Well, that didn’t take long, did it? Consumers have barely had time to get used to seeing Knob Creek 12 Year Bourbon as part of the year-round lineup in Jim Beam’s most widespread Small Batch Collection brand, but the company seemingly isn’t done yet with the new Knob Creek releases. The latest limited edition bottling is the simply named Knob Creek 15 Year, bottled at the brand’s standard 100 proof. Unlike the 12 Year, this one won’t be available year round—at least not yet. The 12-year also began as a limited release, which makes one wonder why Beam seems so eager to distribute its well-aged stocks of bourbon, after the flagship Knob Creek also regained its 9-year age statement earlier this year.
That flagship has long been one of the unquestioned best values in bourbon, benefiting from Beam’s size and economies of scale—there just aren’t any other distilleries that can make much of a profit, offering a 9-year, 100 proof bourbon year round for an MSRP of $35 these days. The 12 Year saw that price tag jump noticeably, to $60, but our tasting found that it justified the increase well by being a substantially transformed whiskey—the three extra years very much changed the spirit. Between the 12 Year and 15 Year, though? There’s a less noticeable evolution, and we’re not sure it’s been for the best.
Then there’s price to consider. Beam’s stated MSRP on this limited release is $99—not all that high, really, at least when compared to the state of well-aged limited release bourbon today, but pretty damn high for a Beam release. That’s a significantly higher price than even the cask-strength Booker’s, which is usually treated by Beam as the company’s most prestigious regular release. And that’s not even factoring in the bumps in price retailers will tack on due to the word “limited,” as somewhere like Drizly is already charging $120 for it.
The effect is to further confuse the hierarchy of the Knob Creek brand. The company obviously intends this to be a special limited release, putting customers more in mind of previous releases such as Knob Creek 2001 or Knob Creek 25th Anniversary, but simply naming this one “15 Year” can’t help but beg comparison to the 12 Year that so recently became part of the year-round lineup.
Then of course, you also have to somehow compare this to Knob Creek Single Barrel Select, which typically carries a lower age statement, but weighs in at 120 proof, with price tags under $50. Single barrel store picks, meanwhile, can often be as old as 14 or 15 years of age, at 120-130 proof … for less than $70 or $80. Could it be that Beam is intending to scale back the availability of those store picks, and instead sell the $100 bottles of Knob Creek 15 Year, at 100 proof? Because that would be a distinct loss of value.
It’s hard to come to any conclusion on where this release fits in the Beam whiskey landscape, so let’s get to the actual tasting.
On the nose, Knob Creek 15 is unsurprisingly quite oak forward, with notes of dusty rye and some light stone fruit (plums?) and hints of red fruit. It is, however, very woody indeed, and I left it in my glass for a while to breathe, hoping I’d be able to get past the wood more with time. After airing out a bit, I got more of the expected caramel, roasted peanut and char, but this is definitely one that needs some time to breathe.
On the palate, oak is again fairly dominant, with a front end of toffee, peanut brittle and slightly musty rye, which segues into dark fruit (strawberry, black cherry) and a long-lasting spicy finish of cinnamon or cardamom. Unfortunately, it then turns a bit astringent, although this isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker on its own. You can’t help but wonder if the extra proof found in the single barrel variants might inject more sweetness/richness to counter the increased oak, however.
All in all, this bourbon may be quite enjoyed by those who are seeking heavily oaked Beam whiskey, but I think it struggles to justify the three-year bump from the Knob Creek 12 Year, which is more balanced and less purely oaky in comparison. Likewise, it’s even harder to justify a $40 or $60 bump in price tag from the 12 Year. When I reviewed that whiskey, I wrote that it presents the drinker with a choice: The extra age of the 12 year, vs. the extra assertiveness of proof in a bottle of similarly priced Knob Creek Single Barrel. With the 15 Year, however, the choice almost seems to be made for you: When there are 13, 14 or 15-year-old Knob Creek Single Barrels on the shelf, at 120-130 proof, for less than $100, that seems like a pretty easy choice to me.
Judged purely on its own merits, Knob Creek 15 Year Old is slightly unbalanced but intriguing, heavily aged and oaked bourbon. In the midst of a lineup known for value, however, it sticks out in a way that isn’t doing it any favors.
Distillery: Knob Creek (Beam Suntory)
City: Clermont, KY
Style: Straight bourbon
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $99.99 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.