For this Bourbon Review, I wanted to pay tribute to the recent trend of releasing barrel strength bourbons, so we compared these three high-proof premium bourbons from different distilleries, in order of blind tasting:
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve
Distillery: Jim Beam, Clermont, Kentucky
Age: Nine Years
While not barrel strength, Knob Creek Single Barrel is almost there, and it otherwise fits the profile of the other two choices. Plus, in light of the extremely strong following for the standard Knob Creek, I wanted to see how it fared with another 10% ABV over the standard issue. Barrel strength would have been 132.4 proof (according to my private selection barrel), and I’m betting that soon we’ll see a true barrel strength version of Knob Creek.
Elijah Craig 12 Year Barrel Strength
Distillery: Heaven Hill, Bardstown, Kentucky
Age: Twelve Years
The Elijah Craig 12 Year Barrel Strength is the barrel proof version of the popular Elijah Craig 12 Year Small Batch, distilled by Heaven Hill and named after one of the (or so the legend goes) first Kentucky bourbon distillers who accidentally discovered the benefits of using charred oak barrels. I found my bottle at the new Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in downtown Louisville.
Distillery: Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, Kentucky
Age: NAS, but the bottle claims “nearly a decade”
The Stagg Jr. Barrel Proof is an unfiltered limited release from Buffalo Trace. Stagg Jr. doesn’t need to include “barrel strength” in its name because everyone knows that you’re getting it straight from the barrel. As “Jr.” indicates, this is not the acclaimed George T. Stagg of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection fame, but instead it is meant to be a younger, “more accessible” version of GTS.
1st Glass (Knob Creek Single Barrel):
The color of the first glass was on the brown side of amber; definitely darker than typical bourbons. The high proof was evident in the nose, but it was balanced by nuts and vanilla. The high proof was also immediately evident in the taste, but after an initial burn, extremely rich flavors of pepper, vanilla, oak and maple emerged. A splash of water or ice (highly recommended) helped reduce the burn and helped open more nutty flavors. The finish was robust and long. Overall, the only thing that the first glass seemed to be missing was some balance on the fruit side, but it was still an incredible in-your-face experience.
2nd Glass (Elijah Craig 12 Year Barrel Strength):
The second glass was darker in color, pretty much passing the amber standard and embracing brown; it’s dark. The nose was much more complex than the first glass – blending caramel, oak and apple – with only a slight burn from the high proof. But the taste blew us away with more sweetness of caramel, vanilla and butterscotch, along with pepper and cinnamon spice and hints of oak and almonds, with some slight dark chocolate bitterness. The finish featured these same flavors too, along with a hint of mint, and it was really long and warm. Despite the high proof, ethanol was never predominant in the nose or taste. Try this one sparingly neat for the experience, but then drink it with a large ice cube.
3rd Glass (Stagg Jr.):
The third glass was not as dark as the second, but was darker than the first (it looks darkest in the bottle because of a black back label). The nose was the hottest of the three, with alcohol burn, pepper and oak predominating, but also with a hint of rich toffee. The heat kicks you on the taste too; plan ahead to drink this one with ice and a splash of water. Water and ice really opened up bold flavors of oak and finally some vanilla, along with raisins, while maintaining its spice. It was still hot and lacked complexities that come with fruit and candy flavors, but this bourbon clearly isn’t aiming at the sweet crowd. As expected from the nose and the taste, the finish had extreme warmth reminding you that you’re experiencing pure bourbon.
This was a challenge of some heavy-hitters, not just because of the high proof, but because of the robust flavors. Still, the Elijah Craig 12 Year Barrel Strength was the unquestionable winner. It had the best nose, we were stunned that it was drinkable neat (which is questionable with the Knob Creek and highly inadvisable with the Stagg Jr.), and it had the best balance of flavors. You’ll remember this one for a long time.
None of these bourbons are for the timid or for mixing. I’m also sure that they all cure ancient ailments, and they just might make you grow hair, maybe even in places you don’t need it. But wow, they’re good. The quality of these three bourbons makes them hard to rate, and it’s really hard to give Stagg Jr. third place, but that’s where it lands. I’d be interested to see how the BTAC George T. Stagg compares to the Elijah Craig 12 Year Barrel Strength; I hear that big brother is pretty hard to top in this category.
All three are still recommended, but your real problem is going to be finding anything except the Knob Creek, so the Knob Creek Single Barrel warrants an immediate purchase. The hardest to find will be the Stagg Jr., and you might just leave that to the collectors who seem to sniff it out fast. With just a little luck, you’ll still be able to find the Elijah Craig 12 Year Barrel Strength, and if you’re looking for a truly robust bourbon experience, buy it quickly. I wish that I had bought two when I had the chance.
Scores on The Sipp’n Corn Scale
Stagg Jr.: 3.0
Knob Creek Single Barrel: 4.0
Elijah Craig 12 Year Barrel Strength: 4.5
The Sipp’n Corn Scale:
1 – Wouldn’t even accept a free drink of it.
2 – Would gladly drink it if someone else was buying.
3 – Glad to include this in my bar.
4 – Excellent bourbon. Worth the price and I’m sure to always have it in my bar.
5 – Wow. I’ll search high and low to get another bottle of this.