Friday, 30 June 2017

Don't mess with my baby.....Knob Creek 9yo vs Knob Creek NAS

This isn't an ambush, I know what I might be getting into, indeed, I'm drawn inexorably to experience it.....but there are dangers. Knob Creek 9yo has been one of my go to, bang for your buck bourbons for many years. I'd transitioned through the childhood traumas of Jack Daniels and Jim Beam, I'd had treatment for ptds (post traumatic dram stress) and I'd emerged on the other side. Yes, during the transition from adolescent to adult there were the inevitable puking like a dog moments, the "I'll never drink again" moments, the opprobrium of strangers, the memory loss, the waking up in unfamiliar environments; countless floors in unknown locations, swaddled in carpet/duvet/blanket/towel, in beds, baths, chairs and sofas, in strange houses, a different city, a rubbish skip on Oxford Road (Manchester, 1979), a different country (Dublin, Ireland 1982), a police name but a few. I'd worked diligently through the embarrassment, humiliation, occasional moments of clarity and retained a reasonable, if at times flimsy, grip on my sense of self, but I'd experienced nothing that might turn a whiskey into my own personal kryptonite.... and here I was, with two bottles in front of me, (and not a frontal lobotomy - badum tish!) 

     Setting the scene.

Ah, the whiskey boom! The growing realisation that this glorious liquid offers big rewards to drinkers for relatively little investment. The inevitable increase in demand, the commensurate increase in production (for some distilleries), the realisation that the impact on stocks was far more pronounced than at first thought, and then the panic. Cue the marketers....."How can we turn this into a positive?" Now I'm a fairly phlegmatic individual, the situation regarding stocks is what it is, the industry will learn from it and plan accordingly, there are some great NAS expressions out there (and some poor ones), the same goes for age statements. But….to be honest, I'm totally fucking bored with the "age statement/no age statement' debate. There have been some high quality, illuminative posts written but now the arguments have all been aired endlessly, and yet it seems as though the world and it's wife still seek opportunities to wax unlyrically, to rake over old coals, and to regurgitate overly masticated sound bites as novel insight.

Now here’s the thing, whilst I’ve come to terms with the NAS/age statement tension, I don’t like to be taken for a sap. I kick back vigorously against perceived clumsy and ill thought through attempts at manipulation. I first experienced this in my whisky world when I was faced with the phrase “the tyranny of the age statement”. Like all good marketing strategies, the trick is to interlace elements of a message that are widely accepted with the bullshit in the hope that the receivers of the message will accept the statement as a factual whole. In this instance, there is reference to the debate around a perception that older whisky is, simply by virtue of its age, better than younger whisky (including NAS whisky).

It’s a discussion that I’m sure many/most/all of you will have had at some point, so far so good. Now here’s the kicker, the statement refers to the “tyranny” of the age statement. If you accept the statement as a whole then you are accepting the fact that you have been tyrannized, you have been oppressed, repressed, suppressed, browbeaten…..and you didn’t know it until it was pointed out to you! Patronising bullshit! I could go on but I need to refocus on Knob Creek…..

The pitch for the successor

When the stock crisis began to bite we began to see statements such as: 

“Given our stocks of ageing Knob Creek, we will in future years use liquid on both sides of nine years to ensure that we always maintain the brand’s taste standard….This means the Knob Creek label will no longer feature an age statement.

Let’s consider the statement. Kudos for the honesty re the stock situation, there’s an intriguing hint at possibilities of both younger and older Knob, a commitment to maintaining standards, and to finish, an unequivocal statement re the loss of the age statement. If it ended there I would be disappointed but accepting, it’s not their fault that stocks are low, alongside most other whisky producers they are a victim of their own success….but….they didn’t stop there.

Such carefully chosen words, lovingly assembled, crafted to derail accusations of falsehood or fraudulent advertising. It’s not claiming that the liquid tastes the same as the 9yo, simply that the taste profile is the same……and the two can be very different. The phrase “the only thing that’s changing is the label” surely borders on an untruth. What was bourbon aged for 9 years is being replaced with “liquid on both sides of nine years” How can both liquids be the same? What follows is an acceptable sliver of virtue signalling common to any promotional copy: -

“Knob Creek will always stand for big, full-flavoured bourbon – one
that’s distilled, aged and blended in limited quantities and bottled at 100 proof, to achieve the award-winning, consistent taste profile that Booker Noe demanded. THAT’S what defines Knob Creek.

It ends with a common strategy used in attempts to influence attitude change – the positive association. If A says it’s good (and “A” is a well-known, well respected, expert in the field) then it must be good.

“Fred Noe is in charge of determining the liquid that’s put into the bottle, and it’s not Knob Creek until he says so.”


Everything is designed to send out the message, “this is as good as the 9 year old”….I needed to find out for myself.

Knob Creek 9yo & NAS: Two Knobs rubbing against each other

The tasting was done blind. A dram of each was poured for me and I was left to ponder, to taste, to cogitate, to drink, to savour......or not as the case may be. For the purpose of the exercise the bourbons will be referred to as Dram A and Dram B.

The Nose:

Dram A: Tobacco leaves, musty, sweet herbaceous notes, hints of vanilla, alluringly medicinal, it is both vibrant and lively. I've already formed an opinion!

Dram B: It's "dram A lite", a skinnier expression, I'm having to work harder. It's not unpleasant. It's as if A and I are staring intently at each other whilst B throws me a sideways, diffident glance. B is sharper, more clinical, terse, and there's little in the way of complexity. Not unpleasant but nothing to dram on about.

The Palate

Dram A: A warmth pulsates around the mouth, sweet & spicy, I smile, wood shavings, teak oil, tobacco, hints of chocolate and caramel, cinnamon and brown sugar. The finish is quite long, spicy and the warmth stays with me. A lovely interplay between barley, rye and charred cask. I close my eyes and am in one of my go to whiskey locations, sat in a wing-back chair in a musty bookshop fumbling a worn copy of Mr Wilde's "The picture of Dorian Gray"

Dram B: Take everything down a notch, put the palate mufflers on, and let the whiskey whisper to your senses. It's not inaudible, it's not's just not quite there. It feels somewhat emaciated, as if the core essence of "what was" has been hollowed out and "what is" is something else, a doppelgänger, a dupe, an imposter. It's a not so evil twin, a bourbon antagonist in an NAS whiskey soap opera, it's both of Cinderella's sisters jealously prodding their more accomplished nemesis.....I realise what I'm doing, I'm writing as if Dram B is the NAS.

Remember, at this point I still haven't been told which dram is which....but surely there can be only one answer. I admit to feeling slightly trepidatious as I ask my partner to carry out the big reveal. If I've got it wrong I'll feel bad, it will ruin my evening, but I will cope; after all, it's just whiskey and there are bigger things going on in the world.....but I am not wrong. Dram A is indeed the 9 year old I've come to love and appreciate.

Don't get me wrong, Knob Creek NAS isn't a disaster, indeed, were I in a boozer, in convivial company, near the end of an engaging evening, enjoying a hauf ‘n hauf, it would most certainly hit the D spot. However, when it's sat next to its older brother, looking longingly at him, wide eyed, in awe, hoping that one day it will do the things that he can do, it pales, it wails....and it fails.

The new expression may be patiently aged, but it is, in my opinion patently inferior....and sold at the same price point. It's still decent but now sits alongside a host of other bourbons as opposed to looking down on them.

Post script: As a result of my experience, the very next day I trawled the internet seeking out the 9yo. I ordered two bottles only to find that, upon delivery, they were the new NAS. I returned the bottles and, when seeking other bottles of the 9yo, I asked the sellers to verify that they were stocking the 9yo, only to find that 90% of them were showing the 9yo on their websites but were actually stocking the NAS. Buyer beware!