KNOB CREEK SINGLE BARREL BOURBON
Barreled 9/21/2005 and selected by K&L 6/8/2020 (likely bottled a month or two later)
MASH BILL – 75% corn, 13% rye, 12% barley
PROOF – 120
AGE – 14 years 9+ months
DISTILLERY – Jim Beam
PRICE – $55
DOC SWINSON’S RARE RELEASE BOURBON
Release No. 8, blending 27 barrels (2020)
MASH BILL – likely 78.5% corn, 13% rye, 8.5% malted barley
PROOF – 114.2
AGE – 15 years
DISTILLERY – Doc Swinson’s (unstated Kentucky source)
PRICE – $164
When Doc Swinson’s Rare Release No. 6 came out in early 2020, I was among the whiskey fans who were suspicious. Another well-aged bourbon sourced from ????? and bottled secondhand with a high price tag? At least it was from Kentucky and not yet another bottling from Tennessee. No offense intended toward Tennessee at all. But 2019 had seen a glut of Tennessee whiskey (i.e. George Dickel, which I like) bottled under seemingly endless secondary labels.
At the time Doc Swinson’s Rare Release No. 6 showed up, Knob Creek had already been releasing a stream of 15-year single barrel bourbons as store picks for $50 a bottle on average. Paying $150+ for what was potentially the same thing seemed ludicrous. Of course, the Doc Swinson’s might be from any number of big distilleries in a position to let go of 15-year-old bourbon. But still, 15 years for $50 or 15 years for $150…? 💵⚖️🥃
Curiosity got the best of me and I bit. Buyer’s-shame then kept me from opening the bottle. Then toward the end of 2020, Doc Swinson’s Rare Release No. 7 and No. 8 came out, also aged 15 years and assumably from the same unnamed Kentucky source. I bit again—not yet having uncorked the first purchase! What was wrong with me?
But this time I opened the bottle right away. Of the two new batches, I’d selected No. 8. It immediately reminded me of Knob Creek. By coincidence, I’d also just picked up a Knob Creek single barrel aged very close to 15 years. I uncorked it and tried it next to the Doc Swinson’s. Indeed, they were very similar. And both were excellent!
My heart sank. Could it be my suspicions were true, and I’d paid three times the price for a Doc Swinson’s bottling of Knob Creek that I’d paid for Jim Beam’s own bottling of Knob Creek? Even Fred Minnick suspects as much:
It seemed pretty obvious that a formal comparison was in order. Here are some brief notes, taken two weeks after uncorking and about halfway through each bottle, tasted in traditional Glencairns.
KNOB – a deep, nicely burnt russet-orange
DOC – a similarly deep, toasty orange, without the russet aspects
KNOB – dusty oak, dark baked cherry, a thick dry caramel, fudgy chocolate, faint baked cinnamon, some orange peel and fine dried apricot, very lovely and dark and rich
DOC – dusty oak, baked cherry, some chocolate sauce, bright cinnamon, a faint cola note, some faint dried floral herbs
KNOB – a bright and tangy yet rich caramel, oak, oak spice, organic chunky peanut butter, faint chocolate
DOC – caramel, oak spice and fine dry oak, peanut, almond, nutshell, toasted butter, cashew butter, faint chocolate
KNOB – oak and oak spice, the organic chunky peanut butter, a sparkly tingle lingering with a bit of slightly bitter tannins and a caramel tang
DOC – the nut butters, oak spice, a lingering peppery tingle, drying overall
KNOB – dark, oaky, nutty, rich, and especially complex on the nose
DOC – oaky, nutty, dry, fairly rich… I’m a bit shy to say it’s complex, though it’s also not what I’d call simple… Hmm…
KNOB – I’ll continue to buy these ~15-year Knob Creek single barrels any chance I get; They’re easily among the best deals in bourbon!
DOC – I have the previous Release No. 6 on the shelf already, and at 3x the price of the Knob Creek, given the similarities, this is a no-brainer-no-buy… Now I know… 🤦🏼♂️
Another unfortunate lesson in FOMO. I really should have done my due diligence and cracked Doc Swinson’s Rare Release No. 6 before purchasing No. 8. Of course I haven’t yet tried the 6, and it may be a whole other experience. But if it’s anything like the current bottle on the table, it’s not going to be worth three digits to me either.
Besides cost, there are other differences at work here as well. The Knob Creek is younger than the Doc Swinson’s by a few months. That’s likely not a big thing, but it’s a thing. At 120 proof, the Knob Creek also has more power behind its flavors than the 114.2-proof Doc Swinson’s, and this surely makes a difference. And of course the Knob Creek is a single barrel, a result of whatever happened to that distillate in that one barrel in those years, whereas the Doc Swinson’s combines 27 barrels to achieve its flavor profile. That qualifies Doc No. 8 as a genuinely small batch. But even that small a batch has far many more factors influencing it than any single barrel.
Doc Swinson’s is of course contractually obliged to secrecy about their source. I’ve been wrong many times in my life about many things. But if their Rare Release No. 8 is not a small batch of Knob Creek’s fairly common well-aged barrels, I’d be very surprised. [see Addendum below] The emphasis on nut flavors, the dusty oak and cinnamons… It’s just such a classic Jim Beam profile in that Knob Creek realm of what they do. The mash bill listed on Doc Swinson’s website doesn’t match what’s generally accepted to be the Beam mash bill. But Beam could very likely have more variances than is generally understood, or perhaps it was a custom mash bill that for some reason didn’t move forward as planned. This is pure speculation, of course. Whiskey makers do keep their secrets pretty well.
This question of origins aside, I do enjoy the Doc Swinson’s—for the same reasons I enjoy well-aged Knob Creek single barrels. It does fall on the drier side. The Knob Creek is also dry, but has more richness to it overall that adds a certain juiciness to its caramel and chocolate aspects. Neither bourbons carry through their nose’s promise of the fruit notes. I’d say each of them are exceptional when it comes to the nose. That’s the most complex aspect of these bourbons. When the experience moves on to the taste it’s primarily about variations within the oak and nut notes.
I knew going into this comparison I carried a significant bias against Doc Swinson’s, the hipster brand from Washington State, bottling the old school know-how of some Kentucky distiller and asking a mighty price. They’ve blended a small batch bourbon that any fan of oak and nut flavors will appreciate. But the Doc $winson’s Rare Release series makes a fitting poster child for the Bourbon Boom—good, overpriced bourbon you can get from the source (whatever that source is) for cheaper.
So, recognizing my bias, to be as fair as possible I took my time. If I was going to humiliate myself for my FOMO-induced spending, I at least wanted to do so with care! I drank—not tasted, just drank—through the first half of each bottle, gradually, over a little more than two weeks. I never took notes. Sometimes I did other things. Real drinking. Not tasting. When I then sat down to formally taste them for this post, I took my time nosing, sipping, going back and forth, clearing my palate with water occasionally and starting again.
Throughout these two+ weeks, whether I was drinking or tasting, each bourbon remained very consistent. The nose wows—especially on the Knob Creek, that dark richness it carries. Then on the taste and finish, though things get comparatively a bit less complex, they still offer significant appeal.
Significant appeal to fans of oak, that is. You gotta like oak to enjoy these. That’s pretty typical of such well-aged bourbons. I do like oak, very much. So I will reach for either of these when I’m in that mood.
But as for future spending toward accommodating that mood, I’m definitely sticking to Knob Creek single barrels. And in general I think this experience with Doc Swinson’s may significantly influence my future spending. I love to experiment and to be adventurous. But at what cost? And the buyer’s remorse… Oy! It pains me to think about it.
Luckily I have some good bourbon on hand to ease that pain.
In short, I can’t recommend buying Doc Swinson’s Rare Release No. 8. (Sorry Doc. Y’all have great taste, and, I have no doubt whatsoever, absolutely genuine intentions. But your product epitomizes a great $adness of the Bourbon Boom. I can’t support it more than I already have. That’s me.)
I do, however, recommend buying as many well-aged Knob Creek single barrels as you come across. Bunkering those at $50 apiece on average might even provide a visual on your home shelf to help remind you why you don’t need to buy the latest “rare” or “special” or “limited” release. Bourbon, good bourbon, even great bourbon, is actually as available as the day is long. One need only keep an eye out, and be much better than I’ve been this past year at contending with the ol’ FOMO.
Turns out I’m far from the only whiskey fan curious about the origins of this mysterious 78.5% corn / 13% rye / 8.5% barley Kentucky mash bill, which has turned up in quite a number of NDP 15-year offerings lately. A few weeks after I posted these notes, the Mikes over at Bourbon Culture published a detailed article that deep-dives into the available evidence. And although they too are unable to confirm the mash bill’s source with utter certainty, they do make a strong case for its being either Jim Beam or Heaven Hill, with the highest bet on Beam.
If this rabbit hole is of interest to you as well, the Bourbon Culture article is a very worthwhile read. It includes among its gathered data a list of other NDP bottlings featuring this mystery mash bill, as well as certain of their marketing details adding clues.