Who first had the idea to ferment corn and distill it? Someone should send them a thank you card. Or maybe a really nice gift basket.
The beauty of a truly excellent glass of bourbon, with its rich, sweet, caramel notes can melt all your troubles away.
But now, of course, you’re wondering which bourbon is “truly excellent.” While I can’t tell you with certainty if there is one perfect bourbon, let’s compare two of the most popular and see which fits your “perfect glass!” A comparison of Knob Creek and Woodford Reserve is a good place to start our hunt.
The Main Differences Between Knob Creek and Woodford Reserve
- Both are Kentucky Bourbons
- Both are very sweet with caramel notes
- Both are comparable in price ($30 to $45 range)
- Knob Creek is spicy
- Knob Creek has stronger vanilla and honey notes
- Woodford Reserve is smooth and creamy
- Woodford Reserve has more chocolate and caramel notes
- Knob Creek creates Pre-Prohibition bourbons
- Woodford Reserve is the older distillery
- For smooth, daily drinking try Woodford Reserve
- For a spicy kick try Knob Creek.
What is Bourbon?
Bourbon is whiskey made from corn. Plain and simply put, of course. There’s a little more to it than that. Let’s take a look at the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s Beverage Alcohol Manual of Whisky.
…spirits distilled from a fermented mash of grain and stored in oak containers…
Which just means it’s a fermented distillate made from grain and stored in oak. But they go on. In addition, Bourbon must be…
…bottled at not less than 80° proof and produced at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn…
So here we have confirmation that bourbon is made from a majority of corn grain. We also understand that the bourbon must be between 80 and 160 proof at bottling. Proofs are simply twice the alcohol percent by volume. So 80 proof means 40% ABV and 160 means 80% ABV. So all bourbons must be bottled between 40 and 80% ABV.
…and stored at not more than 125° proof in charred new oak containers, and also includes mixtures of such whiskys of the same type…
From this, we are to understand that when bourbon is stored for aging it must be no more than 60% ABV and can blend of several different types. And, bourbon must be stored in charred new oak containers. This means all bourbon containers can only be used once, which has an interesting effect on the world’s alcohol flavor developments!
Finally, our last rule:
…That the word “bourbon” shall not be used to describe any whisky or whisky-based distilled spirits not produced in the United States…
That is fairly self-explanatory so I’ll not insult your intelligence by repeating it.
In the end, we have a fairly complex definition for a fairly simple drink!
- Made like Whiskey from fermented grains
- Made from at least 51% fermented corn mash
- Bottled between 40 and 80% ABV
- Stored at no more than 60% ABV
- Stored in only newly made charred oak barrels
- Produced only in the United States
What is Kentucky Straight Bourbon?
Kentucky Straight Bourbon is a designation for bourbons made specifically in Kentucky. In general, the entire process must be carried out in Kentucky from distilling to aging and storing. But there are a few smaller distilleries who have requested (and received) special dispensation to store their Kentucky Straight Bourbon in out-of-state warehouses.
To explain the “straight” designation let’s look back at our manual.
Whiskies… which have been stored in the type of oak containers prescribed, for a period of 2 years or more shall be further designated as “straight”; for example, “straight bourbon whisky”…No other whiskies may be designated “straight”.
In short, bourbon can only be called “Kentucky Straight Bourbon” if it is made in Kentucky and aged for 2 years in oak. So you know exactly what you’re getting when you buy one now! Of course, not every whisky will be labeled either “Kentucky” or “Straight” which may surprise some people. Kentucky and Bourbon seem to have such a natural link in people’s minds!
To understand why Kentucky and Bourbon have become so synonymous, let’s look a little at the history of its development.
History of Bourbon – Kentucky, New Orleans or…France?
Where exactly the name “bourbon” originated is greatly debated. Since we have no official record of very first bourbon bottle, we’ll probably never know for sure.
The main theory is the name originates from Old Bourbon County in Kentucky where quite a bit of bourbon was originally produced. This is the version you hear repeated most often. But according to Michael Veach, the bourbon historian, it doesn’t make sense with the time period.
He supports the idea that the very first bourbon was produced by two French brothers by the name of Tarascon. They had a family business in Cognac, France. So they brought their techniques to Louisville, Kentucky and started aging the local whisky in oak barrels to make it taste more like cognac.
These fateful barrels went down the Ohio River and ended up in New Orleans. Served at the hippest bars. On Bourbon Street. And what did everyone want to try? The good stuff they were serving on Bourbon Street.
The final theory is a probably-false, but still amusing story about how bourbon might link to French Royalty. In French history, the House of Bourbon produced a number of famous kings: Louis XIV (the one who built Versailles) and Louis XVI (the unfortunate victim of the guillotine). Perhaps that’s poor King Louis’ legacy? Marie Antoinette left us Maine Coon cats and Louis left us booze? Probably not. But it’s nice to dream!
However it started, Bourbon rapidly became popular as America’s homegrown spirit. Bourbon was first produced by Scottish and Irish immigrants in the 17th century when they discovered they could ferment corn as well as other grains. It rose to popularity in the 18th and 19th century and was created all over the American South.
Until Prohibition struck and the industry contracted into Kentucky only. Which is why we have such strong associations today.
Even after Prohibition was repealed, it took a few years for bourbon’s popularity to resurge. We definitely have to thank the Kentucky Derby’s Mint Julep for that step. Today, Bourbon is legally considered America’s Native Spirit. And it is the most exported American spirit with sales in the billions.
And on another fun note, September is National Bourbon Heritage Month. So I hope you’re having some while reading this article!
Process of Making Bourbon
Unsurprisingly, bourbon is made following the same process as whiskey: Harvest, Fermentation, Distillation, and Aging.
Step 1 – Harvest
Obviously, before any grains are fermented they need to be harvested and removed from their stalks and sheaths. (Now I’m just imagining people trying to distill whole ears of corn, what a disaster!) The grains that are usually harvested are corn, rye, wheat, and barley.
Step 2 – Fermentation
The grains are dried, then combined with water and cooked to create a mash. As long as the mash is at least 51% corn, it’s bourbon! Many distilleries will add up to 81% corn, but the additional grains will adjust flavors.
- Rye adds more spice.
- Wheat adds sweet and softness.
- Barley adds a nutty quality. (Although barley is often added strictly for its natural fermentation enzymes. It’s the only grain cam ferment without added help.)
This first mash is left out to sour overnight.
A second mash is created and most of it is combined with the previous day’s sour mash to induce fermentation. Yeast is often also added to begin breaking down starches and sugars into alcohol. (Specific distilleries keep their own strains of yeast to guarantee consistent taste across all batches!)
Step 3 – Distillation
Distillation is a two-step process. The whole mash is run through step one and its product then runs through step 2.
- 1. Column Still
Column stills remove the alcohol from everything else in the mash.
- 2. Copper Pot Still
Copper doubler pots will cause interactions within the newly extracted alcohol that improve flavors. The final distillate that leaves these stills is actually clear and is called “white dog.”
Step 4 – Aging
The aging process is where color is added to the bourbon! (No artificial coloring or flavoring is allowed.) The new charred oak wood barrels infuse the whisky both with their color and their wood spice flavors. This where you get notes of oak, vanilla, toast, smoke, and sometimes even nuts.
Now that you have a little background into what bourbon is and why it’s so special, let’s go to the ring and meet our chosen competitors! Knob Creek and Woodford reserve, both Kentucky Bourbons with strong character. How will they stand up to each other?
Knob Creek – Location
Knob Creek is produced by Beam Suntory which is a Japanese alcohol production company. (You’ll recognize the name if you’ve read my article on Japanese whisky!) Knob Creek is produced at the Jim Beam distillery in Clermont, Kentucky. (Which makes it a Kentucky Straight Bourbon, as you’ve probably guessed.)
Jim Beam has created four small batch bourbons, especially for higher end markets. And Knob Creek is one of them! (Booker’s, Baker’s and Basil Hayden’s are the other three.)
You should also note that many bourbons are sourced from distillers. Especially “small batch” bourbons. Those distilleries often don’t have the money to build and operate their own distillery. So they buy bourbon of different mash grains already distilled. Then they will mix them, age them, and otherwise make them their own at their warehouses.
Knob Creek does not do this. They are a small batch that distills their own bourbon on site.
Woodford Reserve – Location
Woodford Reserve is made by the Brown-Forman production company. The current distillery is named after its company name: Brown Forman. But the original name was the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery which eventually became the Labrot & Graham Distillery. Brown-Forman purchased the site in 1941 and eventually refurbished it in 1993.
Its location? Shively, Kentucky. Making it also a Kentucky Straight Bourbon. Unlike Knob Creek, the Brown Forman distillery only produces the Woodford Reserve series. And they are also un-sourced and distilled on site. So far the match is a draw.
Location Match? Draw.
Knob Creek – History
The Knob Creek we know and love was formed over 25 years ago when Booker Noe, the grandson of Jim Beam, founded the brand. He wanted to create a Pre-Prohibition style bourbon that was true to its original flavorful roots. (After Prohibition the demand was so quick that many distilleries weren’t able to create traditional flavors via long aging.)
But the name is actually much older than the 1990s. Knob Creek first appeared as a brand in 1898 under the Penn-Maryland Distillery. It disappeared sometime after the 1930s, but the name remained under National’s brand. And resurfaced when Jim Beam merged with National in 1987 (that’s a long story for another day).
Which is why Booker at the Jim Beam distillery was able to revive it in 1992! His son, a master distiller Fred Noe runs the distillery now.
Woodford Reserveас History
The site of Woodford Reserve’s Brown forman Distillery itself has been the center of distillation for centuries. The history of the site begins 1812 when Elijah Pepper first started his whisky business, making it the oldest bourbon distillery site in the country!
The site’s historical significance continued years later in 1823 when James Christopher Crow created and solidified modern whisky making methods in the United States. His methods included the sour mash technique that almost all bourbons use today. (On the same site, how crazy! There must be something in the water.)
Historical Match Goes to Woodford Reserve
Knob Creek – Distilling Process
Knob Creek uses the typical distilling process, but the real difference lies in their aging! Since 1992 Knob Creek blended bourbons have been aged a minimum of 9 full years in maximum charred oak (that’s level 4 for those who know), which contributes to their unique flavor. They also bottle at 100 proof.
However, in 2016 they announced they would be discontinuing the strict 9-year rule. They argued that they now had enough stored aged whisky to allow younger bottle blends to retain the same flavor.
Knob Creek’s warehouses located in Clermont also have very unpredictable weather. According to them, this climate provides a dark and richer sampling. As we’ve seen from all the varieties of scotch, this might actually be true.
Woodford Reserve – Distilling Process
Woodford, on the other hand, keeps their warehouses under control. They use heat cycled barrelhouses to induce further mixtures of wood and whisky.
Woodford Reserve also plays with their barrel aging, though with flavor not length. They have options that have been finished in both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir barrels.
Technique Match Goes to Knob Creek
Knob Creek – Product Range
Knob Creek’s Goal was to create a Pre-Prohibition style bourbon. They have their classic, usually a 9-year aged bottle. Followed by a Rye made specifically for cocktails, a Smoked Maple with softer flavors and a slightly lower proof at 90, then a Single Barrel Reserve which is an unblended variety to show off one favorite barrel.
On top of that, they have a “Single Barrel Reserve Select Experience.” Retailers are allowed to travel to Clermont (or use a special tasting sample kit) and select their favorite barrel. There are both Single Barrel Reserve classic and Single Barrel Reserve Rye options.
Woodford Reserve – Product Range
Woodford’s product line contains more than just bourbon. They have their classic bourbon. But they also have a rye whisky, a malt whisky, a wheat whisky, and a double oaked whisky (aged twice in two different barrels). So you could basically spend a day at Woodford and understand the nuances of each individual grain.
They also have several specialty lines including a Master’s Collection, a Baccarat, and a select set that are only sold at their distillery or Kentucky-only retailers.
You’re also allowed to make a personal barrel selection via their website.
Product Range Match? Draw.
Knob Creek – Price
Knob Creek is on the high end of “affordable” bourbon. They tend to be around the mid-$30 to mid-$40 range. (I say this laughingly. Keep in mind a “low-end bottle” of Scotch is around $60. But it is imported…)
Woodford Reserve – Price
Woodford Reserve is comparable in price with just a few bottles around $60, but most bottles stay in the $35-$45 range as well.
Price Match? Draw.
Now for the part you’ve all been waiting for…when these two bourbons go toe-to-toe, which will be the final winner!
As much as I’d love to taste every variety of both, I’ve decided to stick with the classic. Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Bourbon and Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon. Let’s see how we do! (And yes, I did actually buy the mini bottles for this since I have neither of these in my cabinet right now. I know, I know. How did that happen?!)
Knob Creek – Nose
Wow. Sweeter than I remember. Instant honey. I also noticed very faint notes of banana and something green like grass. Definitely an herbaceous quality. There is something dark too, though, like oak and burnt cake. The alcohol burn is a bit much for my nose.
Knob Creek – Nose with Water
The alcohol burn is gone which is promising. The heavy vanilla and honey notes are very delightful and light. There is still a faint hint of heat which I very much enjoy, rather like a bit of ginger.
Woodford Reserve – Nose
Undeniably sweet, and is that a hint of leather? Upon second sniff it’s dark and rich with deeply caramelized notes. Orange zest and something tropical like coconut. Just a hint of chocolate seems to be coming through as well.
Woodford Reserve – Nose with Water
A strong Christmassy smell. Like Cinnamon and Cloves and Chocolate fruit cake soaked in maple syrup. There’s just the faint alcohol burn but it’s more like a background fire that makes you feel warm and cozy. Green notes are still there in the very distant back. Perhaps it is sage that I’m noticing.
Nose Match? Goes to Knob Creek
Knob Creek – Palate
The first taste is a lovely sweet note, but then the intensity of the alcohol sink in and the burn scalds everything. (What went wrong, it smells so good!) It takes a few sips to work through but even with time and more sips it doesn’t disappear entirely in the back palate.
This is a very spicy bourbon, full of heat. Vanilla and honey are noticeable as well…when the burn dies down.
Knob Creek – Palate with Water
The water opens up a whole realm of possibility. The intense burn is gone leaving only a pleasantly warming heat. The caramel, honey flavor coats the tongue, I catch glimpses of vanilla and toasted nuts. It’s still very full of oak spice, and it definitely a spicy bourbon. I wish it was a little cooler outside, this would be perfect in a winter storm.
Woodford Reserve – Palate
Now that’s a drink you can sink your teeth into. Sweet maple and caramel instantly. The alcohol burn is fairly low and easy so it doesn’t take much getting used to. There is a bit of a bite like pepper or cinnamon, but it’s tempered by sweetness. Almost like a Mexican hot chocolate. But the orange oil is still present. Maybe dark chocolate oranges. (Man I miss those, is it Christmas yet?!)
Woodford Reserve – Palate with Water
Is there alcohol in this?! All of the burn is gone. I miss a bit of that warmth, but there is the vague hint of cinnamon and clove spice that brightens the drink. The richness and caramel are still very present and add a lovely layer. There isn’t much else to this glass. It’s easy and so smooth and so creamy. But you won’t find many layers, even with water added.
Palate Match? A draw.
Knob Creek – Pairings
An excellent choice for the upcoming fall and winter season. It’s warming and spicy (as long as you either dilute with some ice or are okay with intense fire.)
Remember, chocolate is always a good pairing, stick with darker chocolate for Knob Creek. The spice will overwhelm anything milky and too light.
Pair with something fatty too so that heat will cut through. (I was longing for a nice beef cut or rib roast while I was taste testing.)
A Christmas cake, either a rum cake or a fruit cake would be delicious. The spices would meld so beautifully!
Woodford Reserve – Pairings
Lovely, creamy, smooth, easy. Pair with less resilient offerings or daily fare.
Chocolate always pairs with bourbon. Woodford Reserve can handle both milk and dark. Milk might actually pair better since Woodford is so smooth and creamy. But I am a steadfast dark-chocolate-person so I can confirm that the bit of spice in Woodford does pair excellently with 80% cocoa. (I am confirming it as I type this, in fact. Yep. Confirmed.)
I’d pair with either chicken or barbecue pork for an entree. And bourbon is very southern so something like fried chicken is not out of place!
Woodford on the rocks would also go with more creamy desserts like a custard or even some caramel ice cream.
Bourbon is one of the staples of the modern cocktail. And now that it’s fall, all I can think about are bourbon cocktails. Bourbon just pairs so well with apples and cinnamon and maple and caramel and pears and pumpkin. It would be sinful not to combine them. Actually, just step away from this article for a second and make one of these:
- Cinnamon Apple Whiskey Sour – Lovely recipe from Cookie+Kate, try with Knob Creek
- Ginger and Pear Bourbon Splash – from No Spoon Necessary, lovely with Woodford
- Spiked Apple Cider – fruity recipe from Vindulge, Knob Creek goes well
- Pumpkin Old Fashioned – classic with a twist from The Spruce Eats, I’d pick Woodford
The wonderful world of bourbon is full of detail and nuance…but it doesn’t have to be a mystery!
How do I serve Bourbon?
Bourbon is usually served either neat or on the rocks.
But there are several bourbon cocktails out there that play with bourbon’s different flavors.
It’s a good idea to remember that Bourbon is especially good for fall! It has a naturally honey or maple tone to it which pairs wonderfully with apples, pears, and cinnamon – all your favorite fall foods. Though not a bourbon, rye whisky is especially good for spicing up a holiday drink since it has a strong kick.
What does it mean to serve Bourbon neat or straight?
Neat and straight mean the same thing – no ice. These bourbons are typically served in a tumbler glass at room temperature. The alcohol will be much stronger when served neat or straight and they tend to have higher intensity.
You should note that in some bars “straight” or “straight up” refers to white cocktails (think James Bond’s martini) that have been shaken or stirred with ice and then strained into a chilled glass.
If the alcohol has been diluted with ice, it’s considered “up.” If the bottle has been chilled but the alcohol hasn’t contacted water, it’s technically considered “neat.”
What does it mean to serve Bourbon on the rocks?
Bourbon on the rocks simply means it is served over ice. The number (and even size) of the ice cubes is totally up to you. You can have just one rock or several. Or you can have one very large rock that takes up the whole glass. (I’m not joking here.) In many fancier establishments, larger rocks are used because they melt and dilute the bourbon less quickly while keeping it cool for longer!
Why do people serve Bourbon on the rocks?
Water as a chemical has some pretty amazing properties. One of its most exciting for us bourbon drinkers is the fact that it binds to compounds in the alcohol and reduces the intensity. As the alcohol is diluted, new and more subtle flavors are able to shine through in the glass.
That’s why we say water “opens up” the drink. If you don’t want to actually chill your drink or dilute it too much, try just adding a few small drops of water into your glass using a straw. You’ll notice the difference! (And everyone at the bar will think you’re very cool.)
Does Bourbon need to come from Kentucky?
There is a somewhat erroneous belief out there that bourbon can only come from Kentucky. That is completely untrue. Not all bourbons must come from Kentucky, but about 95% do.
However, “Kentucky Straight” is a label that does indicate the bourbon came from Kentucky. You can’t label your bourbon “Kentucky Straight” if you made it in Detroit…But since most bourbons currently already do come from Kentucky, you’re really finding a novelty if you find one that doesn’t! (Kings County Peated Bourbon is an example. It is made in New York.)
Is Bourbon Gluten Free?
Unfortunately, no. Most whiskies and bourbons are not gluten-free. They are made using fermented grains like corn, barley, wheat, and rye. These grain mashes therefore often do contain gluten. When purchasing bourbon you will need to check very carefully to ensure your bottle is labeled as gluten-free. This would mean its mash did not contain any grains with gluten (barley and wheat especially). There are some varieties out there, but many are not.
Bourbon, like all whiskies, is highly subjective. I prefer a neat Woodford Reserve for daily sipping since I find it so smooth and easy to drink. I love a relaxing glass that doesn’t make me think too much after work.
But many people find Knob Creek to have a more interesting palate and complexity of flavor. And I have to admit, it stands up much better to ice. I almost prefer it to Woodford Reserve on the rocks!
Both Woodford Reserve and Knob Creek have established brands with their own follows and unique styles. Really, it’s up to you. It depends on whether you want flavorful and rich or smooth and easy. Taste test and find out which style you prefer. And, of course, don’t stop at those two! There are so many other whiskies to try Maker’s Mark or Rebel’s Yell for entirely different flavors!