Brown Sweetness Vol. 1: Bottling a Private Barrel of Knob Creek


As I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions, I run a small whisky tasting group in our town. We’ve been meeting for near-monthly tastings for going on a decade now. Our focus is almost entirely on single malt whisky but from time to time we have been known to drink bourbon as well. For a while now I’ve harboured a fantasy of bottling a private cask of single malt whisky for our group. Alas, living in the U.S it is all but impossible to do this. I mean, you could, but getting the bottles to the US legally would be difficult to say the least, and the cost would be prohibitive. However, bottling a private barrel of bourbon is not as much of a challenge. That’s not to say it’s easy. Private citizens cannot buy directly from distilleries here; so you have to work through a store that has a private barrel program of their own and is willing to assist you. If you know such a store and if you have enough takers, you are in business. I eventually gave up my single malt cask fantasy and realized that I might know such a store*. Herewith the saga of actually getting to the point of writing this post.

Getting Started

After establishing that the owner of the store I knew would be happy to work with us I had to go about making sure we had enough takers for the possible outturn of bottles from the barrel. This is not a simple matter as it’s hard to predict how many bottles will emerge from a bourbon barrel: it could be as low as 120 and as high as 200 (and theoretically even higher). Our group is only about 20 people strong and we are none of us high rollers—and so the prospect of possibly having to take 10 bottles each of anything was a non-starter. In fact, price was a major factor for us in determining what we might bottle. Of the available possibilities—no Four Roses opportunity, alas—my own first choice would have been a barrel of Russell’s Reserve. But the per bottle price for a barrel would have been close to $60 and it didn’t seem likely at all that we’d be able to clear 100 bottles at that price, leave alone possibly 200.

With all the constraints, a barrel of Knob Creek seemed like it would be in the sweet spot. Especially as the store I was working with is one of Beam’s largest customers and it seemed likely that we’d get a a good selection of barrels to choose from. It was still not something we could do between just the 20-22 of us, and not all of us were interested in a barrel of bourbon to begin with. Those of us who were in reached out to friends and associates who we know like bourbon and slowly but surely we inched up close to finding takers for potentially 195 bottles, a total of more than 50 people (some of them out-of-towners—I figured we’d solve the issue of getting their bottles to them once we got there). But this was only the start of a very long process. (We were at this point in September of 2018.)

I was invited to go to the distillery with the store owner and to also visit the other distilleries where he’d be making barrel selections. This was an enticing offer. A friend of mine who is also in the group and who is a writer was interested in possibly pitching a magazine story on the process and asked if he could come along too. We were all set to go in January. And then I had to go to Hong Kong and Bombay for work in December and when time came to buy our tickets I couldn’t face the prospect of coming back to the US after a tiring trip and getting back on a plane a couple of days later. And so we had to bail. Fortunately, it was still going to be possible to have the distillery mail me a sample selection kit. And in March I got an email from the store saying it was waiting there for me.

I showed up expecting to be handed a zip lock bag with a few 50 ml sample bottles in it and was instead presented a heavy wooden box. Inside this box were three 100 ml cask samples, a branded pen and a branded pad for tasting notes, a 100 ml bottle of purified Kentucky water, a graduated cylinder and an eye dropper. Ridiculous and excellent at the same time. Cards marked the exact warehouse location of the barrels from which the three samples had been drawn. Two of the casks were 14 years old and one was 15 years old. All were at ludicrous strengths, well past 60%. This clearly required serious attention; thankfully, I was up for it.

I was appreciative of the fact that the three samples were 100 ml each. This allowed me to make two separate passes at the samples over two evenings and still have a bit left over for confirmation later. If I was tasting just for myself I would be fine with making a quicker assessment but with so many people trusting their money to me I wanted to be as sure as I could be and I wanted to taste each sample once right after opening the bottles and again a couple of days later once they’d sat with some headspace. Herewith my findings as recorded during the tastings.

Making the Selection

First Pass

Sample A (63.25%; Warehouse X, Floor 4, Rick 29, Tier 2; Barreled on Feb 11, 2004)

Nose: Bright off the top with honey and apricot and citrus (between lemon peel and orange peel). Slightly piney and herbal on the second sniff and there’s a bit of bite that might be a predictor of oak on the palate. With more time there’s something sweeter as well—cherry? With a few drops of water the pine expands and there’s also a cereal note along with some toasted oak.

Palate: Leads with the piney notes but I’m happy to say this is not at all tannic or otherwise over-oaked. The brighter fruit from the nose is not in evidence, however. Quite approachable at full strength. Yes, with time there’s more of the citrus. Sweeter here too with water and the toasted oak is here as well.

Finish: Medium. Gets sharper as it goes but still not tannic: the bite is mostly from the alcohol. With more time it gets sweeter and stickier on the finish as well. Longer with water and more warming.

Sample B (64.9%; Warehouse I, Floor 4, Rick 19, Tier 1; Barreled on Oct 14, 2004)

Nose: Rich corn sweetness with honey and a bit of orange peel. On the second sniff there’s some caramel and vanilla. Not much sign of the oak. A little richer as it sits but not much other change. Sweeter and richer with water, with quite a bit of cherry here too now.

Palate:  Generally as promised by the nose but not quite as rich. Also remarkably approachable at full strength. On the second sip there’s more oak here. Ah, water opens it up and brings out all the richness that was on the nose and more: honey, orange peel, apricot, toasted oak, caramel, toffee; a bit of pipe tobacco too.

Finish: Medium. Gets spicier as it goes. More oak with water.

Sample C (64.4%; Warehouse I, Floor 4, Rick 18, Tier 3; Barreled on Oct 14, 2004)

Nose: Somewhere between the first two: richer than Sample A, more oak/spice than Sample B. Also more honey than in either of the others. Gets stickier as it goes. More apricot and even more sticky as it sits. A big cereal note here too with water.

Palate: Ah yes, leads with the honey here too and there’s caramel, apricot and dried orange peel along for the ride as well. No sign of oak and extremely drinkable at full strength. Spicier on the second sip but it’s all in good balance. Water pulls the cherry out here as well and there’s a hit of pipe tobacco too.

Finish: Medium-long. Spicier and more mentholated than the others. With water the sticky, rich notes hang around longer.

Second Pass

Sample A (63.25%; Warehouse X, Floor 4, Rick 29, Tier 2; Barreled on Feb 11, 2004)

Nose: The fruit and honey are still to the fore but the piney note is much more pronouncedly oaky now and a bit sharp. As on the first pass with water.

Palate: More oaky bite here too now though it’s still not too sharp or tannic. Water pushes the oak back and pulls out the rye earlier.

Finish: Medium. More rye in the finish now (herbal note).

Sample B (64.9%; Warehouse I, Floor 4, Rick 19, Tier 1; Barreled on Oct 14, 2004)

Nose: Pretty much as it was on the first pass. With water there’s more of the apricot and orange peel that I got from Sample A on the first pass.

Palate:  Richer and fuller now and even more approachable at full strength. Let’s see if there’s any further improvement with water. Much the same as it was with water.

Finish: No change here.

Sample C (64.4%; Warehouse I, Floor 4, Rick 18, Tier 3; Barreled on Oct 14, 2004)

Nose: As it was on the first pass.

Palate: Largely unchanged on the palate too.

Finish: As above.

Comments:

On first nosing the three I was sure Sample B was going to be it. It’s probably the one closest to the bourbon mean in profile (with corn sweetness in the lead) and it’s probably also the closest to the standard Knob Creek profile. Maybe this should not be a disqualifying factor but it did make it less interesting to me at first. Sample A was more interesting on the palate but had just a bit too much of a pine/herbal thing going on in the nose. Sample C split the difference between the two. It was a hard call between Sample A and Sample C but C edged A neat on the first pass. With water added things got more complicated. Sample B didn’t get any more idiosyncratic but caught up to the nose on the palate and, on the whole, pulled into a dead heat with Sample A. Luckily, Sample C made things easier by getting even richer and fuller on the palate. If picking with just this one pass the call would be Sample C without any hesitation.

On the second evening things shifted a bit. With more richness/depth on the palate Sample B was now clearly ahead of Sample A which seemed to have gotten oakier/sharper with air in the sample bottle. Sample C was largely unchanged. Much harder call now between Sample B and Sample C.

Pick: Sample C. The greater fruitiness of this one tipped it over the line for me.

This was a very interesting experience. All three of these were very good and all were far superior to the standard Knob Creek. If I could afford it/had enough takers I’d bottle the Sample B barrel as well

After the Selection

The hard part I thought was now over. But it turns out that the waiting really is the hardest part and boy, did we have to wait a long time. I was told the barrel would be bottled and the bottles sent out to the store between four and six weeks of my making a selection. Four and six weeks came and went but there was no word. I reached out to the Beam rep and learned that she had been let go. After some weeks I heard from the new rep who said that due to slowdowns etc. at the distillery it would probably not be till August that we could expect to receive the bottles. There was then radio silence through the summer. Then there were warehouse fires at Beam. I was convinced that there was now no chance of getting this barrel. As a first-time, small-time outfit we were clearly not going to be a priority.

Just as I’d mentally prepared to tell people that this might not be happening after all, out of the blue, while we were on the east coast in August, I received an email saying our bottles would be sent out in a couple of weeks. And then I learned that the ownership of the store I was working with had suddenly changed. I was unsure if the new owner would be willing to give us the price I’d talked about with the old owner—with barely any markup—but thankfully this never came up as an issue. And by the first week of September the bottles had arrived in the store. How many bottles? It turned out to be 29 cases or 174 bottles. But for whatever reason only 28 cases actually showed up at the store. And that 168 bottle count turned out to be exactly the number that the locals on my list had committed to. But we were not yet ready to distribute and drink. There was the matter of affixing our own private label on the back of the bottle.

The Label

As you may know, personalized stickers/labels on private barrels of bourbon are a thing. I had seen a number of these labels and while they were fun I wanted ours to be a bit more aesthetically pleasing (apologies to the other groups!). Fortunately, our group includes some very talented artists and designers. I had some ideas for what I wanted the label to look like and say. After some back and forth my friend Stephanie (whose sketches from our tastings I featured a while ago) came up with the art and my friend Doug, a graphic designer who makes amazing posters, made the label incorporating that art and the text. Despite having existed for almost a decade our tasting group has not actually had a name. Since we live in the town of Northfield I pulled “The Northfield Whisk(e)y Tendency” out of my ass for the label. And as the town’s official motto is “Cows, Colleges and Contentment” (lots of dairy farms and two colleges, you see), the motto, “Cows, Whisky, Contentment” wrote itself. The “Brown Sweetness” bit is an inside joke from our tastings that will be hard to explain—I left that bit as a surprise for the group to find. “Vol. 1” in the hopes that we might get to do at least a second bottling next year.

Last evening a few of the group members came over to help me put on the labels and as you’re reading this members of the group are coming over to pick up their shares. It’s been almost exactly a year since we got going on this but it has been entirely worth the wait. I’m not sure if the store in question will want to do this again under the new ownership but if they are willing I suspect everyone in our group will be. And if there is a next time I’ll try my best to make it to Kentucky for the selection.

My thanks to everyone at Beam, to Louis and to Chad for making this happen for us!


*I have not named the store here both because I don’t want them to get overwhelmed by queries from other groups both as a courtesy to them and selfishly because I don’t want some other group to try and nab our spot if they are indeed willing to do this again!

2 thoughts on “Brown Sweetness Vol. 1: Bottling a Private Barrel of Knob Creek

  1. Congratulations on the pick! And I do enjoy the label aesthetic – very distinctive and not your standard Bourbon label.
    It is interesting how distillers in the USA seem to prioritise these barrel pick programs for stores, bars and private groups – Scotland has no such interest unless you are a giant retailer, in which case it seems to happen all the time (but usually from the broker/independent bottler angle as opposed to the distillery).
    I wish you luck with Vol. 2.

    Like

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