Updated April 5, 2016
By Richard Thomas
I was visiting my family in My Old Kentucky Home in March 2011, and while there I did what I always do when I’m in Kentucky on an unplanned visit: I visited the Liquor Barn to pick up a couple of bottles of bourbon to bring back to Portugal with me. This time I spotted something new, Knob Creek’s Single Barrel Reserve, which had been released only in February. I instantly snapped a bottle up, and eagerly awaited getting it back to Portugal where I could try what purported to be a stronger and more rarefied take on Knob Creek’s traditional virtues. I was not disappointed, because Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve is outstanding. It is not regular Knob Creek intensified, but remains an excellent whiskey.
Knob Creek Single Barrel comes in what is basically the same bottle as the label’s regular small batch, only with an inked-on label that leaves more clear glass and thereby reveals more of the whiskey’s gloriously dark amber color. Unfortunately, the wax and pull-tab have the same flaws as the regular Knob Creek small batch.
The core difference between Knob Creek Single Barrel and the original is the single barrel part. Each barrel of bourbon whiskey is chosen for quality and then bottled without blending. Single barrel bourbons are also usually unadulterated, as is the case with Knob Creek Single Barrel. A minimum of water is added, and the bourbon is not filtered in any way. It goes straight from the barrel and into the bottle. The result is a 120 proof (60% – the angel’s share was quite high) straight bourbon whiskey that intensifies many of the characteristic qualities of the familiar, small batch version of Knob Creek.
The distinctive, fiery bite of Knob Creek starts nibbling on you with the nose of the whiskey. The high alcohol content really comes across from the scent alone, but it isn’t overpowering. The woody vanilla from the nine years of aging is strong, mixed with hints of orange and cinnamon. What is missing is the char. Knob Creek always had a smoky quality to it from start to finish, and that is largely absent in the nose. On the palate, the bourbon’s natural fire is mixed with cinnamon, nutmeg and orange spice rather than oak char. The finish, however, is all Knob Creek, with plenty of glowing warmth. The result is a bourbon which ironically would be better appreciated by people who are not whiskey snobs than normal Knob Creek, were it not for the high alcohol content.
Addendum By John Rayls
Spoiler alert: I love this bourbon!
The look of Knob Creek is very dark in the bottle, but even more so in the glass. It is a very beautiful coppery brown, with glistening highlights as it diffuses the light passing through it. The legs are hard to describe. They are significant and substantial, the best I’ve ever seen in a glass. It almost appears to be part syrup.
The nose is very present. However, it’s surprisingly missing any alcohol burn. The company describes the aromas as robust vanilla and slightly smokey caramel, but I would also add some light sweet corn. A country boy from Indiana recognizes sweet corn when he smells it.
Initially, there is a very pleasant thorough coating of the tongue and mouth. I would encourage you to hold it there for a few seconds before swallowing. All of the action takes place at mid-tongue and upper mid-mouth. There are multiple waves of complex flavors involving vanilla, nuts and oak. The finish is long and spicy and filled with warm notes of cinnamon. The finish starts at mid-mouth and eventually migrates to the tip of the tongue.
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve is a real winner in terms of bang for the buck. The bourbon is typically priced at $40 a bottle, which makes it enormously economical when the character of the whiskey is considered. This is only $8 more per bottle than the regular Knob Creek, but a whole notch up in terms of quality.