25 Dec! Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it.
Welcome to our second (of three) American series reviews. When they reviewed American whiskies the Whisky Waffle lads panned the big, common bourbons (Jack Daniels, Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark), but had good words for more innovative products. I did a similar comparison last week, Jim Beam vs. Rogue’s Dead Guy, and indeed the craft product out-shined the mass-market product by a fair margin. This week, we line up a bourbon titan the Waffle guys missed, Wild Turkey 101, up against Knob Creek—itself a Jim Beam ‘premium’ product. Both are Kentucky Straight Bourbons, 100-ish proof, and well, we’ll see what’s what.
The Wafflers have reviewed a Knob Creek, the 120-proof (60% ABV) variety. Like today’s 100-proof version, it’s aged nine years, which is a long time for American whiskey. (Note, this was not true for much of the mid 2000s, but as of 2020 they have begun aging for 9 years again). Bourbon is usually aged 3-6 years, versus the 10-12 year norm for Scotch, as in the hotter climate of the US the magic happens at a faster pace than in cool, rainy Scotland. As for how the product differs from the regular mass-produced Beam, not much is said on their site besides the aging. They use the term ‘small batch’ on the label which means nothing in the US and the whiskey is certainly distilled in a continuous still.
Wild Turkey’s website says they mature ‘longer than other distillers.’ Various sites state six years. So the Knob should have the upper hand in aging. But the Turkey has won a passel of awards, so, who knows. Knob Creek 100 is $35 in Oregon, vs. Wild Turkey’s $24 ( a $6 premium over rival Jim Beam).
First thing to note is the color. Both are deep amber, which is typical for American whiskies, due in part to the deep charring of the barrels preferred by bourbon makers. (Here is a very detailed blog addressing whether bourbon makers are allowed to add coloring, and they are not). Let’s get to it.
The Turkey has a fruity (raisin, watermelon) nose with some hints of mineral from the water. There is a pleasant woody spiciness, though faint. Hints of cinnamon and oak are tough to sniff out as the high ABV results in some sting on the nose. Once once poured, the Knob Creek actually reaches out a bit. I can get the nose from a couple feet off as I type. KC has a far more balanced nose than the Turkey—it does not have the strong fruity overtones of the Turkey nor does it bite, no alcohol sting. The wood is more in front, though some sweet corn comes through as well as toasted almond and dry oak.
On the palate, the Wild Turkey rides a wave of rich toffee and fire with a lot of bitter tannin being the majority of the finish. It is harsh, and I think best mixed with something. Taken with a little excellent Portland water (‘bourbon and branch water’ being traditional) tames it some, and you get the toffee and caramel with a bit of spice and the tannins are not so overpowering. But it’s still harsh, and I can feel damage to my palate, which i have never felt from the stronger Scotch whiskies I’ve tried. (It does kick Jim Beam’s butt in flavor. I have some of the Beam left and tasting Beam after the Wild Turkey is like drinking milk after swigging the Sriracha.)
On to Knob Creek, and will I feel further destruction of my tongue? It’s a more interesting ride, with a lot of spice, moderate sweetness, a well balanced tannin load. It actually has a finish, though mostly maple syrup and oak. I do not get the harsh burning as from the Wild Turkey, so kudos to Beam for their distillation. With a bit of water, the caramel and maple reveals the aforementioned almond, dark molasses, ginger and allspice, which are maintained in a pleasant finish for quite a while. It’s not tremendously complex, more like a grown-up’s liquid gingersnap. But it does its job in a balanced fashion and without physical distress, for which I’m grateful..
Wild Turkey 101, Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 50.5% ABV
Nose: Fruity (raisins, watermelon) with hints of mineral, pleasant woody spiciness which battle with the high and harsh ABV stinging the nose.
Palate: Fiery blend of rich toffee and loads of bitter tannins. Taken with some water reveals toffee and caramel with a bit of spice and moderates the tannins. Harsh.
Finish: Blessedly short: harsh alcohol fire and bitterness.
Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 50% ABV
Nose: Well-balanced with sweet corn, toasted almond and dry oak. No sting from the high ABV.
Palate: Sweet maple syrup well balanced with molasses, hefty spice (ginger heat and allspice), almond and moderate, pleasant tannins. Improved with a little water to get the full profile.
Finish: Fairly long with maple and spices, like an alcoholic ginger snap.
Bottom Line: Sure, this was an unequal contest. Wild Turkey has its own premium brand and I’ll get to that later. The point was to explore whether the Knob’s ‘small batch’ approach and longer maturation paid off and is worth the $10-a-bottle premium to the Wild Turkey or (even even cheaper) regular Beam. That’s a resounding YES. I would not serve Wild Turkey unless it was well buried in a mixer, whereas I could see sipping the Knob Creek with a bit of water if I was looking for a dessert whiskey. For the price, $35 American, a Scotch drinker like myself would have as an alternative a good blended Scotch like Johnnie Walker Black. Like the Wafflers, I’m finding Bourbon-land to resemble Candyland. Yeah, I’d take the JWB any day.