Are you ready to make the leap?
As I come up on the fifth anniversary of my very first review for this site, I have been retracing the steps of my own whiskey journey. I’m thinking about things I wish I had known, mistakes I wish I hadn’t made, and whiskeys I wish I had tried sooner. In doing so, I hope to help others along on their own exploration of the wide world of whiskey.
One of the earliest positive bourbon surprises I can remember was a particularly excellent store pick of Knob Creek. What made it unexpected was that Knob Creek didn’t get a lot of love back then. In response to the high score I gave that bottle, I actually received a few comments calling me corrupt, incompetent, or both.
Things started to change in late 2019, when Jim Beam released a bunch of mid-teens aged barrels as Knob Creek store picks. I’m still not sure what happened that caused Beam to have a glut of extra mature stock laying around; the best explanation I have heard relates to the decrease in export volumes as a result of the tariff wars started by Trump. Regardless, whiskey fans were treated to some comparatively old bourbon at a price that couldn’t be beat.
Rather than giving away bottles of 10+ year old whiskey for $45, Knob Creek decided to expand their range of age-stated expressions. Frank took a look at the 15 year old, while David considered the oldest of the Knob Creek siblings, the 18 year old. With even bottles of the 12 year old expression on “Limit One Per Customer” at my local, it’s safe to say that Knob Creek’s reputation has greatly improved in the last five years.
I’m not claiming to be abnormally prescient or influential, mind you. I happened to be in the right place at the right time and luckily had a favorable first impression of the brand. Nor would I describe myself as anything of a Knob Creek fanboy; it misses the mark on occasion, at least for my palate.
Going back to the first part of this review: I’m thinking about others who are perhaps earlier in their whiskey journey. Maybe they’ve tried the entry-level offerings from a handful of the larger Kentucky distilleries and are looking to move up the range, but aren’t yet chasing the allocated bottles or limited editions. This is someone who has been spending $20 to $30 on bottles and is now interested in seeing what $40 to $50 gets him or her.
For those that have tasted only white label from the Jim Beam distillery, I can understand why they might be reticent to delve any deeper into the Beam portfolio. However, novices should know that a distillery’s most commonly available (and/or cheapest) expression is seldom one of their best. There’s some magnificent whiskey coming out of Jim Beam, but it’s mostly not bottled under that name.
So, where to start? The new single barrel Baker’s expression is a personal favorite but, at about $70, it’s likely a step too far for someone who is just starting to branch out. Booker’s is maybe bit too much in terms of ABV, certainly too much in terms of price, and hasn’t been consistent enough of late for me to make a comfortable recommendation. The less said about Basil Hayden, the better. Folks interested in exploring the bottled in bond designation could do a lot worse than Old Tub.
In my opinion, those looking to get an upgraded Jim Beam experience would do well to seek out the entry-level nine year old expression from Knob Creek. What’s so appealing about this bottling? A few things…
First is presentation. It comes to us at 100 proof (50% ABV), so: not a scorcher, but it’s got noticeably more “oomph” than something in the low-80s. This is also an ABV at (or near) which we find a lot of whiskey, so it’s a good benchmark for comparison. It carries a nine-year age statement; drinking this alongside a younger whiskey like Old Forester 100 proof or Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond might provide some insight into what types of flavors can be unlocked with extra time in the barrel.
Second is price: at $35 to $40 near me, this represents a step up from Beam white label, but still affordable enough that it should feel accessible to someone not accustomed to breaking the bank.
Finally, and most importantly in my estimation, is character. Part of a whiskey journey is discovering that different distilleries produce bourbons that have a distinct “profile” or set of aromas and flavors. Someone learning about bourbon may realize they enjoy Maker’s Mark more than Four Roses, and then realize that is due to the softer mouthfeel of the former, and then ask themselves “why is it like this?” A bit of Googling will point toward a wheated mash bill, and the different flavors that imparts relative to a high rye mash bill. This may sound elementary to the more experienced drinkers in the audience, but please remember that we all start somewhere.
Love it or loathe it, the Jim Beam distillery DNA has been evident in every expression I have tried from Knob Creek. A reductivist note would be “peanuts,” and I’d certainly expect that aroma or flavor to be present. However, there’s a lot more than that connecting this to the other members of what used to be called the “Small Batch Collection.” Knob Creek is a perfect way, in my estimation, to establish a flavor benchmark to associate with Jim Beam, against which future whiskeys can be measured.
With all that out of the way, let’s get to tasting the whiskey!
Knob Creek 9 Year Old Bourbon – Review
Color: Medium golden orange.
On the nose: Starts surprisingly fresh, with spring flowers, dew-dampened grass clippings, and some lightly sweet scents of confectioners’ sugar. With a little time, this transforms into the more rich sweetness of crème brûlée. Tilting the glass at a slightly different angle presents a completely different aromatic profile, with the aforementioned nuts (more like cashews than peanuts, though), as well as the rich and spicy meatiness of roasted pork seasoned with an ancho chili rub. Revisiting this again, I get very rich notes of ripe stone fruit and a touch of cigar ash.
In the mouth: Very lean and firm to begin, with a pert kiss of limestone and some intense floral notes, reminiscent of rosewater or perfume. These floral notes really bloom and intensify as the whiskey moves toward the midpalate, where I get a juicy burst of tangerine and another, different nutty flavor, this time the unmistakable bitterness of almonds. This turns more woody, becoming nearly tannic, as it moves toward the finish. There, a reprise of the fruit and nut notes sings out for a final time. This fades to a soft volume, where it lingers for thirty seconds after the last swallow.
Is this whiskey going to change anyone’s life? Probably not the majority of our readers. However, as stated before, I can see this being eye opening for someone at a very particular point in their bourbon journey. It’s a noticeable step up in terms of quality and flavor, in a way that might prompt further exploration.
But, you don’t need to be in the right place at the right time to appreciate this. It’s a pour I order frequently at bars, and bottles are definitely in my “heavy rotation” of quality sippers that are also affordable enough to use in cocktails. With all that in mind, I am happy to give this a score one notch above the middle of the range, corresponding to “Great” on our price-sensitive scoring bands.
This is but one of several excellent options for expanding a nascent whiskey enthusiast’s palate and consciousness. If you can recommend any others, please do so in the comments section, below. Cheers!
Lead image courtesy of Jim Beam/Knob Creek.