The Knob Creek Background:
In the bourbon world, nothing is more compelling than a limited release from a premier distillery. Every fall bourbon fans across the US stand in ridiculously long lines, enter lotteries, and/or endlessly hound their local store owners for a chance to buy the latest limited offerings from Four Roses and Buffalo Trace, among others. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the release of Jim Beam’s Knob Creek 25th Anniversary Limited Edition, a 12-13 year, single barrel, barrel proof bruiser (120-125 proof), generated significant buzz among bourbon fans when it hit shelves in June. However, the cost ($129.99 MSRP) and the poor reception of Knob Creek 2001 led to hesitation and tempered expectations. Furthermore, due to a generous barrel program at Jim Beam, it is not rare to encounter private barrels of Knob Creek Single Barrel that approach the same age and proof as the much pricier 25th Anniversary.
The key differences between the KC 25th and Private Barrel Picks, other than a few proof points, is that the barrels selected for the Knob Creek 25th Anniversary release were hand selected for the highest quality by Fred Noe himself, while the quality of private barrels often hinges on the palate (or lack thereof) of random store owners and group members. In other words, we can be reasonably assured that Knob Creek 25th Anniversary is an excellent bourbon, while private picks could range from exceptional to exceptionally blah.
So is the extra security provided by Fred Noe’s palate worth dropping an extra 70-80 bucks on a bottle of Knob Creek 25th Anniversary? Or are you better off hunting down a private pick with good reviews from reputable sources?
To answer these questions, we lined up three of our favorite Knob Creek private picks alongside the 121.7 proof Knob Creek 25th and tasted them all in a single sitting. Here are our thoughts…
Knob Creek Single Barrel Private Pick #2 (Golden Ox): 12 years, 120 proof
Immediately dry on the entry followed by notes of tobacco, burnt sugar, and barrel char. The sweetness builds slowly and doesn’t peak until the finish. A fantastic, well-balanced bourbon.
Knob Creek Single Barrel Private Pick (Bob’s Discount Liquor): age unknown, 120 proof
Big and bold, but also the sweetest of the three pours. The palate opens with tons of caramel, vanilla, and toffee that blends perfectly into the wood spice heavy finish. Also outstanding.
Knob Creek Single Barrel Private Pick #3 (Single Barrel Project): 13 years, 120 proof
Much spicier than either of the other two single barrels, but that classic sweetness is still there in spades. Overall, this pick tastes a lot like an amped up version of the standard single barrel release. That’s a good thing.
Knob Creek 25h Anniversary Limited Edition: 13 years, 121.7 proof
Oak. Smoke. Sweet. In that order. This is unmistakably Knob Creek, but the tobacco and tannic mouthfeel make the 25th Anniversary a vastly different beast. This is certainly the most unique of the four pours.
Well, it’s confirmed – Fred Noe has a solid palate. Seriously, Knob Creek 25th Anniversary Limited Edition is everything I expected it to be – bold, complex, and worthy of repeated pours and contemplation. But is it $70-80 better than the three private picks we lined up? Honestly, no, it isn’t (at least this batch). In fact, if I had done this tasting blind, my guess is that I would have ranked the Golden Ox pick #1 overall. I do think that Knob Creek 25th was better than the other two picks, but only marginally.
So what have we learned? Clearly, Jim Beam’s private barrel program is generating some world-class picks. In fact, the bar is being set so high that it may be difficult for any Knob Creek limited release to clearly surpass it. While I can’t see anyone being disappointed in overall quality of Knob Creek 25th, especially if they haven’t had the opportunity to sample private picks of the caliber we assembled, the decision here seems clear. If you can get your hands on a reputable private pick – buy it and pocket the extra cash. Or better yet, buy two bottles and share one with some fellow Bourbon Sippers.