Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Knob Creek Bourbon Brand Is Nearly 80 Years Old. Who Knew?

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.


BMc said...

Another rumor is that Baker's uses a different yeast. I don't know why Beam would go through the trouble to do that, considering how small of a dent Baker's makes in its profit margin (even if each bottle sold is highly profitable, they don't sell that many bottles).

Kyle Henderson said...

Must say Chuck, you and this blog are absolutely top notch.

Unknown said...

Hi Chuck! In fact, Knob Creek was first in use in 1898, by the Penn-Maryland Corp. I have looked through our archives here (I have the old history books from the companies we acquired when we purchased National Brands), but have been unable to find the original label. If I do, I'll send it along. Thank's for keeping the American Bourbon history flame lit! Kind regards, Kathleen DiBenedetto, Brand Education, Jim Beam Brands

sam k said...

Penn-Maryland was originally a distillery in Waynesboro, Pa, a town near the Maryland line. I'm assuming they were acquired by National at some point.

Interesting to know that a now-famous Kentucky brand may have had its roots in Pennsylvania.

Anonymous said...


Good Post.

Once Upon A Time.......

Cincinnati was "Major Player" in brewing and distilling.

Many brand labels have been forgotten.

Wonder how many are owned by operating distilleries available to be resurrected !

Chuck Cowdery said...

Baker's sure does use a special yeast, it's just the same special yeast all of the other Jim Beam brands use.

EllenJ said...

Chuck said, "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"

I, too, subscribed to that rumor, told to me by one who I consider to be an insider. In fact, his words were, "the first bottling year of Knob Creek contained the last of the ND Old Grand Dad stock". However, your article seems more believable to me.

As for Cincinnati, I'm not sure the old Carthage distillery actually produced anything but GNS and industrial alcohol after Prohibition. National Distiller used it as a major bottling plant, not only for DeKuyper but also for Old Overholt, but the juice (at least the whiskey) wasn't distilled there. Probably other post-Repeal brands with pre-Pro names were bottled there, such as Knob Creek?

sam k said...

Kathleen's comment confirms my suspicion. If Knob Creek was a P-M brand in 1898, it is indeed a Pennsylvania-born brand name still in use today, joining Rittenhouse, Old Overholt, and Michter's.

Well, those plus Philadelphia blended and Guckenheimer blended, but those hardly count.

Chuck Cowdery said...

If you really want to lock up your claim, Sam, find a real Knob Creek in your neck of the woods.

Anonymous said...

There are two Knob Creeks in this same region of Kentucky. One starts in the vicinity of Athertonville, mentioned in this blog, near what is mentioned by Lincoln as "the Knob Creek place. The other starts northwest of Shepherdsville, KY and meanders southwestward running through the Knob Creek Gun Range. Both are tributaries of the Salt River, which empties into the Ohio at West Point, Ky, famous for Lewis and Clark, Audubon, and Fort Duffield.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Thanks for this. I always assumed it was all the same tributary. I should have guessed that with all the knobs around there you might have two Knob Creeks.