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 

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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).

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Drilling out the bung
Drilling out the bung
Dumping
Dumping

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The bucket of bung parts

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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.

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Filling the bottles.
Capping
Capping
Labeling
Labeling
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Packing

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.

Dip
Dip
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Twist
Stick the neck into the mold and push the button to seal
Stick the neck into the mold and push the button to seal.
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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.

Alberta Rye Dark Batch

Maker: Alberta Distillers Ltd., Calgary, Alberta, Canada (Beam Suntory)wpid-2015-06-12-20.59.58.jpg.jpeg

Style: Blended Canadian Rye

Age: NAS

ABV: 45%

Michigan State Minimum: $27

Appearance: Dark (not surprisingly), ruddy copper.

Nose: Big, high-toned rye. Lemongrass, tarragon, alcohol, coriander seed, ginger, butterscotch, toffee.

Palate: Full bodied and creamy. Toffee, caramel, coffee grounds. A bit of bite on the back end.

Finish: Big herbaceous finish. Cilantro, curry.

Parting words: This whisky is essentially a rebranding of the Canada-only Albert Rye Dark Horse whisky. Why they thought “batch” would sell better in the US than “horse” is anybody’s guess, especially since horses are all over many high end bourbon labels.

At any rate, it’s a blend of Alberta-distilled rye with high-rye bourbon (Old Grand Dad) and a little sherry. Many palates I respect have been able to taste the bourbon in the mix, but I confess that I cannot. Perhaps some of the butterscotch and toffee flavors are from the OGD, but it seems more likely that they hail from the sherry than the bourbon.

Whatever is coming from wherever, this is a wonderful whisky, one of the best Canadians readily available. It’s a great value at this proof and price. It mixes surprisingly well too, at least in the Manhattan I just finished! Alberta Rye Dark Batch is highly 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.

Booker’s

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.

Head to Head: Jim Beam Black vs. Jim Beam Signature Craft 12 y/o

JBB= Jim Beam Blackwpid-2014-08-29-19.06.45.jpg.jpeg

JB12=  Jim Beam Signature Craft 12 y/o

Maker: Jim Beam, Clermont, Kentucky, USA (Beam Suntory)

Age

JBB: 8 y/o

JB12: 12 y/o

Proof: 86 (43%)

Michigan State Minimum

JBB: $25

JB12: $40

Appearance

JBB: New penny, long legs of medium thickness

JB12: Middle aged penny, thicker, slower legs.

Nose

JBB: Barrel char, alcohol, sourdough bread, crisp oak.

JB12: Oak, caramel, ancho chili, alcohol, crème fraiche.

Palate

JBB: Light and creamy. Dolce de leche, alcohol, French lavender.

JB12:  Full bodied but light. Same as above, but without the herbal note on the back end.

Finish

JBB: Semi-dry, a bit of yeasty funk, then alcohol and a hint of wood. Doesn’t stick around too long.

JB12: More balanced. Caramel, creme brulee, oak, alcohol. Fades fairly quickly.

Parting words: Before summing up the tasting notes, I would like to comment on some wording on the labels of these two bottles. First, Jim Beam Black calling itself “double aged” is a bit silly. All it means in this context is that JBB is aged twice as long as the standard Jim Beam with the white label. Silly and a bit slippery, but no harm done, really.

The other bottle is a little more problematic, at least to some. It reads “Jim Beam Signature Craft” with a label lower down on the bottle stating that it’s 12 y/o and 43% ABV. There has been much weeping and gnashing of teeth lately regarding the use of the word “craft” by large producers like Beam and Diageo. The controversy stems from the use of the word by micro-distillers to refer to themselves. Big producers who call themselves craft are, the argument goes, stealing the micros’ thunder and basically lying to consumers.

The use of craft by large producers does not bother me in the slightest. In my view, the term has already been emptied of all meaning by these micro producers themselves. ADI and other organizations of micro-producers have allowed too many phonies to claim the name of craft for it to mean anything anymore. There are “craft distillers” who do nothing more than cut whiskey distilled by someone else with local water and claim to be artisans. There are some who don’t even go to that much effort. Even those who do distill their own product often have a brewery make their mash or use prepackaged yeast. Jim Beam does all their own mashing at their three Kentucky distilleries and has at least three proprietary yeast strains. That sounds pretty crafty to me. So I have no problem with Beam using the word for what it does. If the micro-distilling community wanted to protect the sanctity of craft, then they should have done a better job of regulating themselves and come down harder on the fakers.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get back to the bourbon. Neither of these are bad. The Black has some rough edges but it’s drinkable and refreshing on the rocks on a hot summer day. The 12 y/o (“Triple Aged”?) is more sophisticated and nicely balanced. It works well as a summertime after-dinner pour.

My gripe with both of these is the low proof. It’s less of an issue with Beam Black, since it’s fairly cheap and the low proof may help mellow out the funk. It is recommended. There is no justification for a $40 bottle of bourbon like Jim Beam Signature Craft 12 y/o to be bottled at only 86 proof. If Heaven Hill has enough stock to produce a 12 y/o bourbon at over 90 proof for under $30, then Beam can afford to up the proof on its “Signature Craft” series at $40. Because of that, Jim Beam Signature Craft 12 y/o is only mildly recommended.

Old Overholt

Maker: Beam, Clermont, Kentucky, USA (Beam Suntory)OO

Style: Kentucky rye whiskey

Age: 3 y/o

Proof: 80 (40% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $22

Appearance: Pale copper.

Nose: Burnt corn syrup, white dog, lavender, epazote, wood varnish.

Palate: Sugar, alcohol and an indescribable herbal note.

Finish: Peanut brittle, tarragon, alcohol.

Mixed: Did well mixed in everything I tried it in. Did well with ginger ale and just fine in a Sazerac. The OO Manhattan was very good but I used a strongly flavored vermouth so Overholt was a bit overmatched. I didn’t try anything else but Don Draper once used it to make an Old Fashioned.

Parting words: Old Overholt is one of the oldest whiskey brands in America. It was originally made in Pennsyvania, first under the ownership of Abraham Overholt then his grandson industrialist Henry Clay Frick. The brand became a part of National Distillers after Prohibition. Production was moved from Pennsylvania to the Old Grand-Dad distillery (a.k.a. The Forks of the Elkhorn) in Frankfort, Kentucky after ND shut down its distilleries in PA. Production was moved to Clermont when Beam acquired National Distillers in 1987. It now occupies the bottom shelf of Beam’s rye brands (the others being Jim Beam Rye, Ri1, Knob Creek Rye) at 3 years old and 80 proof.

Old Overholt’s history is neat, but I would never recommend drinking it neat. It’s rough and weak. The best that can be said for it is that it’s easy to find (now that it is finally in Michigan), mixes well and is relatively cheap. On the other hand, Rittenhouse rye is also easy to find these days and is only $2 more. It has the added advantages of tasting great both neat and mixed and being 100 proof. Sazerac and Bulleit rye are more expensive (both are $28) and Sazerac is much harder to find but both taste good either way.

In summary, if all you do with your rye is mix it, then Old Overholt is mildly recommended. If you want a rye to drink neat, with water or on the rocks then look elsewhere. Not recommended.

2 Gingers

Distiller: Cooley, Co. Louth, Ireland (Beam Suntory)2 Gingers

Style: Blended Irish

Age: NAS (about 4 y/o)

ABV: 40%

Michigan state minimum: $20

Appearance: Dark gold (possibly colored), with short-lived legs.

Nose: Rich and malty. Sherry, dried flowers, brown butter, vanilla and spice.

Palate: Full bodied and semi-sweet. Cashew brittle, five spice powder, more vanilla.

Finish: Slightly rubbery, with a little spice, caramel and alcohol.

Mixed: There’s a lot of emphasis on mixing in the marketing of 2 Gingers so I gave a few of their signature drinks a try. The Big Ginger (whiskey, ginger ale and a squeeze of lime) was good. The lime juice does a good job of cutting what might otherwise be too sweet. The B53 (whiskey, coffee liqueur, Irish cream, Gran Marnier) is a variation on the B52 shot and even better. The spice and malt notes from 2 Gingers play very well with the orange liqueur and set off the coffee flavors nicely. I also tried it in a traditional Irish coffee in which it performed admirably.

Parting words: This brand was founded in Minnesota, strangely enough, by Irish-born bar and restaurant owner Kieran Folliard. It was named for his ginger mother and aunt whose portraits grace the logo. He sold the brand to Beam in 2012 and it is now distributed over most of the U.S. Although the name Kilbeggan is splashed all over this bottle, I can’t find any evidence that any of it was made at that distillery. Maybe that’s Beam’s plan for the future.

Anyway, it excels as a cheap, easy drinking mixing Irish whiskey. It resembles Powers more than Jameson in that respect, but it’s a little lighter in flavor. If you’ve been curious about having a go at 2 Gingers, I recommend it.

Baker’s

Maker: Jim Beam, Clermont, Kentucky, USABaker's

Age: 7 y/o

Proof: 107 (53.5% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum: $47

Appearance: Dark Copper with thick legs.

Nose: Leather, alcohol, caramel. Water brings out a weird rotten vegetable smell.

Palate: Full bodied and sweet. Cotton candy, plum, oak, oregano, clove. Goes down a little easier with water and brings butterscotch into the mix.

Finish: Hot and sweet. Peppermint cotton candy. I don’t know if such a thing exists but if it does, it tastes like this. Milder and sweeter with H2O.

Parting words: Baker’s is named after Baker Beam, grandson of Jim’s brother “Park” Beam (not to be confused with Parker Beam, Heaven Hill master distiller) and thus second cousin to Booker Noe. For further confusion, consult the interactive Beam family tree here.

It’s is a part of Beam’s Small Batch collection. The other members are Knob Creek, Booker’s and Basil Hayden. Basil is the whipping boy of the group, being no more than Old Grand Dad in a fancier bottle. Knob Creek is very popular and rightly so. It’s the oldest and the only one with line extensions (Rye, Single Barrel, Smoked Maple). Booker’s is barrel strength and is the sort of flagship of the group, with a 25th anniversary, 10 y/o edition being released soon. Baker’s is 7 y/o and 107 proof and unfortunately occupies the “ignored middle child” spot in the Small Batch family.

I bought this bottle when I learned that Baker’s price was going up substantially in Michigan. I hadn’t had it in a very long time and I was pleasantly surprised. I reviewed the now dusty Beam Distiller’s Series last year. It was also 7 y/o and tasty, but Baker’s has a depth of flavor and weight that the DS lacked. This is probably because of the lower barrel entry proof used for Baker’s and Booker’s. It also fares well compared to Booker’s. Booker’s is higher proof but its age has been creeping down as its price has been creeping up. Booker’s currently sells for close to $60 in Michigan, which in my opinion is absurdly expensive for a 6 y/o bourbon, barrel strength or not. Baker’s price has risen in tandem with Booker’s, but it has stayed 7 y/o which gives it the edge over its cousin.

The only flaw is the inexplicable rotten garbage smell that came out with water. That problem is easily solved by not adding  water or using it very sparingly. Overall Baker’s is a very good bourbon at a decent price. That earns it a recommendation.