“The future ain’t what it used to be.” – Yogi Berra
A hh, the good old days… I’m talking here about 2019. It was a time when hope sprang eternal and people could breathe easy in a crowded liquor store full of fellow enthusiasts (and not just because it was pre-you-know-what) while looking to secure this limited edition or that allocated expression. There then existed an expression of elevated quality, aged for about 15 years, and priced around $50 that sat on shelves everywhere.
That expression was Knob Creek Single Barrel, which – for a spell – regularly met the above specs and clocked in at an enthusiast-approved 120 proof.
However – as Lawrence Peter Berra also once noted – “a nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore,” and predictably the tide turned. Sure, bourbon enthusiasts knew even then that such a superlative expression could never last. People bought up Knob Creek Single Barrel bottles like they were going out of style because, frankly, we all knew they would be.
Soon, the word got out that Knob Creek would be sunsetting those older picks in favor of ones in the nine-to-10 year range, but what came next was less expected: Jim Beam announced in that star-crossed year of 2020 that fans of their hyper aged distillate need not worry, because they would be releasing a limited edition of Knob Creek 15 year! Hurrah!
However, as you may already well know, dear reader, this would not be quite the same treat as those sublime single barrels. For one, the new expression would be a blend – a change that in itself isn’t troubling – but additionally the proof would be lowered from 120 to 100. For the final blow? The price would not be $50 as it is for Knob Creek Single Barrel, but instead it would be the $100 befitting a Limited Edition Bourbon™ in today’s market. Cut to fully grown adults laughing as they cry, burying their heads in their hands and their wallets in their pockets.
For as much as I love Jim Beam’s juice, I’ve frequently been confounded by their pricing. To give but a few examples: Baker’s has a lower proof but typically a higher age statement than Booker’s and is priced about $30 lower. Likewise, Old Grand Dad 114 has no age statement but an even more comparative proof point for $70 less. Then, even in the 9-year range, we have the latest iteration of Knob Creek’s Single Barrel offerings which are less than 5 proof points lower than the latest Booker’s expression (2022-02 the Lumberyard Batch) but two years older and priced between $50-$60 depending on your local retailer, nearly half the cost.
I use Booker’s as an example here, though I could extend the same confusion to Little Book’s pricing, along with the subject of today’s review. I’m not blind to the fact that prices are rising across the board, but when it was initially announced I have to admit that Knob Creek 15’s specs and cost almost felt like a betrayal. Not quite like a betrayal, because who among us really expects a business to do anything other than generate as much profit as possible? It’s the American way! But, for us fans of those stellar Knob Creek Single Barrels, Semisonic’s “Closing Time” was blaring and maybe a little bit of puke was on our shoes.
If the above wasn’t clear enough, allow me to say outright that I am a human being and – though I am a human being who reviews whiskey – I am obviously not immune to biases. The replacement of a beloved and affordable expression with one that seems to indicate an inclination for profit motive over quality improvement certainly left a bad taste in my mouth (was that my puke on my shoes?). But, as such, I have tempered expectations for Knob Creek 15. I don’t anticipate it being as flavorful as the single barrels that came before it, because the proof is lower. I don’t expect it to grant me the easy-breathing assuredness that it will be a solid value, because the price has doubled. Finally, I’m a bit rankled by the entire affair but I remain… hopeful? As a consumer I may not agree with the decision, but I certainly understand it and – given the aforementioned fact that I enjoy Jim Beam’s bourbons at every price point – I have hope that I will enjoy this as well.
Let’s finally dispense with all the pertinent details of this expression at once before we reach the review: Knob Creek 15 has become an annual limited edition, clocking in at 100 proof (50% ABV) and sold at a suggested retail price of $100. The mash bill is 77% corn, 13% rye, 10% malted barley. The bottle I’ll be reviewing today is not from the 2021 batch or the yet-to-be-released 2022 batch, but rather the inaugural batch from everyone’s favorite year. I should also note that this bottle was purchased with my own cash when it was first released and has been lying in anticipation at my home for this moment over the previous 2 years.
Knob Creek 15 Year Bourbon – Review
Color: Honey with auburn glints.
On the nose: There’s a significant oak and medicinal cherry fusion that’s initially pleasant but not particularly rich, as though the aromas are coming from down the hall and not right under the nose. Beyond that there’s a surprising bit of menthol and some strong leather notes that typically come with a bourbon in this age range. As this sits in the glass some brown sugar emerges and I’m very unsurprised at all the prototypical well-aged-bourbon notes found in this glass. I have to say that none of it is particularly exciting and, over time, the oak begins to dominate the nose in a way that can certainly be off putting to those with an aversion to a strong oak presence.
In the mouth: The cherry note carries over to the palate, though it’s not medicinal and more so like dried cherries bathed in a fresh squeezed orange. There’s also a fair bit of crème brûlée, which is a welcome surprise as the lighter sweet notes from the burnt cream and citrus provide cover for the strong oak and leather presence that soon follows. While the mouth feel is a tad lean, the finish is impressive despite being rather drying as the light sweetness punches through with a touch of the menthol from the nose.
While I went into this expression fully expecting to be significantly let down, I have to say that I’m fairly impressed. Judging it on its own merits, this is a tasty oak-forward bourbon that displays a fair bit of balance on the palate despite being rather quotidian on the nose. On first sip, this immediately reveals that there are more layers than the nose belies. That said, it is a bit thin and – though it’s enjoyable – I’m forced to consider it not just for the flavor it contains but also for the nose and price. With those two added to the equation, Knob Creek 15 loses a bit of steam as it carries a steep price tag and fairly pedestrian aromas. While I enjoyed this expression, I can’t imagine I’ll return to the well time and time again… and this is all before we consider it in comparison to those magnificent 15 year Knob Creek Single Barrels of yesteryear.
What I’m trying to say is: Knob Creek 15 is perfectly fine but – as far as 15 year Knob Creek goes – it ain’t what it used to be. On the palate this is worthy of being called “good” on the Malt scoring scale, but I feel obliged to dock a point due to this expression being “limited” in quantity and unfriendly on the wallet.