Photo: Michael B. Dougherty
With temps in the teens, and some unexpected snow on the ground, Knob Creek introduced the world to its first single-barrel reserve bottling right at the source, the Jim Beam distillery in Clermont, Kentucky.
A group gathered around seven-generation master distiller, Fred Noe, in one of the distillery's barrel houses, a plank-and-beam structure notable for its 20,000 casks of quietly aging bourbon, and on this particular morning, a distinct lack of heating or insulation. Noe, who traces his lineage back to Colonel Jim Beam himself (the man wasn't a marketing invention), carefully siphoned liquid out of several individually selected American white-oak casks to illustrate the distinction between Knob Creek and Knob Creek Single Barrel. Whereas the former is a blend and bottled at 100 proof, the latter is bottled directly from a single, "sweet" barrel, after being cut down to 120 proof (cask strength is around 130). The effect is an intriguing inconsistency in style that makes opening a bottle something of a throw at the roulette wheel. Of the four barrels we sampled, each had a distinctive profile that sometimes varied dramatically: Beyond the expected vanilla, wood and sweet notes, one skewed more towards a lighter, floral style while another had an unusually sharp, rye-like bite of spice.
Warmed by the tasting, we adjourned to the fermentation area of the distillery, where Noe detailed the various grains used beyond the mandated 51-percent corn (rye, malted barley) that form Knob Creek's "mash bill" and explained the sour mash process. Meanwhile, I got a lesson in getting too close to an open fermentor (hint: your eyes and CO2 don't mix). It was there that we also sampled some of the unaged distillate. Known as "white dog" or moonshine, the clear, slightly unctuous liquid has become somewhat of a spirits fad, and Noe hinted that Knob Creek may enter the market at some point.
After visiting the barrel-dumping room, to witness the nine-year-old bourbon's first step towards being bottled, we settled in for lunch. With his syrupy Kentucky drawl, Noe mused on what his father, Booker, would have thought of the release, set for next month. "When he did his small-batch [bourbon], single barrel was in its infancy, and he was all about consistency. Now, things have changed, people are looking for that inconsistency, something a little different," Noe said. "As long as we're not playing games, he'd be proud of it."