Revisiting: Knob Creek Single Barrel Rye

Barrel #5781 selected by K&L (2018)

MASH BILL – Unstated (rumored “barely legal,” i.e. just over 51% rye)

PROOF – 115

AGE – NAS (typically ~6 years)

DISTILLERY – Knob Creek Distillery (i.e. Jim Beam)

PRICE – $40 on sale (normally $50)

BUY AGAIN? – Not this barrel. But a future barrel on sale, maybe.

My introduction to the Knob Creek Single Barrel Rye was another 2018 K&L pick, the similarly numbered Barrel #5851. That barrel was all robust cinnamon and rich chocolates, with decadent dark caramels in the mix and a remarkably smooth pepperiness despite the 115 proof. As the bottle aired out it tilted slightly into a tannic area and away again, slightly in a tangy direction and away again, always remaining true to its flamboyant chocolate, caramel, and peanut center.

This post’s Barrel #5781 struck similar basic notes a few months ago when I first uncorked it—chocolate, caramel, peanut, peppery, remarkably smooth for the proof. Yet it lacked the extra wow factor that Barrel #5851 had. Perhaps it says something that I have not been pouring through this one like I did its predecessor.

So now that more time has passed, I decided to revisit it:

COLOR – a syrupy, yellow-orange amber

NOSE – cinnamon, peanut, baking spices, lightly grilled lemon

TASTE – peanut, bright caramel, nice pepperiness throughout with a soft bloom of proof-kick at the end

FINISH – peanut, grilled lemon rind, a bit of cooling mint, prickly from the rye spice and proof

OVERALL – Solid in a perfectly fine yet unremarkable way

Indeed, the chocolate and caramel aspect is lighter in this barrel, coming off very brightly in contrast to the dark, suave decadence of Barrel #5851. It’s certainly not a bad pour. Just an uneventful one. If I wanted something spicy that nevertheless didn’t tax my palate or brain too much, this could be a bottle to reach for…

And yet it presents a conundrum in that regard. For something not terribly taxing, the proof and pepperiness do prickle just enough that the sensation feels somewhat wasted on the less bold flavors. In fact, as I continue to sip at it, I don’t really think about chocolate, caramel, or peanuts—though they’re there. I think entirely about the effects of the pepper and proof, how it tingles, how the insides of my lips are starting to feel a mild numbness over time. Reminds me a bit of a Hollywood “blockbuster” that’s following the blockbuster playbook. The spectacular special effects are too familiar to be exciting, and yet more memorable than any dramatic content.

This experience serves to demonstrate the joy and the disappointment of the whole single barrel concept. Single barrels can be anything from wonderfully unique to abruptly disappointing. If a given whiskey brand is made such that it tends toward consistency—like Wild Turkey, for example—then its single barrels also tend to be consistent in their foundation, despite unique variations from barrel to barrel. Though the various Jim Beam Distillery brands do tend to share certain flavors (among them something often referred to as “that Jim Beam funk”) how one brand, batch, or barrel tends to emphasize the most typical Beam flavors—cinnamon, peanut, caramel, vanilla—can vary quite a lot. 

In the Knob Creek single barrel ryes and bourbons, for example, I can taste the relationship to Booker’s. With Booker’s itself I expect a richness and intensity emphasizing peanut and vanilla. Whereas with Knob Creek I expect less complexity, a significant and bright dash of cinnamon, peanuts, and for the caramels and vanillas to back these up.

I’m also reminded here of the 2018 Knob Creek Cask Strength Rye, a limited edition, 119.6 proof, 9-year rye with a nose of rich cinnamon, oak, chocolate, and dark rye bread. Its palate featured richly tangy chocolate and cinnamon. The finish then had dark caramel and a nice, lingering, warm pepperiness. It too was un-surprisingly surprisingly smooth for the proof. An excellent rye overall, and very like the younger single barrel #5851—which I was also drinking at the time and preferred, due in no insignificant part to it costing $50 compared to the limited edition’s $60 to $80.

At one point, I tried that 2018 Knob Creek limited edition cask strength rye next to a very different Old Potrero Rye, another K&L single barrel (#9 from 2018). Suddenly the Knob Creek was less interesting, like a boy in a man’s suit. Great kid, but not as complex as other kids. A few days later, without the Old Potrero to show it up, and then in the wake of some Elijah Craig Barrel Proof and Old Elzra 7-Year Barrel Strength, the limited edition rye remained an “ok+” for the price / experience ratio. I enjoyed it perfectly well for its woody spiced nose, chocolatey palate and peppery-caramel finish. At a steep discount I’d definitely consider picking up another bottle. I’ve noticed that it still sits on shelves now, ten months into 2019, and indeed is starting to appear closer to $50. But I haven’t bit. I just don’t think it will surprise me.

So perhaps what accounted for my delight with rye single barrel #5851 was its being so unexpectedly rich. Whereas my rather “same-ol’-same-ol’” response to the single barrel #5781 is due to its having met my Knob Creek rye expectations rather neatly. 

Met expectations can satisfy, even if forgettably. But met expectations can never truly inspire. I have a feeling that it is going to take me a long time to get through this Barrel #5781. I’m just not going to be compelled to reach for it often. It may end up a giveaway to a friend. That sounds harsh, though I don’t feel harshly toward this bottle at all. It’s simply that my whiskey shelf has only so much room. If a whiskey is going to take up space without a compelling or even particularly memorable reason, it might be more worth it for us to part ways. Someone else might love this barrel. They should have it to enjoy.

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