Whisky and Words Number 76: Woodford Reserve vs. Knob Creek

Woodford Reserve is the premium bourbon from Brown Forman

Woodford Reserve is the premium whisky from the folks at Brown-Forman, famous for Jack Daniels (as well as some Scotch labels such as BenRiach). Oddly enough Jack Daniels was the favorite tipple of Keith Richards (until he went dry in 2018). He could afford better, and the distillery does make a better whisky. With Woodford, Brown-Forman are going for a higher price and more refined flavor. And to one-up our valiant competitor Knob Creek, Brown-Forman even include a pot still in the Woodford Reserve production, whereas Knob Creek is all column-distilled. But there’s more to whisky than the still.

What we know of Woodford gleaned from their website is that they consider it “the world’s finest bourbon.” Full stop. No holding back with these marketing folks. (That claim calls for a future comparison with one of the ‘craft’ bourbons on the market). They do, at least, give you a bit of background on their approach, after the obligatory we’re old so we’re good pitch (they were established in 1812). The mash bill is called out: 72% corn, 11% rye, and 10% malted barley; this is a fairly standard ‘low rye’ mash bill (you can read more about bourbon mash bills here). The high percentage of corn (maize, not barleycorn) is there because corn is inexpensive in the U.S. and it adds sweetness—which a lot of American drinkers appear to like, considering how sweet a lot of popular bourbons are (Jim Beam, anyone?.

That is one dark amber spirit! And that’s all from the cask, no e150 in a straight bourbon.

Next up is the water, “directly from the distillery” so, not a public water source. It’s from an aquifer that is limestone-filtered, no iron, and lots of minerals. Next we learn that the fermenting of the wort is among “the longest” and they have their own brand of yeast. A unique fermentation can bring in unique flavors, so that’s of interest. Finally they point out their distillation method, using both pot and column stills, claiming “No other whiskey can claim such a flavor combination.” That’s true; I cannot find another whiskey (versus ‘whisky’) made with a separate column and pot still combination, though many American distillers use a column with an attached pot still for the final stage (more info at TheWhiskeyWash). The copper of the pot still neutralizes sulphur.

On to maturation: Brown-Forman run their own cooperage and so make and char their own barrels. We can assume for their premium whisky they’ll use their best wood. We do not know how long they age, but as Woodford Reserve is labeled a ‘straight’ bourbon, that’s at least two years. Altogether, it’s apparent they have taken some care over this whiskey and are pricing it at a 50% premium over their standard Jack Daniels. Let’s see how they’ve done, compared with Beam’s Knob Creek.

The competitors. After the holidays, I’m being cheap, so just buying the mini bottles. Look at that color, practically identical. Click for hi-res.

Woodford has a very rich and fully textured nose, there’s quite a lot going on. The nose features caramel apple, peach, cinnamon, some nutmeg, a solid hunk of oak, almonds, walnuts, and a lingering sourness. It’s a lot fuller and more satisfying than Knob Creek’s nose, even though the latter is 8% higher ABV.

However, on the palate the Woodford is harsh, which I suspect is due to the relatively high ABV. Still I have had Scotch whiskies in the 46% range that are not as harsh. Going with a smaller sip and I’m finding wheat toast, nutty flavors and corn. It is not overly sweet and has an abundance of tannins that render it downright dry. The finish is noticeably bitter. The Knob Creek is spicier on the tongue (perhaps due to the higher ABV) but also sweeter, almost honey-sweet, with corn as a major flavor element.

I did buy some regular old Jack Daniels to compare as well. The regular Jack has little nose to speak of and a pretty mellow flavor profile. Not as sweet as the Knob Creek but nowhere near the level of tannins as the Woodford, and is as a result smoother and more drinkable, if unspectacular. Contrasting to the Woodford, Jack Daniels is an alcoholic corn-ade, and Knob Creek a more flavorful corn-ade. The Woodford Reserve is an attempt to satisfy a more sophisticated palate and while its nose hits the mark and there is good flavor in there, it is overly astringent and not very pleasant to drink straight. I added water but it still delivered a harsh and bitter finish. N.B., after being open for a week the harshness lessened, perhaps indicating a overage of volatile esters that have now evaporated. It’s still very dry and bitter and the harshness persists on the finish.

Woodford Reserve, Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 45.2% ABV

Nose: Full and pleasant, featuring caramel apple, peach, cinnamon, some nutmeg, a solid hunk of oak, almonds and walnuts, and a lingering sourness (from the mash?).
Palate: Initially harsh, bitter and very forward tannins, not well balanced at all. The rye is noticeable, along with corn and hints of the fruit found on the nose.
Finish: The rye adds aroma, but tannins predominate and the harshness remains.

Bottom Line: After nosing this whiskey, I was disappointed to taste it. I gave it a lot of effort, retries, even had the whisky-drinking wife try it, and she agreed, tasting blind, that the Knob Creek was far more pleasant to drink. Although this dram is a couple bucks cheaper than the Knob Creek, it is not worth the coin. If you want something a little more cleaned up than the very sweet Jim Beam or neutral but unspectacular Jack Daniels, pay a couple bucks more for the Knob Creek—which even at 8% higher ABV will treat your mouth better. Of course if you’re just going to sniff your whisky, the Woodford will do fine.

NOTE: I am not quite done with American whiskeys, as I have a couple rye whiskies to test, but we’ll be back doing Scotch for a while first.

Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

4 thoughts on “Whisky and Words Number 76: Woodford Reserve vs. Knob Creek”

    1. In a mixed drink, that’s another story altogether. Since there are so many variables with cocktails, I focus on the experience drinking the spirit neat. Certainly a lot of flavor in that for a cocktail.

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  1. I regularly drink Woodford and Knob Creek 120 (much tastier than the lesser proofs) neat. Never thought of Woodford as “harsh”. Have always enjoyed the “cherries” that come out with the first couple of sips. Your reference to “crafts” I find amusing. Tried quite a few and they all vary from batch to batch, some awesome, some not so much. With WR and KC I can always count on them.

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    1. Hi Paul, we’re going to see about those craft whiskies as I compare them to the big guys like WR and Knob. I’ll try the 120 as well. That’s pretty strong stuff. Note I’m coming from Scotch whiskies which tend to be much longer in cask, so tend to be smoother. A lot of the esters having escaped.

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