When legendary master-distiller, Booker Noe, grandson of Jim Beam, released Knob Creek in 1992, he used the techniques and know-how that had been handed down to him after years of practice—in the same way great pitmasters keep family legacies alive in how they cook their barbecue.

Like his forefathers, Noe respected the family recipes and traditions that came before him, but he wasn’t afraid to innovate. He had his eyes on the generations-long legacy of distilling while looking to the future—the burgeoning art of “small batch” bourbon, a term he coined.

He didn’t want to make just another “run-of-the-mill” bourbon.  He wanted real bourbon back.  Knob Creek was created to restore the standards of full-flavored, “pre-prohibition style whiskey.” The family practices and traditions he’d spent a lifetime learning and perfecting led to the fine bourbon we enjoy today.

These fundamentals of production share many features with barbecue making. Crafting excellent bourbon and smoking delicious barbecue require the mastery of elemental variables that often seem out of our control—wood, fire, and time.

The exact blend of wood a pitmaster uses is often a closely kept secret.

Any barbecue pitmaster will tell you the most foundational skill to cooking great barbecue is understanding how to maintain a fire. Smoke and its source, wood, are seasonings like any other spice, and knowing how much and what kind of smoke to apply to meat is as much a matter of skill as taste. These highly honed techniques and preferences are often handed down within families.

Some pitmasters would consider it a grievous faux pas to ask what mixture of wood they use to smoke their meat. Others keep even the supplier of their wood concealed. These details are akin to the secret ingredients of a family recipe.

When you finally have the wood, you must also know how to burn it down to the right amount of hot coals, you must know the right amount of airflow to fuel the coals, and you must have the knowledge of when and how much fresh wood to add to the coals.

Charring oak barrels opens the wood up, allowing complex flavor combinations in the bourbon.

In both bourbon and barbecue, the signature seasoning comes down to wood. Color, taste, fragrance, and mouthfeel of bourbon are influenced by the wood and by the charring of the barrel, which opens the wood up, allowing the bourbon to take on flavor more easily.

Knob Creek uses new American white oak barrels scorched with an intense flame that creates a deep, level four char—drawing out rich vanilla and caramel flavors. Their bourbon is rested in seven or nine-story warehouse for a minimum of nine years. The temperature in the warehouses cycles with the seasons, allowing the whiskey to “breathe” in and out of the charred barrel.  Each natural cycle in and out of the wood adds to the rich amber color and distinctive flavor of the bourbon. 

Booker Noe, sixth-generation master distiller, and creator of Knob Creek.(Photo Courtesy of Beam Suntory)

One hallmark of any sought-after product is scarcity. This comes not necessarily by design, but by the difficulty and diligence required to produce the product. The best barbecue joints often run out of meat with people still waiting in line. No joint wants customers to miss out on great food, but in order to produce a singular product, there are limits to how much barbecue is available on any given day. It takes a certain amount of space in smokers, so the meat won’t be crowded. When a barbecue joint sells out for the day, the barbecue is gone. You can’t quickly whip up extra brisket or ribs; it takes time to cook barbecue low and slow. There can be no shortcuts.

Bourbon is the same way. Knob Creek famously ran out of bourbon in 2009 when demand outpaced the supply that had been laid down years before. Rushing out unfinished bourbon isn’t an option in this case—the only thing to do is be patient. Great artisans don’t bend to the market. They take their time, just as they learned from those who came before them.

Freddie Noe, with his father Fred Noe, with a statue of Booker Noe. The Noe and Beam legacy continues.(Photo Courtesy of Beam Suntory)

As barbecue has evolved beyond the realm of family reunions and backyard gatherings to the upper echelons of American gastronomy, so too has bourbon become an elevated art. Knob Creek pioneered small batch bourbon, upholding the highest principles of bourbon making, setting the standard for the quality and full-flavor of pre-prohibition style bourbon—the way bourbon was meant to be.

Learn more at knobcreek.com