABV). I’ll be using the same price, $60, as my reference for scoring.
Knob Creek Single Barrel Select Rye (IBN PRESENTS RYENAPPLE EXRESS) – Review
Color: A lighter, medium-pale golden maize.
On the nose: More expressive forthwith, there’s a sweeter creamy note accented by some baking spice. This has more vegetal aromas of tropical jungle, as well as some medicinal scents of eucalyptus and a bittersweet scent of dark chocolate. A sweet, smoky, and savory note of burnt ends rounds off what is, in total, a very compelling nose.
In the mouth: This again tacks more toward a corny sweetness, but this time accented by a slightly acrid smokiness, in the manner of ashtray. The juxtaposition of these two elements actually works surprisingly well, though the two become more delineated as the smoky notes travel up the sides of the tongue, while the middle of the palate evolves a generous fruity flavor of cantaloupe. The mouthfeel softens as this resolves into a rounded woodiness at the crest of the tongue. On the finish, there’s some pepper-inflected wood and a subtle wisp of the dark chocolate note from the nose.
This is very, very good rye. There’s so much more breadth of aromatic nuance, as well as much more satisfactory flavor development. I even revisited the prior bottle side-by-side, which confirms my conclusion. Every bad note on that whiskey is exceeded by a delicious one here which, moreover, are balanced against one another in a way that presents as more cogent in its totality. If this had been the bottle I picked off the shelf, I’d be running right back to the store to secure a second (OK, fine, and third). To reflect that, I’m awarding this a solidly positive score.
Again, it’s difficult to generalize based on a single barrel or two, but the latter example demonstrates that Knob Creek is able to put out some seriously good rye whiskey. That said, buyers of single barrels will stay rolling the dice unless they’re able to meet the picker, sample the whiskey, and do the rest of the things that this knuckleheaded author neglected to do. Have I learned my lesson? You’ll have to wait until the next time I am tempted by an anonymous barrel pick to find out!