In many ways, I cut my teeth on whiskey thanks almost entirely to light peer pressure. A friend of mine began to order bourbon whenever we went out. A few months later, he was still drinking brown liquor and I figured that there must be something to the whole enterprise.
During that period, Knob Creek effectively became my friend Adam's “house brand.” While we drank a variety of different bourbons together back in the mid-oughts, Adam probably knocked back one bottle of Knob Creek for every other bottle of bourbon he tried on a lark. By the simple virtue of being his friend, I ended up drinking a lot of Knob Creek.
By 2008, I had developed a sneaking suspicion that I actually didn't even like bourbon. I liked brown liquor, don't get me wrong—I fell down the Irish Whiskey rabbit hole hard, followed by expanding my horizons with all manner of scotches and ryes. But to my palate, and in comparison to other whiskies, bourbon just seemed bracing as a whole. It struck me as a category without nuance, with a narrow range of possible flavors and an aggressive funkiness that always bullied its way to the middle of my tongue.
Probably about five years ago, my stance on bourbons softened. And, indeed, there are some very good ones that I buy, drink, and recommend as enthusiastically as anything else. In writing for this website, I had no shortage of pleasant surprises when it came to re-evaluating bourbons I had once considered absolute ass-kickers. And a few weeks ago, I saw a bottle of Knob Creek on the shelf, thought about some good post-college memories with my buddy, and thought, “Let's give this another whirl.”
And I'll be goddamned, but this still isn't for me.
Normally long-aging booze is good, because it enhances the positive interaction between spirit and wood. Additionally, the nine-odd years the bourbon spends in Kentucky does a lot more “aging” than nine years in Scotland, as the larger differential between cold American winters and sweltering, humid summers causes barrels to shrink and expand more rapidly.
The problem is that with a bourbon, nine years causes the bourbon to be oaked up the wazoo. Bourbon, unlike Tequila, Cognac, Scotch, or Irish Whiskies, uses new-make barrels, which means that there's a metric assload of wood taste that goes into the spirit. Especially burnt wood, since the barrels have a certain degree of char as part of the bourbon production process. That all hits you hard in a bourbon aged for only four years, but bump the aging to more than twice that, and it's a full force assault.
For me, it's hard to get past the one-two punch of oak tannins sucking all of the moisture out of my mouth, followed by a finish that's almost all funky corn and even more wood. As a parallel: we're finally getting out of the obnoxious period where restaurants added bacon to fucking everything. Remember? When they'd serve you a burger with half-bacon patty, topped with bacon, and then a dollop of bacon mayo served with a goddamned BACON MANHATTAN. Substitute “oak” for “bacon,” and that's what Knob Creek tastes like to me. It's not manly—it's just obnoxious.
Underneath all of that, there is admittedly some good stuff, but you'll have to push through more wood than a kid trying to escape from a collapsed treehouse. There's a nice aroma of root beer that translates to caramel and soft vanilla on the palate, and there’s a big dose of cinnamon on the finish. With this much aging, Knob Creek has barrel spice to burn.
So to condense a long story, Knob Creek has developed a devoted following among those who like to drink full-bore, in-your-face-all-the-time-always kind of bourbons. And, well, I don't. Knob Creek is the bourbon equivalent of reading an entire paragraph written in all caps. It seems strange to describe a spirit as fatiguing, but there you go. I really don't like it.