When it comes to age statements in American bourbon, it’s pretty easy to illustrate the concept of diminishing returns. Jim Beam’s flagship small batch bourbon series, Knob Creek, allows an almost perfect illustration in and of itself, with its flagship bottle (aged for 9 years) long representing one of the best pure values in the whiskey world. Whether you find it at $30, $35 or $40, there’s no denying that represents an excellent value for a mature, 100 proof expression of Beam’s bourbon.
In recent years, though, the Knob Creek series has been undergoing a premiumization effort, tied to ascending age statements. First it was Knob Creek 12 Year, a surprisingly effective transformation of the flagship spirit with a few more years in the oak, and an MSRP around $60-70. Then came 2020’s initial release of Knob Creek 15 Year, the oldest in the series at the time, with an MSRP of $100 or beyond. And now, yet another big jump forward has arrived on the market, with the first release of Knob Creek 18 Year. The price tag? About $170, give or take.
Obviously, that kind of price point is going to draw some attention. We’re talking about a bottle twice as old as the 9-year-old flagship, but exponentially more expensive—going from $35 to $170 is quite the quantum leap. Granted, this is a limited release, and one designed as part of the celebration of the Knob Creek brand’s 30th anniversary, but it sort of breaks the mold of the “high value” that Knob Creek is known for. On the other hand, there’s very little other 18 year old bourbon on the market to compare it to, other than the likes of Heaven Hill’s equally expensive Elijah Craig 18 Year.
As with the Elijah Craig, though, the real issue here isn’t just one of price—it’s a question of whether the liquid inside that bottle deserved to continue aging for 18 years, or whether at this point the continued exposure to the barrel is doing it more harm than it is benefit. Or in other words, is there really something being gained by pushing the age statement and MSRP forward? Or is this just age statement as gimmickry, a justification for another in a long series of limited edition releases? And will the bourbon be notably overoaked, drying or tannic after all that time in the barrel?
I was certainly a little concerned about the latter going in to tasting this, because I felt when sampling Knob Creek 15 that the series had arguably pushed things to a point where the value of a higher age statement had already been diminished. It’s easy to imagine another three years pushing this bottle into actively unpleasant territory. Thankfully, that’s not really what I found.
On the nose, this is deeply oaky (big surprise), but I don’t find the wood to obscure classic Beam impressions of peanut butter and shells, pralines, cocoa and herbal rye. The woodiness has a bit of musty old funk to it, suggesting lumberyard or forest, along with traces of cinnamon and clove spice. Deeply caramelized toffee lends some richness. All in all, it’s not a bad nose, though it will obviously appeal most to bourbon fans who like a big oak profile.
On the palate, this one is certainly upfront with the wood, but it does contain a good degree of oaky complexity as well. There’s a lot of roast and char to be found here, with plenty of espresso-like character, but it pairs well with brambly blackberry, rye spice and very dark chocolate, along with roasted pecans. I’m also getting some of the savory, tobacco-like note that tends to be in most older Beam bourbon. There’s absolutely some tannic structure, but those tannins are a bit more supple and less invasive than I thought they might be. Certainly, the oak does contribute a dryness to the finish in particular, and anyone hunting for a bottle of Knob Creek 18 should be expecting a finish that ends on the dry side.
All in all, just having this bourbon display a modicum of balance and subtlety is a win, in my opinion. I honestly don’t find the oak here to be overpowering, and I think I may indeed like it more than when I tasted the Knob Creek 15. Certainly, I’m impressed that the oak doesn’t completely overwhelm all the other aspects of Beam’s house style.
With that said, it’s still rather hard to make a case for the value of this one, particularly when the truly delicious Knob Creek 12 is routinely available for $100 less. Let’s just hope I’m not writing about a “Knob Creek 21,” priced at $300, in a couple years.
Distillery: Knob Creek (Jim Beam)
City: Clermont, KY
Style: Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $170 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.