I've been telling you about Beam Global's Knob Creek Single Barrel since last July, when it was still a rumor. We had a taste of it with Fred Noe in September. Now it's finally in stores.
In addition to being single barrel, this new Knob Creek expression is 120° proof, which is 60 percent alcohol, whereas regular Knob is 50 percent. That's already high as most straight spirits products are sold at 40 percent.
But that's not our subject today. It's that other thing, 'single barrel.'
You probably know that single barrel is higher quality than something that's not single barrel, but do you know why?
The major American whiskey distilleries each fill between 500 and 1,500 barrels a day. Those barrels go into aging warehouses where they will sit for the next several years. As they fill so shall they dump and the major American whiskey distilleries each empty between 500 and 1,500 barrels a day too.
Modern distilleries produce a very consistent product off the still. All of the whiskey going into the barrels is the same but immediately it starts to change and become different. No two barrels of whiskey age exactly the same way.
There are several reasons for this. First, no two trees are exactly the same. The barrel is very much a natural product and White Oak is the wood of choice because of the favorable way it interacts with the aging spirit. Although most American-made whiskey is aged in Ozark Oak, some use wood from other parts of the country.
Second, no two warehouse locations age exactly the same way. Aging conditions vary according to the location and orientation of the warehouse and the location of the barrel within the warehouse. A barrel near an outside wall, near the top and on the south side will be exposed to a lot more heat, for example, than one in the center on a low floor.
The differences between any two barrels can be great but more often they are small and subtle. Still, producers typically want a consistent product so they mix the contents of hundreds of barrels together in a big tank. This erases those subtle differences. The whiskey being prepared for bottling is then compared to previous batches and if it isn't exactly the same, it is corrected through the addition of whiskey selected for certain characteristics. This is how most whiskey is prepared for bottling.
There is nothing wrong with any of it. People want consistency. They want the bottle of Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 they buy today to taste exactly like the bottle they bought last week or last year.
But back to the whiskey still in the barrel and those subtle differences. Does the existence of those differences mean some barrels taste better than others?
Yes, it does.
Old timers called them "honey barrels." They are exemplars of their type, perfectly balanced. They're rare, but not that rare. Theoretically, a single barrel product isn't necessarily a honey barrel. If single barrels were selected at random you would get the whole range of variation, from worst to best, but they aren't.
With non-single barrel whiskeys, small flaws are erased through dilution and the whole batch can be adjusted to better match the brand profile. With single barrels, once a barrel is selected there is nothing else you can do with it. There is no place to hide. Because of this, there is very little point in doing a single barrel product if you are not going to seek out the very best barrels of a particular vintage -- more than 9 years old in the case of Knob Creek.
With a single barrel whiskey, you get to taste exactly what the distillery's tasters tasted when they selected that barrel, but unlike them you never have to taste a bad one. Although Beam would never put it this way, they essentially cherry-pick the best of the best for single barrel and put the rest into the regular expression.
Another way to look at it is that this is whiskey in its natural state. That is especially true of Knob Creek Single Barrel because of the high proof, which is very close to barrel proof so very little water is added. This is as close to tapping a barrel as you can get.
Although there are many other single barrel bourbons about, Beam is the first to do one on the same platform as the original expression. All this makes Knob Creek Single Barrel a welcome addition.