Picking a barrel of Knob Creek: A photo essay

Have you ever selected your own barrel of bourbon? I have a few times. Well, me along with a dozen or two of my drinking buddies. I’m a member of the Georgia Bourbon Society, a group that selects a barrel or two of bourbon for ourselves once or twice a year. No, you don’t have to be from Georgia to be a member, obviously. It’s just a group of friends from all over the country, organized by two men who live in Atlanta.

There are dozens of groups like the GBS around the country. Some are ad hoc groups, some are loose affiliations like us and some are organized clubs with rules and membership rolls and whatnot. This sort of thing has been going on for a long time, but it has become much more common as bourbon’s popularity has taken off.

GBS has made the rounds over the years. Our first selections were of Elijah Craig and Elijah Craig barrel strength. Our next one was Elmer T. Lee, then two barrels from Four Roses, then a Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel from Wild Turkey. Last weekend we selected a barrel of Knob Creek Single Barrel at Jim Beam. It was a great experience.

We gathered at the Jim Beam American Stillhouse (aka the gift shop) in Clermont, Kentucky at 10 AM that morning. First on the agenda was, of course, the tasting and selection. We gathered in Warehouse K amongst the barrels.

Photo by R. Turner
Photo by R. Turner 


The view

There were tables set up with four glasses each, one with a red band, one with a green band, one with a blue band and one with no band at all. A glass water bottle was on each table too. Three barrels had been rolled out for us to choose from, each one corresponding to a colored band. Red was first, green second and blue third. We sniffed and tasted all three in turn and then over again and then took a secret ballot. Just one vote separated the first and second places so we considered a taste off, but in the end we just went with the first place finisher. I thought it tasted and smelled like snickerdoodle cookies. It was a very good barrel of bourbon.

The winning barrel was then rolled on to a truck and driven over to the distillery for dumping. Some of our members had the privilege of aiding in the dumping process. We then all watched and waited to see how much bourbon was going to come out of that barrel. About 33 gallons is the answer (that’s about 20 gallons lost to evaporation over the ten years of the bourbon’s life).


Drilling out the bung
Drilling out the bung


The bucket of bung parts



After a delicious complimentary bbq lunch, we got a full tour and then the unheard of (at least unheard of by me) experience of actually watching our barrel get bottled and packed. We were able to follow the bottles all the way down the line to the end, where we got to pack them into cases ourselves.

Filling the bottles.

We then had the opportunity to buy a bottle then and there through the gift shop, at a higher price, of course. There were five bottles left over after all the cases were filled, so five of us stepped up to buy one. My friend Amy, also a GBS member, had requested a bottle so the one I purchased was on her behalf. Those of us buying bottles then had the opportunity to apply the wax seal to the bottles ourselves! Waxing is a multi-step process. The following four pictures were taken by S. Ivancic.

Stick the neck into the mold and push the button to seal
Stick the neck into the mold and push the button to seal.
Finally, stick your thumb into the soft wax at the top just for fun.

The whole experience was wonderful and far exceeded my expectations. Some of the participants thought it was all a little too long but I loved every minute of it. We picked a damned good barrel too. I can’t wait until I get my bottles!

If you have an opportunity to select a barrel from Beam, I highly recommend it.

I.W. Harper Bourbon Whiskey

Maker: Diageo, Louisville, Kentucky/Norwalk, Connecticut, USAwpid-2015-07-12-19.19.19.jpg.jpeg

Distiller(s): Unknown

Age: NAS

Proof: 82 (41% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum: $30

Appearance: Light copper.

Nose: Alcohol, cayenne pepper, leather.

Palate: Sweet and mild. Brach’s caramels, chocolate covered toffee, a little bit of alcohol bite.

Finish: Sweet but a little spicy. Caramel, cocoa, alcohol.

Mixed: Excellent in all cockltails- Manhattan, Perfect Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Boulevardier. OK on the rocks and with soda.

Parting words: I.W. Harper was reintroduced to the U.S. this year after being gone for a couple decades. I.W. Harper begin life as the flagship bourbon of Isaac Wolfe Bernheim’s (d. 1945) distillery. After prohibition, the distillery and brand were sold to Schenley. Through a series of mergers I.W. Harper came to be owned by Diageo, even though the Bernheim distilley was sold to Heaven Hill in 1997. Heaven Hill’s Bernheim Wheat Whiskey is a tribute to I.W. Berneim and his brother Bernard.

One of the first ever “dusties” I found was a bottle of I.W. Harper. It was also the first dusty I was ever disappointed with. It was bland and watery. The 15 y/o (a part of the Bourbon Heritage Collection) was bland and watery but with a little oak thrown in. This is a big improvement on those two. It’s not extremely complex, but it’s got a great mouthfeel and enough spice to keep things interesting. It also plays very well with mixers. There are better choices at $30, but I.W. Harper isn’t a bad one.

I.W. Harper is recommended.

Bulleit 10 y/o

Distiller: Four Roses, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, USA (For now. Brand owned by Diageo)wpid-2015-07-10-19.53.00.jpg.jpeg

Style: High rye bourbon.

Age: 10 y/o

Proof: 91.2 (45.6% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum: $47

Appearance: Burnt orange

Nose: Alcohol, red pepper flakes, charred oak.

Palate: Caramel, toffee, oak, serrano chiles, lavender, grape bubblegum.

Finish: Oak, alcohol, circus peanut.

Parting words: This is the latest installment in the “cleaning out my liquor cabinet” series. I bought this bottle at the distillery. Well, not at the distillery it was distilled at, but at the one that serves as home to the “Bulleit Experience”, Stizel-Weller.

This this bourbon is fine. No flaws, drinks well, etc. But Four Roses Single Barrel is $42, 100 proof and almost always more interesting than this. There’s no good reason to buy this bourbon instead of that one. Bulleit 10 y/o is mildly recommended.

Maker’s Mark Cask Strength

Maker: Maker’s Mark, Loretto, Kentucky, USA (Beam Suntory)wpid-20150529_191023.jpg

Age: NAS

Proof: 111.3 (55.65%)

Michigan State Minimum: $60 (also available in 375 ml bottles for $35)

Appearance: Reddish copper with thin, frequent legs.

Nose: Alcohol, oak, vanilla. Toned down a little with water.

Palate: Hot. Alcohol, leather, vanilla. A little tamer than at full strength. Starts sweet but dries into a bitter char note.

Finish: All alcohol. Pretty tasty with water. Drying with oak and vanilla. Lingers a while.

Parting words: Beam Suntory has been experimenting a lot lately. Most of that has been with Jim Beam, but some of it has spilled over into Maker’s. First Maker’s 46 and now this, Maker’s Mark Cask Stength. Maker’s had a 101 proof expression at one time (although I think it was only available overseas) but other than that, high proof has never been something that Maker’s has really done.

I like standard Maker’s, especially in the summertime. It has a nice, easy drinking sweetness that can refreshing, but is never particularly interesting. This expression tasted drier than I expected (similar to Pappy 15 in that way) but otherwise it is pretty standard Maker’s. The higher ABV brings out more of the bitter char flavors with is not necessarily tasty. I almost wanted to water it down even further but

what’s the point of watering a cask strength bourbon down to standard strength? There’s certainly no price savings here.

Tasting makers at cask strength was interesting but not interesting enough to make me want to buy a second bottle. Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is mildly recommended.

Five-Way Honey Liqueur Tasting

Under the “we taste them so you don’t have to” category comes this 5 bottle tasting of bourbon (and Jack Daniels) honey wpid-20150411_205850.jpgliqueurs. While flavored spirits are very popular now, the whiskey liqueur has a long history. In the early days of distilling in Scotland, the spirit (it would not qualify as whisky in the 21th

century) was usually sweetened with honey and flavored with herbs and spices to make it more palatable for recreational consumption. The popular Scotch whisky liqueur Drambuie is a marketed as a modern riff on that tradition. In the mid to late 20th century, many bourbon producers sold whiskey liqueurs as well, the best known and best being Wild Turkey Liqueur. It’s worth a purchase if you ever come across it. This current crop of whiskey liqueurs is only a few years old, but they’re already ubiquitous. They’re all over the place too.

I want to thank Mrs. Sipology Blog, Liz for being my co-taster in this exercise. In fact, it was her idea. So without further ado…

Wild Turkey American Honey, $21, 71°

L: Color like a golden apple. Butter, pear, whiskey. Thick but not sticky. Airplane sippable. Thumbs up.

J: Pale. Light vanilla and honey in the nose. Medium bodied. Sweet and slightly herbaceous with a little burn. Pretty good for what it is.

Evan Williams Honey Reserve, $13, 70°

L: Very, very light in color. Watered down apple juice. Sweeter nose, sweeter overall. More honey than alcohol. Sugary aftertaste. Too sweet to drink neat. Needs mixing, maybe with club soda.

J: Paler. Mildly sweet nose with some peanut butter. Honeyed water. No burn. Honeycomb finish. It’s big. Yeah, yeah, yeah. OK, but unbalanced.

Jim Beam Honey, $20, 70°

L: Bourbon-like in color (contains caramel). Strange smell, like peat, charcoal and corn. More burn than the EW, but not as complex. Honey, charcoal, nothing else. “I don’t think I finish this [1/4 oz pour].”

J: Much darker. Very weird nose, like white dog. Bland with a bit of sweetness and little else, not even honey. Finish like grape soda. Really bad. To the sink!

Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey, $25, 70°

L: Pretty light. Nose is honey, big time. No burn in the nose. Weird taste on the roof of the mouth toward the back. Smells better than it tastes. [grimaces] “Flat soda. I don’t like it. I don’t want to finish it.”

J: Wonderful jellybean nose. Waxy and perfumed on the palate like a scented candle. Not as bad as the JB, but not great either.

Red Stag Honey Tea, $20, 80°

L: At a loss for notes. More burn, less sugar but dull. Charcoal again. Nice bourbon flavor but too bland overall.

J: An improvement on the JB. Higher proof allows the bourbon to shine through a little more. Close in flavor to the EW until I get to the finish. A big burst of used teabags rounds things out. Better than the JD or JB.

Final results (unanimous)

Winner: Wild Turkey American Honey

Final standings: 1) WTAH 2) EWHR 3) RSHT 4) JDTH 5) JBH

(unanimous decision on both)

Parting words (Josh): This tasting surprised me a bit. The winner did not surprise me, but how bad JB and JD were did. Jim Beam honey was vile, disgusting stuff and Jack wasn’t much better. Another surprise was that Red Stag Honey Tea was not vile. I don’t see myself ever buying a bottle but a casual whiskey drinker might enjoy it on the rocks on a hot day with a slice of lemon.

If one is looking for a bargain, EWHR qualifies, but it’s so bland it hardly seems worth saving the extra $8. The only one on the list that I recommend is Wild Turkey Honey. It’s not as good as the old WT liqueur but it’s by far the best of this bunch. It’s best enjoyed in cocktails or as a digestif.

Kirkland Premium Small Batch Bourbon

Maker: Costco, Issaquah, Washington, USAwpid-20150326_121209.jpg

Distilled by: Beam, Clemont, Kentucky, USA (Beam-Suntory)

Age: 7 y/o

Proof: 103 (51.5% ABV)

Batch B-5183

Purchased for around $20/1 liter (Not available in Michigan)

Appearance: Dark copper with thin legs and a lot of necklacing.

Nose: Sweet peanut butter, lavender, alcohol, cut grass.

Palate: Caramel, toffee, alcohol, milk chocolate.

Finish: Dry and herbaceous with a touch of toffee.

Parting words: Costco’s Kirkland brand has appeared on everything from bottled water to dog food and beyond, including booze. There’s Kirkland beer, wine, vodka, rum, tequila, bourbon, Canadian whisky and even a 40 year old single malt Scotch distilled by Glenlivet.

All are good values but the bourbon is a standout. On paper, it’s hard to do better. Where else can one get a liter of 103 proof, 7 y/o bourbon for around $20? Nowhere, unless you have a time machine. It’s almost as good in the glass as it is on paper. The label’s statement that it was distilled and bottled by a company with facilities in Clermont & Frankfort, Kentucky reveals that this is a Jim Beam product.

The Beam product that is closest to this is the 7 y/o, 107 proof Baker’s bourbon, a sleeper bourbon if there ever was one. While this is similar, it’s a bit milder (4 proof points will do that) but the lower price more than makes up for that. Kirkland is a little harsh at first pour, but opens up beautifully the longer it sits, bringing out chocolate-covered toffee.

I’m a sucker for a cheap, high proof bourbon in the 6-10 year range. The 6 y/o Very Old Barton Bottled-in-Bond is about the only one that tops this in that category. Kirkland Premium Small Batch is highly recommended.

Big Bottom Port Cask Finished

Maker: Big Bottom, Hillsboro, Oregon, USAwpid-20150220_122442.jpg

Distiller: Unknown, likely MGPI, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, USA

Style: Straight bourbon finished in Port casks.

Age: NAS

Proof: 91 (45.5% AVB)

Batch: 7

Note: Not chill filtered

Price: $40 (Binny’s)

Appearance: Dark auburn.

Nose: Alcohol, oak, wood varnish, hint of port.

Palate: Sweet and oaky on the palate. Alcohol, aged tawny, chocolate covered dried cherries.

Finish: Alcohol, wine grape jam, dates. Lingers for a long time.

Mixed: While I don’t usually mix bourbons in this price range, fortified wine finished bourbons usually mix very well in the classier sort of cocktails so I thought I’d give it a go. I tried it in a Manhattan, perfect Manhattan, boulevardier, Dave Wondrich’s Holdfast cocktail (bourbon, bitters, splash of Gran Marnier) and a whiskey sour. It did well in all but it showed up best in the cocktails with as few mixers as possible to let the finishing show through. These were the Manhattans, Holdfast and the sour.

Parting words: Big Bottom (named after a section of the Lewis & Clark Mt. Hood Wilderness Area, and not to be confused with Big Ass Bourbon) offer a range of bourbons but made their name with their wine-finished ones. They bottle wines finished in Rhone, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Port barrels. I decided to start with their Port-finished expression because I have more experience with Port-finished whiskeys than with any of the others. This one is finished in a ten year old tawny cask.

This is probably the best Port-finished bourbon I’ve had. It is a little hot upon first pour but after blows off it gets much better. BB doesn’t have the strawberry flavors of Angel’s Envy (or the Balvenie Portwood for that matter) but has richer fruit flavors like the cherry and date mentioned above.  It works  very well with red vermouth and is damn near perfect as an after-dinner sipper. The price is fair for a product of this high quality. The care they took in selecting the barrels for finishing shows in the end result. Big Bottom Port finished is recommended.


Medley Bros.

Maker: Charles W. Medley, Owensboro, Kentucky, USAwpid-2014-12-13-10.25.47.jpg.jpeg

Distiller: Unknown.

Age: NAS

Proof: 102 (51% ABV)

Price: $24 (The Party Source)

Appearance: Pale copper.

Nose: Corn chips, tarragon, leather.

Palate: Soft mouthfeel. A delicate slight corny or maybe malty sweetness. It slowly grows hotter and hotter until it fills the mouth with cayenne pepper.

Finish: Like Mae West: hot and corny with maybe a touch of sweet malt.

Mixed: Very good in cocktails. Excellent in a Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Boulevardier, with Benedictines and even in a hot toddy.

Parting words: Medley Bros. is the cheapest, highest proof and newest product in the Medley line of bourbons. The brands are owned by Charles W. Medley (son of Wathen, 2nd from right on the label) and his son Sam. All their bourbons are custom distilled by an undisclosed Kentucky distiller and bottled by Frank-Linn of Fairfield, California. According to Chuck Cowdery, they are all made from the family mashbill, which has a high malt content relative to other bourbons.

It tastes like it. It has a mild sweetness that resembles what I imagine a high malt bourbon would taste like. The only bourbon I’ve had with a similar sweetness is 1792, which is also (maybe) a high malt bourbon.

It fares well against the competition, too. I tasted it next side by side with Wild Turkey 101, Old Forester Signature, Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond (white label) and Very Old Barton Bottled-in-Bond. It didn’t blow any of them away, but it held its own. For cocktails, the Bros. are hard to beat. I wish I could have tasted it alongside Charter 101 and Old Grand Dad to get a more complete picture, but I forgot to get a bottle of either of those.

The label is crisp with just enough kitsch to be fun with portraits of the five brothers and the “heart of the run” neck thingy. The price is in line with the competition. My only complaint is the nose. As it sits in the glass, the corn chip aroma becomes stronger and stronger to the point of unpleasantness. In spite of that, Medley Bros. is recommended and highly recommended for cocktails. It is currently limited in distribution so pick up a bottle or two next time you’re in Kentucky.

Four Roses triple header: OESO vs. OESO vs. OESO single barrel selections

Maker: Four Roses, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, USAwpid-2014-11-12-17.24.33.jpg.jpeg

BBD= Binny’s

TPS= The Party Source

GBS= Georgia Bourbon Society

Warehouse: BN


BBD: 31-1D

TPS: 30-3E

GBS: 30-3G


BBD: 10 yrs, 11 mos.

TPS: 10 yrs, 3 mos.

GBS: 11 yrs, 5 mos.


BBD: 103.8 (51.9% ABV)

TPS: 115 (57.5% ABV)

GBS: 114 (57% ABV)

BBD: $55

TPS: $50 (current price for private selections)

GBS: Not disclosed (<$50)


BBD: Medium dark copper.

TPS: A little lighter with more orange.

GBS: Somewhere between the two (which are pretty similar anyway).


BBD: Leather, peanut brittle, cumin.

TPS: Big oak, touch of caramel.

GBS: Oak is just as big, but with more spice. Chili powder, Tabasco sauce.


BBD: Sweet and creamy on the palate, like vanilla toffee chews.

TPS: Sweet and creamy too, but not quite as rich.

GBS: Similar mouthfeel to BBD and just as sweet but more complex with Mexican chocolate flavors.


BBD: Sweet but drying. Toasted marshmallows. Lingers for a long time,

TPS: The oak carries through in the finish but with enough caramel to round it off.

GBS: Best of the bunch. Smoky chocolate and toffee.

Parting words: OESO is one of the most popular of Four Roses’ ten recipes for retailer and private selections, as this tasting illustrates. The E indicates the lower rye mashbill and the final O indicates the O yeast was used in fermentation. The O yeast is known for contributing a “robust fruitiness” to its offspring. These bourbons are all quite robust but not much was there in the way of fruitiness.

They are all very similar, as one might expect, but some of the subtle differences surprised me. I arranged the tasting the way I did, because I assumed that the TPS and the GBS would be closest in flavor but they weren’t. They were rick neighbors and came out at similar proofs but they ended up being the least alike of the three. The closest in profile were the BBD and GBS barrels. There were subtle differences between them but I highly doubt I could win a Pepsi Challenge scenario with the two of them.  The TPS barrel was the outlier. It is the youngest, but it was the woodiest of the three.

All three were very good, but the edge here goes to the product of the GBS barrel (which I and some friends of the blog helped select). The GBS selection was not for sale to the general public, but any GBS member would be happy to pour you some if you ask nicely. All are highly recommended.


Maker: Beam, Clermont, Kentucky, USA (Beam Suntory)wpid-20141031_173934.jpg

Age: 6 yrs, 2 mos

Proof: 128.5 (64.25% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $59

Appearance: Auburn with thin, evenly spaced legs.

Nose: Taffy, alcohol, lavender, leather, fresh basil, roasted corn.

Palate: Sweet and hot, but rounded. Rock candy and oak. Opens up but weakens with water. Butterscotch candy, tarragon, touch of char.

Finish: Table grapes, cut grass, alcohol, caramel corn.

Parting words: Booker’s was created by and named after Booker Noe, grandson of Jim Beam and father of Fred Noe, current Beam brand ambassador. According to marketing materials, this is how Booker drank his bourbon: uncut and at 6-8 y/o.

Booker’s was one of the first high-end bourbons I ever tasted and it was one of my favorites back then. I’ve had it a few other times over the years and it’s always been one I’ve enjoyed. This one doesn’t seem as good as ones I’ve had in the past. It has more of the less desirable aspects of the Beam character than  past bottles, especially with water added.

I’m not sure if it’s worth the price, especially considering that Knob Creek Single Barrel at 120 proof is only $46 and Baker’s is $47 at a lower proof and higher age. I’m not sure if a few more proof points and a pine box (perfect for Halloween) is worth the extra scratch. Still, it tastes good and that’s the most important thing, right? Booker’s is recommended.