Knob Creek – “Hercules” Barrel 2086

The other evening during a routine tasting/hang I was having a conversation with a friend, debating the merits of what we considered to be the best bourbon.

Like any list, ours started off with the obvious legendary hitters. Think Mantle and Maris. Magic and Bird. Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant. The old Stitzel Weller OWO, OWA and Old Fitz BIB’s were right at the top. Stitzel Pappy made my buddy’s list. I was really high on bonded Old Taylor.

Then we checked off the accepted all-stars. George T Stagg. Sazerac 18. VWFRR. Short barrel Willetts. Old Old Crow. Wild Turkey Cheesy Gold Foil. My preference lately has been the liquid “Heavenly Hash” age stated, butterscotchy Old Grand-Dad bonded.

After that we moved on to the lonely stand-outs who achieved respect in their time without all the glory they deserve. Ultra-aged Four Roses gift shop single barrels and specific store picks. Old Turkeys. William Heavenhill 15yr. Bookers 25th.

We brought up the modern day superstars. Four Roses 2015 SmB LE. C and B barrel and various wheater Willetts (C4D, C12A, B49C, B52, etc.) I included a couple of younger Willetts too, like the 10yr barrel 200.

There was also a subset of random, work-a-day bottles, good for anytime. Buffalo Trace store picks. Eagle Rare store picks. The Old Weller Antique picks rated extremely high on our list. In fact, just about any store picks that came in under $30 made this list, and it was too long to bother typing out. (Hit me up if you want the full list.)

Nowhere on any of these lists did Knob Creek appear. Whether or not it’s true, unfair, just a notion or complete snobbery, maybe it’s because Knob Creek comes with the stigma of being “just” a Jim Beam product. We live in an age where being small and exclusive comes with great respect, and being large and corporate does not. Unfortunately, Jim Beam is the Toyota / Gap / McDonalds of bourbon. By that I mean a huge, faceless corporation with a standardized menu of “one size fits all, no customization allowed” products made for the masses. Yes, I know, they aren’t the only bourbon distillery currently owned by a Japanese parent company, but they are the only ones that seem like it. Even in the shortage, at a time when other big distilleries like Buffalo Trace have standard products placed on strict allocation, Jim Beam manages to churn out rivers of bourbon, as well as advertise on mainstream television with Hollywood stars. And with the singular exception of Booker’s 25th, there just hasn’t been much to celebrate. (I won’t even get into the conversation about ruining Old Grand-Dad BIB).

All that being said, honestly Knob Creek is not bad bourbon. Knob Creek has its place. When I was first getting into bourbon, it was the one I typically turned to. It’s still the bourbon that I keep in my golf bag for a snort to exercise the yips on the first tee box, or to juice my Arnold Palmer on the back nine. But it’s not one that I necessarily think of when I want something to sit around in my parlor and savor. It’s a prime example of a drinkable workhorse bourbon; one that you can turn to in a pinch. It does the job. And I guess I still give it a pass because its age stated and barrel proof, which is a rarity for shelf drinkers now.

Unfortunately Knob Creek always falls into a precarious place on that shelf. Depending on personal taste, how you look at it and what you compare it against and what else is available, it’s either too cheap or too expensive. It’s always confusing that the Knob Creek private store picks are basically the same price as the standard offerings, and roughly twice what a delicious OWA store pick will cost you.

So people simply look past them.

But recently, there have been these exclusive single barrel private picks trickling out of Clermont (Small and Exclusive!!). They are aged longer than the typical Knobs….12 and 13 year olds. Even 15 years old. And they have these great names on a silver tags, like Unicorn and Hercules.

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This review deals specifically with Hercules.

The name is almost perfect. Hercules was known for his amazing strength from infancy, even choking out a poisonous snake MMA style that his step-mother had put into his crib. Eventually he came upon great shame, and was told he could redeem himself by serving the king unconditionally for a period of 12 years, known as the 12 Labors of Hercules. After the 12 years, he was set free and led a long life, eventually ascending to Olympus and becoming a constellation of stars.

With that in mind, let’s taste this bourbon.

The aroma plumed out immediately as I poured. The color is a rich, golden honey and runs down the inside of the glencairn like honey after you swirl it.

The nose of the Hercules has an abundance of sweet, nutty European marzipan that upon inhalation gives way to a nice jolt of licorice. There is some vanilla, and drop of honey. It evolves into a pretty strong Fleer bubble gum and some mintiness. Slightly confusing, unless you close your eyes and picture yourself in a mountain candy store. You know the one along the main strip running under the shadow of the Smokey Mountains in Gatlinburg. They are pulling taffy on some vintage candy making equipment. All the components of confectionary goodness mixing in the rich mountain air. As the nose evolved with air, it grew some big shoulders of the classic bourbon variety, made up of smoky oak and juicy tobacco.

The flavor is sweet, lots of corn and heavy creamy vanilla. The tobacco is present. The oak component is exactly where it needs to be on the dial. A hint of peppermint spice, which is the rye coming through. My notes say, “This is very, very, very enjoyable.”

The burn is nice. It hits mellow, swells up on the back of the throat, and the fades out mellow. It made me think of the last few notes on Pink Floyd’s Darkside of the Moon album, as the record fades with chatter and heartbeats. If you let it play out the notes eventually dissipate into a never ending crackle of rotating wax. Your ears are all mellowed out, and you know you should turn the record player off, but you just don’t want to get up, so you keep listening to the record spin. I honestly wouldn’t have pegged this one at 120 proof. More like 100. Though I’m a lover of high proof burn that leaves me pondering what I’m drinking for many minutes via a raging forest fire in my throat, I found this finish to be pleasant, yet understated. The flavors were allowed to linger.

I think it’s safe to say I really enjoyed the Hercules pick. My ultimate hope is that there are more high (or higher) aged barrels tucked away inside those monolithic aging barns in Clermont. But when names are based on mythical characters from antiquity, I worry that they don’t actually exist, save for stories.

Cheers!

Four Roses 125th Anniversary 51.6%- Vanilla in a Woodpile

There are just so many Four Roses bottles. My cabinet is stocked with all manner of recipes, private picks, gift shop releases, limited editions, etc. I don’t come close to having a fraction of what some people own. The options are a study in statistical analysis, and individual opinion about which is best. A favorite store pick. A favorite recipe. The favorite warehouse. The best proof. An optimum age. That speaks loud volumes about the quality of the bourbon that burbles forth from the Vendome equipment shrouded within that grand Spanish Mission facade. I have my favorites too; for instance the soon-to-be legendary Cask 12yr OBSV Warehouse ME, the Lincoln Road OBSK (I’ll take nearly every pick by Jamie Farris at Lincoln Road), the 2013 Limited Edition Single Barrel (have I reviewed this charmer yet??), the 17yr Gift Shop Barrel #9 and the 2015 Limited Edition Small Batch, which was my bourbon of the year last year, and should have been on the top of everyone’s list.

To that end, sometimes I just overlook certain releases. To be honest, living in an ABC state makes access to good bourbon an absolute quest. More often it’s an endless, toturesome exercise in futility. Sometimes it’s elation. Other times its dejection. Once I had some local guests over for a tasting at my home and one of them remarked that they had never seen three quarters of the bottles I’d pulled out for the festivities. They inquired how I came about sourcing them. I went into great detail about the hunt, the research and the acquisition. I talked for a while, semi-wowing myself with what I considered to be high adventure on the Sea of Bourbon. After some bit of overly glamorous cloak-n-dagger explanation one of them said, “Wow, you really love this stuff.” That was the signal. I poured him another glencairn, and the subject was quickly switched to our opinions on the ending of Breaking Bad and whether or not the entire final scene was in Walt’s mind.

But I sat there in my antique rocker, creaking back and forth, thinking that my friend was right. I love it. But even though I want every bottle of limited or rare bourbon I can get my hands on, I pick and choose carefully. This is especially true of Four Roses, since there are hundreds of options readily available for drinking pleasure. Each bottle is procured only after serious discussion with friends whose palates I know and trust. I can honestly say that for me, the research and hunt are extremely enjoyable, and I like to think about the effort that went into the acquisition while I’m savoring the pour. Satisfaction is the true sixth sense.

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Now, despite the fact that I am an admitted Four Roses acolyte, for a long time I looked past one of their more popular releases, the 125th Anniversary small batch. Maybe because I’ve always been so in love with the 2013 single barrel LE, and my taste buds have a craving for barrel proof. The 125th always just seemed, well….inexplicably uninteresting. I’m reminded of the scene in one of my favorite movies, Cool Hand Luke, where Luke’s mama comes to visit him at the county farm during her last days. She tells him she always loved him more than his brother, and that sometimes you just have a feeling about someone. I suppose this was the same way I felt about the 125th.

In a recent conversation, I mentioned to my bourbon compatriot Mike that I’d never tried the 125th. He was shocked. I explained to him that I’d simply missed out on the opportunity to grab that release, and instead of obsessing about it, I just let it go. As he often does, I guess he felt the need to correct my gross error in judgment and took it upon himself to send me a sample. So when the sample bottle arrived at my doorstep, it wasn’t long before it ended up in a glass.

How wrong I was.

The nose is rich with vanilla along with the juicy, rosy red berries that everyone loves about Four Roses. It’s that charred oak that manifests itself from within in a floral beast of beauty. “That’s it”, I think to myself. “It’s vanilla in a woodpile.” There’s also an awesome component of sweet spices that kiss and burn concurrently. That’s the smooth, clever genius of an 18yr OBSV, mixed with the devil spice of a 13yr OBSK (which by the way is the same age and recipe of the 2013 Single Barrel Limited Edition). And oh, sourwood honey. Honey bees buzzing in and out of an old hollow log, working the honeycomb, the sticky gold drip dropping out of the bottom into a mason jar.

The flavor was a syrupy caramel. A deep and binding cherry tranquility draped over more of the rounded vanilla. Luscious fruit layers to soften the cinnamon spice. There are rolling sweet components of barn hung tobacco. It’s typical of Four Roses, that there are never less than 17 flavors to decipher. Such majesty and mystery. Such a game. So much about drinking bourbon takes me back to places and times in my past that are special to me. A lot of those memories revolve around the experiences in my youth where I cataloged the formative thoughts, ideas and senses that are the base foundation for everything I experience today. Drinking this, I’m reminded of Halloween, taking apples on sticks, and dipping them into a hot vat of churgling caramel. My grandpa would have been around then, packing an old pipe full of sweet tobacco, the smell filling the room with an aroma unmatched, and unmistakable.

The finish was longingly rebellious. I say that from the standpoint that from flavor to finish it acts similar to the perfect shift between first and second in a street race. The transition is just so clean between those phases. Some bourbon has a tendency to jump the gun and let the finish outpace and bypass the flavor, but not here. I was pleasantly surprised by this ending. It was rebellious in the way the burn defied my expectations. For the length and intensity of heat, I would have expected it to be a much higher proof. In this case, the flavors help accentuate and amplify the heat, thereby punching it across the goal line.

In my mind I was singing the words, “Burn, like we’ve never, seen red before….”

With minimal regret, I now admit that I have to have a bottle of this bourbon.

Cheers!

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