02/28/2012 08:49 am ET Updated Apr 29, 2012

Happy 20th Birthday, Knob Creek: A Love Letter To A Breakthrough Bourbon

I should start off by saying that if you're expecting some sort of objective history of Knob Creek bourbon, you've come to the wrong place. Sure, you'll get the story behind the product with relevant facts and all that, but you've got to know that I am a big fan of this product. Is it the best bourbon in the world? Well, no. But it's my go-to whiskey for cocktails both at home and when I go out, and a damn fine sipping bourbon as well. And while there may be bourbons that have been aged longer, bottled at a higher proof, and priced higher, the vast majority of them were directly influenced by Knob Creek, which this month celebrates its 20th birthday. So this isn't a review so much as a love letter wrapped up in a biography, complete with quotes from the guy who makes it. You have been warned.

I started drinking Knob Creek in the late '90s, after several years of being a Jack Daniel's man (yes, I know JD is technically a Tennessee sipping whiskey, so sue me). Hey, I figured if Jack was good enough for Sinatra, it was good enough for me too. But Knob Creek's powerful, sweet and robust flavors liberated my palate, and I never thought of bourbon the same way again. It didn't cross my mind to wonder how long "The Knob" had been around -- I think I assumed that whiskeys were a fixed canon, and all of them had been around for generations. I also never bothered to wonder what a "small batch" bourbon was, despite the fact that it was mentioned prominently on the bottle. I just liked how it tasted. Imagine my surprise when I found out that Knob had only been around for a few years; that it was produced in a style unique at the time; and that it had played a big role in spawning an entire category of "super-premium" bourbons.

If you're under 40, or like me, you started drinking bourbon seriously in the last two decades, it's almost impossible to imagine a time when small batch, super-premium bourbons didn't exist. But as recently as the early '90s, the terms, and the concepts, hadn't yet come into being. It took the late Booker Noe, a sixth-generation distiller for Jim Beam (and the grandson of Mr. Beam himself) to come up with the idea of selecting the best, most perfectly aged barrels in the distillery, and then combining them, in comparatively small batches compared to other mass-produced whiskeys, to create a high quality finished product. Hence the "small batch" name.

The first small batch bourbon to use the term was Knob Creek, which hit the market in early 1992. Noe had been experimenting with "something different," as his son Fred Noe puts it, for several years. In fact, he had already started making Booker's Bourbon, essentially the standard Jim Beam blend bottled at barrel strength, on a limited basis for family and friends a few years earlier. "Because he worked for Jim Beam," Fred (who succeeded his father as master distiller) says, "he had the advantage that he already had the whiskey there. So it was just a matter of different blends and different ages, and figuring out what worked best."

Knob Creek was developed with pre-Prohibition whiskey in mind -- stronger, smoother and more distinctive than the bourbons that populated bars and liquor store shelves in the '80s and early '90s. Booker bottled Knob Creek at 100 proof (50% alcohol by volume), rather than the common 80-86 proof. "People were scared of it, because of the strength," Fred says. It was also aged for nine years, longer than virtually all the mass-market bourbons on the market at that time. "That was one of dad's deals, where he played with it and played with it to get that big vanilla note.... Aging bourbon is like adding seasoning to a dish when you're cooking. You know, a little more salt, a little more pepper, it gets better. But the old law of diminishing returns comes in. It gets better, better, better, then all of a sudden you've added too much. I can stand about ten or eleven [years of barrel aging] before it gets too strong. But Dad, his palate -- nine years was as long as he liked aging."

The long aging process, the high alcohol content, and the mingling of the superior barrels gave -- and still give -- Knob Creek a huge, bold flavor. Intense sweet notes of vanilla and caramel duke it out with spicy rye and dry wood accents, along with hints of pecans and walnuts. Its bigness makes it great as a mixer; it's hard to submerge in, say, a Manhattan, even if you're too heavy-handed with the vermouth. Taken neat, it's surprisingly smooth even at a relatively high proof. Fred recommends adding a little water or an ice cube or two, "to open up the flavors a little bit."

For better or worse, Knob Creek also introduced the concept of super-premium bourbon, something the beverage industry is probably more excited about than whiskey drinkers. Super-premium is a vague term which generally means "more expensive" (at around $30 a bottle, Knob Creek is pricey but not insanely so), but also signifies higher quality. It was pretty audacious thinking for the time. "A lot of people thought the price point -- nobody would give that money for bottles of bourbon," says Fred. "But Dad's theory on that was that people were paying big money for Scotch at that time. He said, 'They'll give big money if the bourbon is something special.' You can't just bottle up some more 86 proof and charge $30. It's gotta be something substantially different than the standard bourbons on the market at the time. That's where it all came from. And he was right. He was way ahead of his time."

Knob Creek quickly took off, to be followed by three more Jim Beam bourbons (Booker's, Basil Hayden and Baker's), each with a distinct flavor profile, that form what's now known as "The Small Batch Collection." Back in '92, according to Fred, "some of our competitors were saying... 'What's small batch?' Because Dad had coined the term." 20 years later, you can't swing a cat in a liquor store (not that you'd want to) without hitting another small batch, super-premium bourbon.

It's no exaggeration to say that Knob Creek helped to usher in what is now a golden age of American spirits. And the last couple of years have been a golden age for Knob Creek as well. 2011 brought a sibling for classic KC in Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve. Bottled at a super-high 120 proof, it's somehow smoother, and the flavors a little rounder and more harmonious, than the original. And to mark its 20th anniversary, this summer will see the release of Knob Creek Rye, aged for 9 years and bottled at 100 proof, just like the bourbon. As long as the distillery doesn't run out of the stuff -- something that actually happened in 2009, resulting in a well-publicized Knob Creek shortage for a few months -- it'll be a happy birthday indeed.