What if we told you that Knob Creek was Jim Beam? And that Jim Beam was Knob Creek?
Clearly, any bourbon fan who has tried both bottles knows that’s not the case. And yet…
Both brands are owned by the same company, produced at the same facilities, fermented with the same grain bill and matured in the same rackhouses. The casual observer might be forgiven for believing the same juice would be inside those otherwise identical barrels when they are disgorged. But as with many things in the world of bourbon — it’s more complicated than it seems.
In this post, we’ll examine these two straight bourbon whiskey brands to find out what many bourbon aficionados already know — why each of these is a fantastic bourbon at their respective price points that are worth having on your home bar.
Jim Beam’s company story began when the Beam family moved to the Kentucky frontier in the late 1700s. In 1795, the family distilled whiskey in the ‘new style’ that would eventually become bourbon.
This family has distilled a lot of bourbon over the centuries. Let’s look at their lineup.
Johannes’ Jacob’ Beam — The OG of the family, Jacob Beam, sold that first cask of whiskey in 1795.
David Beam — David took over the distillery in 1820. He installed the first column stills at the distillery — a new and novel invention at the time.
David M. Beam — In 1854, David took over operations and moved the distillery to Nelson County, near the newly laid railroad line. In 1880, he introduced glass bottles. ‘Old Tub’ whiskey was shipped to other states by rail and grew as a regional brand.
James Beauregard Beam — James ‘Jim’ Beam began distilling in 1894. He continued to grow the brand until Prohibition disrupted the distilling industry in the United States from 1920 to 1933. When Prohibition ended, he rebuilt the distillery as a 70-year-old veteran and began selling bourbon under his own name.
T. Jeremiah Beam — While he began working at the distillery in 1913, he didn’t take over operations at the business until 1954. Jeremiah saw the company through World War II and oversaw construction of a second distillery near Boston, Kentucky.
Booker Noe — A member of the Beam family through maternal lineage, Frederick Booker Noe II took over as master distiller in 1960. His spirit of innovation has made him a legend in Kentucky. Among Booker Noe’s long list of accomplishments was the introduction of the Jim Beam Small Batch Collection, which included Knob Creek, Booker’s, Basil Haden’s and Baker’s bourbons.
Fred Noe — Seventh-generation Fred Noe took over duties as the master distiller in 1992 and continues to oversee the brand during today’s bourbon renaissance.
Freddie Noe — Fred’s son Freddie has begun distilling and blending as an heir apparent to the Beam franchise. His ‘Little Book’ blended whiskey releases have garnered industry acclaim.
To make whiskey, you must first make beer.
The mash bill, or grain bill, is the list of grain ingredients used to produce whiskey. By law, all whiskey must be made with 100 percent grain — with any other fermentables to be listed on the label. Bourbon is required to have at least 51 percent corn in the mash bill.
Both Knob Creek and Jim Beam have the same mash bill: 75 percent corn, 13 percent rye and 12 percent malted barley.
These ingredients are combined in a cooker and brought to a high temperature — about 180 to 225 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the recipe. This allows the saccharification process to convert grain starch to sugar molecules. These sugar molecules can be consumed by yeast once the mash is cooled to about 90 degrees. For about a week, the yeast have a fermentation party in the mash tun, consuming sugar and expelling carbon dioxide and ethanol. Once all sugars have been consumed, whiskey makers are left with a terminal beer at about 10 percent alcohol by volume.
Distillation & Production
The next step will see the terminal beer distilled into a clear newmake or white dog spirit.
Distillation works because of the difference in the evaporation temperatures of water and alcohol. Ethanol boils at about 175 degrees Fahrenheit, while water boils at 212 degrees. By heating the liquid to a temperature between those points, the alcohol will vaporize while the water remains liquid. The alcohol vapor can then be cooled and recondensed into liquid alcohol.
Column reflux distillation occurs in a large tube — usually made of copper — that has numerous plates placed horizontally inside the cylinder. Beer is fed in at one end, and heat is applied to the plates. Steam is redistilled as it rises through the various plates, becoming higher in alcohol concentration. At the top, alcohol is pulled at the precise ABV the master distiller calls for.
After the distillation process, the master distiller is left with a clear, unaged new make or white dog spirit at about 150 proof. It’s time to dilute that spirit, rack it into barrels and turn it into whiskey.
Bourbon is required to be matured in new American charred oak barrels. But the amount of time is up to the producer.
The most noticeable difference between Jim Beam and Knob Creek is that big, bold number 9 plastered on the label. That is an age statement, a legally bound guarantee that every barrel dumped for that product is aged for no less than nine years — with many barrels being much older.
In addition to the barrels being in the rickhouse longer, it’s where the barrels allocated for each product are located that make a big difference as well. Members of the blending team will pull barrels for Knob Creek that were left to mature in the many ‘sweet spots’ found in the various multi-storied wooden rackhouses that dot both the Clermont and Boston campuses.
Jim Beam and Knob Creek are both produced by international beverage giant Beam-Suntory, considered the third-largest producer of distilled spirits in the world.
Price Point & Value
Jim Beam’ White Label’ Bourbon is bottled at 80-proof, or 40 percent ABV, and has a retail price of about $18.
Knob Creek has a suggested retail price of about $35 for a 750mL bottle at 100-proof, or 50 percent ABV.
Jim Beam white label Bourbon
Description: In the glass, Jim Beam is burnt-amber in color.
Nose: Floral aromas with raisins, followed by notes of leather and tobacco.
Palate: Balanced new oak flavors with corn, chocolate, black pepper, tobacco and vanilla.
Finish: Sweet honey notes with vanilla and toasted almonds.
[Related: Complete Jim Beam Bourbon Review]
Knob Creek Bourbon
Appearance: In the glass, Knob Creek appears almost thick enough the chew and, at 100-proof, has beautiful thick legs. Its light brown color hints at auburn and polished mahogany.
Nose: The aroma of rich toffee, with fragrant notes of vanilla, buttery caramel, raisins and honey.
Palate: Heavy barrel oak flavors of baking spices, vanilla and cinnamon, with tobacco and black pepper notes.
Finish: Lingering notes of chocolate, nougat, vanilla, almonds, leather and a pleasant campfire smokiness.
[Related: Complete Knob Creek Bourbon Review]
Knob Creek tastes better because it’s supposed to taste better. Beam Master Distiller Fred Noe wouldn’t argue with that — in fact, he might tell you he wasn’t doing his job right if it was any other way.
Knob Creek’s age statement and small-batch approach have made it an iconic bourbon — and help explain why it is a global leader in bourbon’s premium price segment. And as the No. 1 selling Bourbon whiskey in the world, Jim Beam has nothing to prove in its offering in the standard pricing segment.
By trying each of these brands side-by-side in a blind taste test, you’ll find out exactly how much difference a few years in the charred oak barrel and prime placement in the rackhouse can make.