This label, from 1935, was discovered by a poster on StraightBourbon.com. It's a real gem.
The Jim Beam-made Knob Creek we all know was part of the Jim Beam Small Batch Bourbons Collection, which debuted in 1992. No one then or since has ever mentioned that the brand was part of the company's DNA from long before that.
The label tells us that Knob Creek was a straight bourbon whiskey, bottled at 93° proof (46.5% ABV). It was distilled by the Penn-Maryland Corporation of Cincinnati, Ohio, a division of National Distillers.
Beam merged with National in 1987 and started to work on the Small Batch Collection (SBC) shortly thereafter. It is common for marketers, looking for new product ideas, to mine their corporate archives. This discovery suggests that someone at Beam took a stroll down National's Memory Lane and found Knob Creek languishing there.
It's very clear where the other three SBC names originated. Booker's was named after Jim Beam's grandson, the legendary master distiller Booker Noe. Baker's was named after the grandson of Jim Beam's brother, Park, the legendary master distiller Baker Beam. Basil Hayden's was named after one of the founders of the Kentucky whiskey industry, whose grandson created the Old Grand-Dad brand in his honor. Booker and Baker are, quite literally, from the Beam family. We knew Basil/Grand-Dad was from National and now we know Knob was too.
It was a very different world in 1987. Beam bought National primarily to obtain DeKuyper and, specifically, DeKuyper Peachtree Schnapps. Beam didn't really want the National bourbons, but neither did anyone else. Of the group, Old Grand-Dad was the most desirable because it still commanded a premium price, so at least it was profitable.
The explanation for the Knob Creek name has always been that there is a real Knob Creek, in the vicinity of Beam's Kentucky distilleries, that is tied to Kentucky's Abraham Lincoln heritage. The second and last Lincoln family farm in Kentucky was what Abe later called "the Knob Creek place." According to local tradition, Lincoln's father was a seasonal hand at a nearby distillery in what is now Athertonville, also along Knob Creek.
There's also a famous shooting range on and named after Knob Creek. It's the site of CMT's "Guntucky." (With Fort Knox nearby, shooting ranges around there are a little different.)
National Distillers was formed in 1924 from what was left of the Whiskey Trust. Throughout Prohibition National bought closed distilleries, along with their brands and whiskey stocks, for pennies on the dollar. National had a medicinal whiskey business and made industrial alcohol, but they were also betting that Prohibition would be repealed. When it was, National held about half of the aged whiskey in the U.S., and owned about 140 different brands.
The Penn-Maryland Corporation was a joint venture between National and another remnant of the Trust, the U.S. Industrial Alcohol Company, based in Peoria, Illinois. The original plan had been for Penn-Maryland to produce blended whiskey while National specialized in straights, though obviously there was some cross-over. By 1936, National had taken over U.S. Industrial Alcohol and dissolved Penn-Maryland.
The 1987 merger of Jim Beam and National was really an acquisition by Beam. 'Merger' sounded better because National was the larger company. With tobacco money behind it, Beam was in much better financial shape.
Although Beam got the Knob Creek name from National, the recipe was all Beam. At the time of its introduction it was simply 9-year-old Jim Beam. It still begins as Jim Beam but now the distillate intended for Knob is taken off the still at a lower proof and they manage the Knob barrels differently, knowing they're going to age for at least nine years.
This discovery may explain the persistent rumor over the years that while Booker's and Baker's are Beam juice, Knob and Basil Hayden are Old Grand-Dad juice. Old Grand-Dad is made from a different recipe entirely, with a different yeast and a rye-heavy mash bill. Basil Hayden uses that juice, but Knob Creek does not and never did. The rumor was probably started by someone who knew Knob had been a minor National brand back in the day.
Finally, Cincinnati, where Penn-Maryland was based. If the 1935 Knob Creek was distilled in Cincinnati it was probably at the Carthage Distillery. Carthage is a community on the north side of Cincinnati, where a distillery was first established in 1893. National was originally formed with eight distilleries and Carthage was one of them. National eventually used it to make DeKuyper cordials from a neutral spirit base distilled elsewhere and Beam continued to operate it for that purpose until 2011, when it moved those operations to Kentucky.
For Marcel Proust, it was a cookie that launched a revery. For me, it's old whiskey labels.