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Knob Creek (9 Year) Small Batch and Single Barrel Bourbon Reviews

Knob Creek is an extremely popular and well made bourbon from the folks at Jim Beam. If you drink bourbon or American Whiskey, the chances are great that you have tried or heard of Knob Creek. It’s a 9 year old small batch bourbon (a batching of numerous barrels) that is a part of Jim Beam’s “Small Batch Bourbon Collection” along with Baker’s, Basil Hayden’s, and Booker’s Bourbon.

This past February Beam put out a very highly anticipated Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve. It too is 9 years old and is a single barrel version of the small batch. Based on the below thoughts I’m pretty convinced it’s also from some very choice barrels. Enjoy the review!

Knob Creek Small Batch Bourbon, 9 Years Old, 50% abv (100 Proof), $32
Color: Deep Amber w/ glittering orange highlights
Nose: Burnt sugar and maple syrup dominate at first, then joined by dark dried fruits (particularly raisin quality), flint, and fresh oak. The oak influence is very prevalent in the nose of this whiskey.
Palate: Much like the nose, the small batch starts out with a sweet maple syrup entry as you bust through a crackle of hard caramel candy. Bitter char and sappy, wood resin intensifies almost as soon as the sweetness subsides. Things begin to quickly dry up as the spice takes over with cinnamon, clove, and black licorice playing the lead roles. The later third of the sip is an eruption of dry oak through to the finish.
Finish: Dry, lingering oak for days with some sweet and herbal notes. It’s worth noting, that while I didn’t detect it from the nose and palate, the empty glass (after drying) had a definite honeysuckle scent to it.
Overall: I can surely see why Knob Creek Small Batch has such a strong following. It’s a hefty bourbon with great sweetness, spice, and wood. With each tasting I grew to like it more and more. I would have preferred if the oak influence had been toned down just a bit, but I did enjoy the strong and hearty ways of this bourbon. Beyond just being a fantastic neat sipper, I am certain it would make a fantastic old fashioned or whiskey cocktail. The spice and oak really shines through.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.3 (Very Good/Excellent)

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Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve, 9 Years Old, 60% abv (120 Proof), $40
Color: Deep Amber w/ glittering orange highlights
Nose: The family resemblance is definitely there, but the Single Barrel handles it’s business a bit more harmoniously in spite of 20% more alcohol. The nose is richer, fuller, more earthy and complex than the Small batch. Spicy cinnamon, mint, and floral notes are sandwiched between sweet maple syrup and a dry, clean oak. Leather and tobacco linger in the background.
Palate: This is a sticky, viscously textured bourbon with heaps of maple and marmalade livened with black pepper, clove, sweet spearmint, and a smoky oak quality (BBQ smoke). The char and barrel flavor is very prevalent, but in better balance with the other flavors than in the small batch.
Finish: Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve finishes with sappy wood, mint, sweetness, and rising warmth that lingers.
Overall: This Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve was a real eye opener for me. In fact it is superb. I expected a more intense version of Knob Creek at 20% more alcohol. While I got that to some degree (there is a family resemblance for sure as mentioned), the flavor delivery is so much better with the Single Barrel. This is a complex bourbon packing loads of great flavor in a more balanced package than the Small Batch. With only about an $8 upgrade in price, the decision for me is pretty easy. The Single Barrel is the hands down winner and a good value at the price. Please do note: As with all single barrels there most certainly will be some variance from barrel to barrel. However I have a pretty good feeling they hand selected the very best barrels for their single barrel offering.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.0 (Superb/Outstanding)

New Reviews

Well I’m back in the saddle after a week and some change off. I have some exciting stuff in the queue also. This leads me to a little technical glitch update.

Perhaps you noticed last Thursday that my Michter’s Unblended Small Batch Whiskey review was posted without a video. My format of choice is always video for reviews. I back that up with tasting notes so you can get quicker access to the info. But I just feel this format gives me an opportunity to discuss the whiskey in greater detail. Of course it also saves you from my subpar writing. ; )

Anyway, the Michter’s review originally had a video review recorded and ready. However, serious issues with the video upload feature on my camera messed up the video. While on vacation I wasn’t able to correct the problem so I posted it until I could get back and figure out the issue. Now I have a couple of other reviews in the queue and the same problem popped up.

I don’t want that slowing me down for the short term. The the latest reviews for Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve and Small Batch will post shortly, but without an accompanying video for now. I hope to have one for it early next week.

Cheers to you!

-Jason

Interview with Jim Rutledge, Four Roses Master Distiller (Part 3)

This is the final segment of a 3 part interview with Jim Rutledge, the Master Distiller at Four Roses. Frankly, this was my favorite part of the conversation because it shed so much light on Jim’s thoughts on the industry. What fantastic insight from arguably the most noted Master Distiller in the American Whiskey Industry today.

This piece of video starts after I had asked a question to Jim about the somewhat touchy subject of “blending”. I was concerned he might give me the boot for even bringing it up. I’m serious – I wasn’t sure how he was going to respond. The term “blended whiskey” was talked about a good bit in my piece on the history of Four Roses. And when you consider their history, it makes perfect sense why Four Roses would want to move far away from associating with the term “blend”. On their website they even go so far as to describe the “blending” of their 10 recipes of straight bourbon into their batched products as “mingling”. Remember, “blended whiskey” has historically referred to whiskey blended with grain neutral spirits (GNS). Some folks consider it whiskey-flavored Vodka.

I feel the connotation associated with this term is old and stodgy. It doesn’t have to be negative. If you’re interested to learn more about great blending, I encourage you to do a search on Compass Box Whiskey Company and owner John Glaser. Compass Box is doing amazing stuff, and it’s all blended whiskey (or vatted). In the course of this segment, Jim Rutledge talks about David Perkins, proprietor of High West Distillery and Saloon in Park City, Utah. David worked a bit with Jim before starting High West. High West distills their own spirits (Vodkas, “white” whiskey, and a number of other cool things in the works), but like Compass Box, they source (purchase from other distilleries), blend, and bottle some fantastic stuff. I’ve reviewed some of them here and here. In short, blending is an art and can be a big part of creating a great whiskey.

Now let’s look back at Four Roses. I’ve always felt that Four Roses, more than any other American Whiskey Company, was the most like the Scotch Industry in their philosophy and approach. They distill 10 different straight bourbon whiskeys, and blend them to create harmonious end products (for all but their Single Barrel products of course). In my opinion I consider this ultra premium blending or vatting of various straight bourbon recipes. It just all happens inside their own walls. But did Jim agree?…….

In addition to touching on that subject, Jim also talks about the prospects of a Four Roses Straight Rye Whiskey (cross your fingers and give your opinions to Four Roses if you want it!), his thoughts on the craft movement, and finally the level of camaraderie between the Master Distillers and other distilleries.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this 3 part conversation, because I really enjoyed doing it. What a pleasure to speak with Jim Rutledge, and I look forward to the opportunity to do so again……….hopefully soon.

Interview with Jim Rutledge, Four Roses Master Distiller (Part 2)

This post is Part 2 of my video conversation with Jim Rutledge, Four Roses Master Distiller. I hate to even call it an “interview” because frankly it’s a conversation I caught on camera. In this segment Jim continues to tell us more on the background of Four Roses. He also talks about which Four Roses product he consumes most, gives a rundown on “Whiskey Flavor Factors” (including some detail on barrel aging), and some comparisons to Scotch whiskey. Enjoy!

The Four Roses Story

The Four Roses Story
The Bourbon Industry is filled with fantastic tales of larger-than life characters, distilleries, and good and bad times. In fact, the names on many of the bottles you see are historic figures in bourbon lore. Collectively, these people and distilleries helped make bourbon America’s Native Spirit (1964 Congressional Resolution).

Even considering all the history of bourbon in America, the Four Roses story is among the very best. Once you understand it, it becomes perfectly clear why the folks at Four Roses are so passionate about the brand.

For the record there are many recounts of this story all across the internet. Some get extremely detailed and some even conflict. The story I’m about to tell is from a high level to give some background on Four Roses and the essence of the brand. This is important in order to truly understand just how far the brand has come. It will also provide context for how much work has gone into bringing this brand back to prominence.

The Seagram’s Years
Four Roses was purchased by Seagram’s in the early 1940s. At the time, Four Roses was the top selling bourbon in America. Seagram’s was the largest distiller in the world – a monster in the industry.

Seagram’s was also big into blended whiskey. At that time a blended whiskey was most commonly an aged whiskey blended with Grain Neutral Spirits (GNS). Think of it as light whiskey or whiskey-flavored vodka as some describe it. These light blends had a much broader, mass appeal. Strangely they were also considered more “premium”, occupying eye level shelf space at liquor stores during those years.

That last point is very important, and the only way to rationalize what happened next (if it’s possible to rationalize at all). Seagram’s removed Four Roses Bourbon from U.S. shelves. What?!?! Yes, the best selling bourbon whiskey in the country was pulled from the market. And it remained unavailable for over 40 years.

Now if all that wasn’t bad enough, it gets worse. Seagram’s purchased Four Roses for the name. Again, remember it was THE name in whiskey in this country at that time. Seagram’s then took the Four Roses name and label, and placed it on bottles of blended whiskey (that whiskey-flavored vodka stuff) produced at Seagram’s Lawrenceburg, Indiana and Maryland distilleries.

Initially, Seagram’s sold the Four Roses Blended Whiskey as an “A” blend, or a premium blended whiskey. Soon it was downgraded to a “B” blend. In Jim Rutledge’s words, “The quality of the stuff they were selling was a rotgut whiskey. It was just awful.” Seagram’s was intent on letting Four Roses wallow until it either flourished or died.

Four Roses Bourbon Marches On
In retrospect, it seems the biggest bright spot to this whole story is the fact that the Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY never stopped producing bourbon. While Seagram’s was blending whiskey and placing a Four Roses label on it, the REAL Four Roses distillery was making marvelous bourbon. The only problem was Seagram was sending it all to Japan and Europe. The Japanese market began to really thirst for authentic Bourbon Whiskey. Many couldn’t meet demand, but that wasn’t a problem for Four Roses Bourbon. Soon, it would become the top selling American Whiskey in Asia.

But please stop and consider this for one moment. The U.S. market was getting a blended rotgut whiskey while Japan was getting the real Four Roses bourbon.

A “Thorn” in Seagram’s side
Calling Jim Rutledge a Master Distiller is only part of the story. And having met him, it’s really hard to imagine him being a “thorn” in someone’s side, but to a certain degree, that is exactly what he was for Seagram’s.

Jim started with the company in the late 60’s. He hailed from Louisville, KY with a degree in marketing and chemistry. He is quick to point out what a great company Seagram’s was – great to their people, a family atmosphere for a large conglomerate, and they had a lot of resources at their disposal. But Jim wanted to see the Four Roses Bourbon brought back to the U.S. market.

He spent many years working in various parts of the country for Seagram’s. Eventually he was ready to come “home” to Kentucky. At his request, he was reassigned to the Four Roses Bourbon distillery in 1992. For years and years prior, Jim always poked and prodded Seagram’s management about taking the Four Roses Blended Whiskey off the shelves. He wanted to replace it with the Four Roses Bourbon, the bourbon that dominated the market decades prior. Time and again Seagram’s management shot him down. That didn’t stop Jim continually pushing the thorn a little deeper.

As we ate lunch during my visit on February 7th, Jim commented that Four Roses Bourbon had participated in the Kentucky Bourbon festival, all the way back to the festival’s humble beginnings 20 or so years ago. Understanding that Four Roses Bourbon wasn’t even sold in the country at that time, I asked Jim if he took part on the hopes that Seagram’s would change their minds. “Yeah we wanted to keep the name out there and be a part of the festival.” Little insights like that illustrate Jim’s passion and dedication to bring Four Roses back.

A Foot in the Door
What might have started as a desire to see Four Roses Bourbon on the shelves again, quickly became something different for Jim. During one of our chats he confirmed that it soon became more about the great people that made Four Roses Bourbon.

The Four Roses Distillery employees were still making top shelf, premium bourbon. However, Jim realized they would have to hop on a plane and fly to Europe or Japan to actually taste the fruits of their labor. This was a mind boggling realization to him, and one he didn’t feel was very fair.

Jim recounted a story of going to the meet with Seagram’s “big brass” with a plea to at least allow the employees to purchase these products. Jim fought hard and Seagram’s relented, but not without making it clear to Jim that he’d never receive a “dime of support” from them beyond that point.

Perhaps a win and a loss result, but Jim saw it as a big opportunity. It was the first foot back in the door for Four Roses Bourbon.

Seagram Sells Four Roses
In an effort to diversify the company, Seagram’s made some bad moves in the 90s, purchasing a couple of large entertainment companies (Universal, MCA, etc). They diluted themselves immensely and these moves ultimately cost them their company.

Vivendi purchased Seagram’s to gain control of their Entertainment industry holdings. Vivendi had little interest in the Beverage Alcohol business and wanted to sell off all of Seagram’s alcohol brands. Diageo, the largest beverage alcohol company in the world, purchased most of the brands, but put Four Roses on the market.

Kirin to the rescue
Remember, Four Roses Bourbon was alive and well in Japan. It was the best selling American Whiskey in Asia. Kirin, one of the largest breweries in Japan, was the distributor for Four Roses Bourbon in the Asian market. They knew all too well what a great product Four Roses was, and they did not want to lose it.

In 2001, Kirin purchased Four Roses. Meetings that followed gave Jim Rutledge one last audience to plead his case, (paraphrase) “Let us get rid of this blended whiskey from the U.S. Shelves and bring Four Roses Bourbon back”. Jim was given the answer he had been waiting on for decades.

Kirin said yes to the man that had waited so long to restore the Four Roses brand to prominence in the U.S. In 2002, Jim and his team proceeded forward with that task in earnest. They recalled all of the Four Roses Blended Whiskey from the shelves and dumped it all. In 2004, Four Roses saw the return of their bourbon to the American Market with the introduction of Four Roses Single Barrel. It is the top selling single barrel bourbon in the state of Kentucky, a testament to the quality of the product and the power of the brand today.

The Story Continues
So that is essentially the history of one of America’s best bourbon brands. This made touring the distillery and learning from the man who led Four Roses through its darkest days a very fun experience. The folks at Four Roses wear their passion for the brand on their sleeves, and with people like that, the future is very bright indeed.

****This post concludes our in depth visit of the distillery, aging facility, and the history of the brand. Starting tomorrow we’ll have the first video chat with Jim Rutledge. Stay tuned……..****

A Day at Four Roses

A Mighty Fine Monday
****Picture Links Below****

February 7th wasn’t a normal Monday for me. When bourbon awaits, not even a steady, bone chilling rain (that soon turned into two inch flakes of snow) can mess up your mood. By 9:30 a.m. I was sitting out front of Four Roses’ aging and warehousing facility in Cox’s Creek, KY. What a great place to take in the views of twenty aging warehouses holding barrel after barrel of Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. It may have been a mental thing, but you could almost smell bourbon in the air.

Shortly after arriving, I was joined by Master Distiller, Jim Rutledge. A month or so earlier, Jim had extended an invite to come check out the facilities. Obviously, I jumped at the chance. Jim is responsible for the end quality of amber nectar that bears the Four Roses emblem. As you will see in posts that will follow, he’s responsible for a lot more than just that.

Jim had just returned from a week-long trip to California. As Four Roses’ most prominent brand ambassador, Jim doesn’t pass up a chance to talk about Four Roses Bourbon to anyone that will listen. He quickly tells a story about an event the previous week. “Last week I was asked by event organizers how long I had prepared to speak”, he starts out. “I told them as long as anyone will listen…….. I was serious.”

That point wasn’t lost on me as the day continued. Nearly seven hours later I was still talking whiskey, bourbon, and Four Roses with Jim Rutledge. Two inches of snow and falling temperatures might have been the only reason the conversation ended when it did. It was a hell of a day.

The Week Ahead

Over the next week, Sour Mash Manifesto will be posting content from the visit with Four Roses and Jim Rutledge. With nearly 2 hours of video footage and hundreds of pictures, it’s a tough task to consolidate. Rather than smash things together in 1-2 posts, I’ve broken them down into 4-5 segments for easier viewing.
This was a lot of fun. I truly hope you enjoy it as well.

Four Roses Distillery and Aging/Bottling Facility

Today’s post is focused on a tour of the distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY and the Aging/Bottling facility in Cox’s Creek, KY. I’ve divided them into two Flickr photo sets. Each picture has a caption with a good bit of detail. If you have the time, please take a moment to read the captions. They will help give more context and background on Four Roses operations, the history of the distillery, and the uniqueness and philosophies behind the product.

Click on the “red” link below to check ‘em out!

Four Roses Distillery Tour

Four Roses Aging/Bottling Facility