We take time for granted.
That’s true as a society, at least in many corners of the globe. And it’s especially true among whiskey geeks, people who toss out multi-decade age statements like loose change. We compare “8 year this-and-that” with “9 year such-and-such” so frequently it’s easy to lose sight of what those years or decades actually entailed. Whiskey is a black hole that apparently has enough gravity to distort time itself.
So it’s jarring when an age statement actually gives us pause, when the delta between what we expect and what really appears on a bottle grows wide enough to raise an eyebrow.
Knob Creek Aged 18 Years — the oldest whiskey from a brand that dates back three decades — is one such expression.
Eighteen years. That’s long enough for a person to reach legal maturity, to graduate from high school and drive cars and maybe even sneak in a romance (or two). That’s twice the age statement of Knob Creek’s standard expression, a workhorse shelfer that toes a pleasant line between always being good and always being available.
It’s not every day you get a good thing twice over. Double barreled? Easy. Double oaked? Commonplace. Double chicken? If you’re feeling spendy. But doubling one of the most famous age statements in bourbon isn’t something we see every season. And it’s not as if aging bourbon twice as long makes it twice as delicious. In fact, there’s anecdotal evidence to the contrary. (More on that in a minute.)
Of course, Knob Creek has had a busy decade when it comes to age statements. Store picks — long found at 10 to 15 years old for under $50 a bottle — have dipped in age and climbed in price. In 2016, the standard expression temporarily dropped its nine-year statement due to “imbalance in aging stocks.” When Beam added back “Aged Nine Years” in 2020, drinkers of a certain age felt relief akin to when Panic! at the Disco recouped the exclamation point.
Also in 2020, Beam released Knob Creek 12 and Knob Creek 15. The former felt like an in-line uptick in quality, price, and scarcity. (Huzzah!) The latter, reviewed extensively on this very site, was regarded by some as tasty but bordering on over-oaked, a pricey shortfall compared to comparably aged single barrels from the mid-2010s. When it comes to time spent in a barrel, perhaps Knob Creek had finally reached the point of diminishing returns.
So when news of an 18 year old bottling dropped in late 2021 — thanks to TTB sleuths like ComingWhiskey — Beam fans were cautious to their excitement, myself among them. Would this be the final boss of oakiness? Why 100 proof instead of the 120 showcased by some single barrels? And would it take a second mortgage to actually snag a bottle?
To paraphrase science fiction’s most famous Chaos Theorist: What if Beam’s blenders were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should?
Unofficially, early murmurings about the 18 year’s balance piqued my interest. And the expected bump in price — $170 SRP for this oldest-ever Knob Creek — came in slightly below my worst fears.
Officially, something certainly felt different about this one. First, it’s the 30th anniversary of Jim Beam’s Small Batch line, which in addition to Knob Creek includes Booker’s, Basil Hayden, and Baker’s. Hallmark anniversaries often deliver hallmark releases. Second, while Knob Creek’s 12 and 15 year expressions quickly made their way into the regular lineup, it doesn’t seem Knob Creek 18 will do the same, at least not in that time frame. Beam Suntory reps told me they “[Do] not have current plans to make Knob Creek 18 Year Old an annual release or a permanent offering.”
As always, the proof is in the pudding — or as Fred Noe himself might say, the “Kentucky chew.” Let’s give this 100 proof, $170, 18 year-old whiskey a taste.
The sample tasted was provided at no cost by Beam Suntory.
Knob Creek Aged 18 Years – Review
Color: Deep, reddish copper. If hair color is a guide, this is the midway point between Daphne and Velma from Scooby Doo.
On the nose: There’s a sweet note of oak even before liquid hits the glass. Then spicy cinnamon, leather, and fresh sawdust. Nosing closer gives more sweetness — warm sticky figgy pudding? — reminiscent of booze-soaked candied fruit. Subtly, there’s a bit of that Beam nuttiness; for most it leans peanut, but some at Beam would claim hazelnut, others macadamia. It’s definitely there but noticeably less so than just about any Booker’s release.
By this point, I’m salivating. Sniff again, and things continue to open up, but nothing specific lingers for too long. This nose is much lighter than I’d expect from an 18 year old bourbon, especially one from Beam. It’s not exactly freshbecause of the leathery notes, but it certainly isn’t suffocating or dulling. There’s something reminiscent of sweet vermouth here, a little bitterness that reminds me of gentian root. This wafts with sweetness but gives the sense that it’s going to hit all parts of the palate. It’s like there’s a savory meal lurking under a sweet, BBQ sauce-covered exterior. Frankly, this is a superlative nose.
In the mouth: Oh boy. The first sip hits multiple corners for an immediately well-rounded sip, so much so that it’s a little tough to pick out specific notes. (Which makes my job tougher but more fun.) That sip feels hotter than 100 proof, but that’s not really a bad thing here. We almost challenge old whiskey to hit us with something big.
Okay, those notes. Spicy ginger hits first, then oak with some astringency. It’s someway, somehow not over-oaked, with that dryness balancing out sweet notes and leaving me wanting more. There’s mesquite with brown sugar, almost like a pre-batched dry rub. I can’t help but want this flavor in a BBQ sauce.
Later on there’s cinnamon and earthiness, and the nutty notes are much less pronounced than I expected. There’s that leather toward the end and a tiny bitter note I dug, a bit like green apple or maybe grapefruit.
On the finish, paired with the sweet, woody, and syrupy qualities comes some welcome balance. There’s a menthol quality to the finish. It cools the tongue in a way that’s unique to new bourbons I’ve sampled this year. The finish is drying and not fleeting, though I wish it had lingered for just a moment or two longer. There’s again a vermouth-like quality here, and it’s just as complex.
Fred Noe’s “Kentucky chew” advice holds well here. This is full-bodied bourbon you’ll want to chew, note just sip. Ah, there’s that nuttiness, right at the very end as you’re going back for another sip. I almost wish it had come a bit sooner.
This is old whiskey, and this is bold whiskey. Is it sweet? Is it savory? Is it bitter? It is all of these things, and despite my early concerns, it is proofed about right. At cask strength, I’d imagine this would be overpoweringly thick, and likely too astringent.
A Knob Creek rep told me they picked stock for the 18 year with “the goal of choosing the barrels that gave us the consistent flavor profile that Knob Creek is known for.” Lovely as that is, I think it’s underselling what the blending team has accomplished. This whiskey tastes full, and while it’s easy to wish for more of this and less of that on the palate, that’s the beauty of our subjectivity as tasters. There’s nothing I’m really missing here, and certainly a lot I’m enjoying.
Knob Creek 18 is one of the best new bourbon expressions I’ve tasted in recent months. It’s every bit an eight on the Malt Review scoring scale, and it almost dared me to take things up another notch. If the palate hit the same level as this bourbon’s superlative nose, I would have been tempted to go there. For now, we’ll have to celebrate this as a simply “Exceptional” whiskey, one I’ll burn through quickly as I look to share it with friends.
This was a sample provided free of charge by Beam Suntory, which – per Malt’s editorial policy – does not affect our notes or scores.
When a spirit consistently scores well amongst reputable reviewers, it’s hard to ignore. Hopefully I can find this one.