How Knob Creek® Set the Standard for Craft Bourbon
Created by Booker Noe, Jim Beam’s sixth generation master distiller, Knob Creek® was at the forefront of the biggest bourbon boom in modern history.
Thirty years ago, the landscape of American whiskey was, by today’s high standards, practically unrecognizable.
For better or worse, vodka dominated the spirits industry and Long Island Iced Tea and the Cosmopolitan were the drinks of the day. “In the late ’80s, bourbon wasn’t very cool,” admits Tim Heuisler, American whiskey ambassador for Beam Suntory. Distillers were facing a very grim future with a number of brands on the verge of going out of business. But, thankfully, in rural Kentucky, out of the ashes, the rebirth of American whiskey began to take shape.
It was Jim Beam’s sixth-generation distiller Booker Noe who helped create what we know today as small batch bourbon and for more than two decades was the face of its resurgence.
Having grown up working in his family’s whiskey business, which dates back to 1795, bourbon was practically in Noe’s DNA. He was schooled in the art of distillation by a number of his close relatives, including his grandfather, liquor legend, Jim Beam.
He was also taught about the importance of perseverance in the face of insurmountable odds. His family had weathered Prohibition when the Beams not only couldn’t make liquor but also lost their original distillery.
Noe wasn’t going to go down without a fight. He also was tired of producing the same couple bourbons day in and day out, year after year. His innate curiosity led him to start experimenting with different distilling and aging techniques, which ultimately helped save the American whiskey industry. His innovations propelled bourbon into a new era.
In 1987, Noe created a special bourbon bottling, which excited the company’s distribution partners. He pulled whiskey directly from the best barrels in the center of one of the Beam warehouses. The response was overwhelmingly positive and over the next few years he launched not just one, but a line of small batch bourbons, including best-seller Knob Creek.
He drew inspiration from his personal collection of whiskies that dated back to the turn of the century. Noe was particularly drawn to the big, unapologetic pre-Prohibition bourbons and he modeled the flavor of Knob Creek’s original 100-proof nine-year-old bourbon on them.
Beam’s warehouses can each hold up to 50,000 barrels. Thanks to varying airflow and humidity, Noe understood that different areas of a warehouse produce different flavor profiles of aged whiskey. As it turned out, many of Noe’s favorite whiskies were coming from the middle of the warehouses. He used these special barrels for Knob Creek. “We still don’t climate control anything, so the conditions are as inconsistent as they’ve always been and that’s kind of how we like it,” says Heuisler. “That’s what makes Kentucky bourbon Kentucky bourbon, you know?”
With Knob Creek’s whiskey in place, the next step was to give it an identity, while paying tribute to its heritage. First came the square bottle, which imitated pre-Prohibition apothecary containers. Then, the label, a nod to old-timey repurposed newspaper wrappers, which were used when money was tight. Finally, the name Knob Creek referred to an actual creek to the south of the distillery. It’s no surprise that the brand’s motto is every bit earned® given Noe’s hard work and resourcefulness during one of the darkest periods in whiskey history.
The bourbon’s boisterous personality mirrored that of Noe. It was higher proof and more mature—something that drinkers did not often, if ever, have the opportunity to try at the time.
Noe then hit the road to champion Knob Creek and share his vision for small-batch bourbon. He was essentially the company’s first ambassador and met with anyone who would listen to him discuss every aspect of whiskey making from mash bills and aging to bottling strength and how to drink it. But for the next decade, growth was slow as Americans regained their taste for whiskey.
When he passed away in 2004, his son, Fred Noe, took the reins as the family’s seventh-generation master distiller. Fred, like his father, hit the road to promote Knob Creek and found that the American cocktail renaissance was really taking shape. Bartenders were trading in vodka for whiskey, making classics like Old-Fashioneds and Manhattans trendy again.
Thanks to this popularity, the brand has grown to also include single barrel whiskies, a straight rye and a smoked maple bourbon. And keep a look out for two new extra-aged bourbons, a 12-year-old and a 15-year-old, that will be introduced later this year.
For nearly 30 years, Knob Creek has maintained its standing as a go-to, whether mixed in cocktails or enjoyed neat. That’s thanks in large part to Noe, who was able to help reinvent the American distilling industry and challenge drinkers to embrace bourbon and appreciate it in a whole new way.
Most importantly, Booker Noe made bourbon cool again.