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Knob Creek Limited Edition 15 Year Old Bourbon Review

Knob Creek Limited Edition 15 Year Old Bourbon Review

The other night, a buddy of mine was reminiscing about the “good ol’ days of bourbon” when it seemed like every store had a 14 or 15 year old Knob Creek Single Barrel pick for sale. This brief blip in bourbon history made no sense. Why was Jim Beam bottling up barrels that old and still selling them for the standard Knob Creek price of around $50? Surely they were losing money on this.

And then one day, they were gone.

Jim Beam restructures the Knob Creek brand

I spend a lot of time talking about the history of bourbon or how bourbon is made. It’s interesting and fun to learn and read about. But there is one side of the industry that gets overlooked mainly because of how unsexy it is. And while I don’t have a specific name for it, I do know what they do: they’re the forces behind future products and brand changes.

Wow, that was really boring to read and I’m the one that wrote it! But I promise, it will come together here in a minute. Anyway, up until 2017, there were 4 types of Knob Creek labels. Small Batch Bourbon (100 Proof), Single Barrel Bourbon (120 Proof), Small Batch Rye Whiskey (100 Proof) and Single Barrel Rye Whiskey (115 Proof). This was all well and good for a time, but Jim Beam saw what others were doing with expanding their lineups, so a plan was hatched to expand the Knob Creek lineup.

Going back to the people behind the future products and brand changes, their goal was to create an extended family of age-stated bourbons (and an upcoming expansion of the rye whiskey lineup) that could be sold at increasingly higher price points. Jim Beam was already setting on some of the largest stocks of aged bourbon in Kentucky, so this was a no-brainer. The product developers – all the way back in 2017 or 2018 – mapped out a plan to introduce staggered age-stated labels of 12, 15 and 18 years old.

A quick inventory of their warehouses confirmed that they had a huge glut of barrels distilled around 2004. So the planners got together with the blenders and tasters to sort through them. The groups they separated them into were:

  • barrels that could be put into a 12 year old product
  • barrels that could be put into a 15 year old product
  • barrels that could continue to age without becoming over-oaked (these would eventually become KC18 or Hardin’s Creek)
  • barrels that were good enough to release as single barrels
  • barrels that were so off-profile that they couldn’t be used in any Jim Beam product

The latter-mentioned barrels – by the way – ended up being dumped in 1000 liter “totes” and sold to barrel brokers. They would become the 15-year-old “Beam Totes” known by the unusual mash bill of 78.5% corn, 13% rye and 8.5% malted barley. I’m going to say this next opinion knowing that I’ll get a flood of angry comments saying I’m wrong – but I think that Knob Creek bourbon uses this 78.5/13/8/5 mash bill. I have no insider feeding me info at Beam, but I swear they have different recipes for different products. This just happens to be Knob Creek’s formulation.

Beam knew that they had to get rid of the excess 15 year old single barrels as quick as they could so that they could begin revamping the lineup. So they did a quick label change that would provide barreled and dumped dates. This was designed to appeal to enthusiasts who could – for the first time – see the age on the front. That made the single barrel sell faster than ever. Starting in mid-2018, it took Beam about 18 months to sell through these 14 to 15 year old barrels.

With their inventories beginning to balance out in mid-2019, Knob Creek 12 Year Old Bourbon was announced. There was one problem though – it was priced at around $65. That meant it was $10 to $15 more expensive than the single barrels of Knob Creek Single Barrel store picks which were 3 years older and 20 proof points higher. Beam’s timing for the release of the 12 year label was off by about a year, but in the middle of 2020, nobody had any remaining bottles of the 15 year old single barrels anymore.

Knob Creek Limited Edition 15 Year Old Bourbon

In June, 2020, Beam decided to release the remaining 15 year old barrels it had held back for a special “Limited Release.” Initially, enthusiasts were angry that Beam was charging twice as much money (now $100) for a product that had less proof than the single barrels they had been buying for the last 2 years. But there was nothing enthusiasts could do about it because the Knob Creek Single Barrel Program had already transitioned back to 9-year-old barrels.

Knob Creek’s inaugural 15-year-old Limited Edition was served up in a fancy wooden box for its first release (KC001). It was widely regarded as a fantastic bottle. The second release that came out in 2021 (KC002) sported the new bottle shape and wax formulation (goodbye flaky wax) – but no box. The price remained the same. Knob Creek would continue this trend with an 18 year old Limited Releases in 2022 and 2023.

But for today, let’s focus on the bourbon inside. Knob Creek barrels typically get pulled from the center of the warehouses which see a sort of “climate neutral zone” where it doesn’t get too hot or too cold. Knob Creek bourbon is put into the barrel at 125 proof and more-or-less remains within 7 proof points of the original entry proof when its done maturing. This neutral-ish way of maturation never pulls too much oak into the liquid nor does deny the complex interactions of heat to the liquid like aging on lower floors does. So how will it taste? Let’s find out. I sampled this neat in a glencairn.

Tasting Notes

Nose: The first note was one I wasn’t expecting for a Jim Beam product: cherries. There are lots of them surprisingly. Another sniff reveals a very balanced oak scent followed by brown sugar. Melted chocolate and vanilla custard can also be found. This is a very enticing, well-matured bourbon nose and is way better than I ever thought it would be. I’m not even getting much of the classic “nuttiness” that I normally associate with Jim Beam. Impressive!

Palate: There’s that cherry note again. I’m pleased it’s made its way to the palate. I am also finding another fruit note by way of Orange Jolly Ranchers (does that flavor even exist?). Classic bourbon notes like vanilla (ice cream) and ground cinnamon give layers of flavor to each sip. But it’s the (once-again) well-balanced tannins of oak and pipe tobacco that really stand out to me. They never get bitter and are perfectly integrated. Once again, I’m not finding much in the way of any kind of Beam nuttiness.

Finish: Some chocolate flavors appear for the finish along with a flavor that I’d describe as coffee beans. These could be considered bitter, but don’t really come off that way. I think it shows how controlled the tannins are overall. Speaking of tannins, oak spice combines with more tobacco to make you remember just how old this is. Sweetness coming from toffee keeps everything in check.

Score: 8.5/10

Knob Creek 15 Year has no right to be as good as it is. For being less proof than the single barrel versions that were its same age, I think this easily competes with them and will beat some of them too. Make sure to smash the “thumbs down” and “unfollow” buttons after that comment. The only way I can wrap my head around why that is probably has to do with barrel selection. Simply put, Beam’s tasting crew put in the work on which barrels should go into this blend and the sum ended up being better than the parts.

Around the industry, we hear things like how bourbon’s don’t do well at higher ages because the oak starts to take over. That’s mostly true. But Jim Beam seems to have this magical sort of ability to never bottle up an over-oaked bourbon. I don’t know how they got so good at it, but the proof is staring at me from the bottom of my glencairn.

Final Thoughts

A long time ago I was given the first batch of Knob Creek 15 Year in a blind sample and it really impressed me. I was certain I was tasting a barrel proof Buffalo Trace product – and an excellent one at that. I was shocked to find out it was a Jim Beam product upon reveal. But this is how it’s gone with a lot of Jim Beam products that I’ve been blinded with. The nutty note I always seem to associate with them vanishes when I’m unknowingly drinking it. Is it all in my head? I’m not sure, but I know I’ve given various Knob Creek products ridiculously high scores when I don’t know I’m drinking them. Take that for what it’s worth.

Knob Creek lacks a certain sex appeal that most people, including me, ignore. I know I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth when I say that I often snub these bottles at the store only to later shower them with praises when I actually drink them. Can you relate to that experience? Because if so, then Knob Creek 15 is definitely a bottle you need to check out. I can only hope the product planners at Jim Beam will make this a permanent part of the lineup in the near future.

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