I was not planning to review another bourbon this week but news came in earlier on Monday of the passing of Parker Beam. Parker Beam was Heaven Hill’s master distiller from 1975 till his retirement a few years ago after he was diagnosed with ALS. It seemed like an appropriate time to raise a glass of one of the bourbons he made, and I had this bottle of Evan Williams Single Barrel at hand. I did not ever meet Parker Beam and nor am I going to pretend to know very much about him—I’m not a bourbon maven by any means. But even I know enough to know that he was a true giant of the whiskey world, a true master distiller, one of those who shaped modern bourbon. And though I don’t know if it’s true, I’d like to believe that the fact that so many of Heaven Hill’s lineup of very drinkable bourbons are also very, very affordable bourbons has something to do with him. Even now, with everything that’s going on with Elijah Craig, Heaven Hill makes excellent whiskey for everyone—and there are very few distilleries around the world that can say that. Certainly the Evan Williams Single Barrel series has been synonymous with high quality for a very long time and it’s very easily found in the neighbourhood of $20. It may not be the greatest bourbon available from Heaven Hill but it’s an appropriate bourbon to toast him with: here’s to you, Mr. Beam! Continue reading
Henry McKenna is another of Heaven Hill’s brands, and probably one of its least well-known—and some would say it’s one of the best secrets in bourbon. It’s made with the 75% corn/13% rye recipe that is also used to make Evan Williams and Elijah Craig. It comes in two iterations, something called Henry McKenna Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey—which goes for just over $10 in these parts—and this Bottled in Bond version, which goes for just less than $30. I’ve never had the one with the longer name and the lower price—I’m not sure how old it is or how it compares to the similarly priced Evan Williams. The Bottled in Bond version, however, sticks out in the contemporary bourbon landscape like a thumb that is destined to be chopped off without warning: what I mean is that it is sold in single barrel form, at 50% (as all Bottled in Bond bourbon has to be), and most shockingly, it is 10 years old. The regular Four Roses Single Barrel, by comparison, is not only more expensive, it bears no age statement. Continue reading
This may be one of the most pointless reviews I’ve yet posted (and that’s saying a lot). Everyone who drinks American whiskey knows that the regular Evan Williams, the one with the black label (it’s not actually called Evan Williams Black Label) is one of the great values in bourbon. Indeed, I am tempted to say (and probably have said in the past) that it may be the single best value in the entire whisky/whiskey world. It is a bourbon that contains all the quintessential characteristics of the category; it’s not going to provide the best example of any of those individual characteristics but it takes nothing off the table. You can reach for it any night that you want to drink some bourbon and not be disappointed. And you can get a liter bottle in most stores for just about what you’ll pay for a 1.5 oz pour of many equally ordinary but far less balanced single malts at bars. This is an everyday drinker that you can stock for less discriminating guests without any sense of shame and that you can drink happily alongside them. Continue reading
I can’t say I’d ever wondered what bourbon finished in a rum cask would be like; but when a store I was purchasing samples from substituted this for something else I’d wanted that they were out of, I discovered that I quite wanted to find out. Rum finishes in the single malt world have never quite convinced me—the Balvenie 14 Caribbean Cask is the only one I can remember liking a fair bit. But Balvenie’s malt is a mild one and it’s not hard to see an overlap with a sweet and caramelly rum profile. Bourbon, on the other hand, is altogether more robust and I’m curious to see what impression, if any, the rum finish has been able to make on this one.
The bourbon in question was distilled by Heaven Hill and it was bottled by Malts of Scotland—this was bottled this year, so not in the same lot of releases that included the port finish I reviewed earlier this year as well as a sherry finish. I still have no idea whether these were all Heaven Hill experiments that Malts of Scotland ended up with and released as is, or if the finishing was done not at the distillery but in Germany. If you know more about this please write in below. Continue reading
The Elijah Craig 12 is one of the great values in American whiskey—or at least it used to be. Heaven Hill, which used to make it, has dropped the age statement and it is now NAS (please read Sku on the slimy way Heaven Hill went around denying this was going to happen before it happened). This is now a good time to remember Heaven Hill’s recent history with the 18 yo. When it was discontinued in 2012 we were told the usual story about limited aged stocks. Skeptics noted that the discontinuation of the 18 yo was accompanied by the introduction of a limited release 20 yo and then a 21 yo that cost more than twice as much (so much for limited aged stocks). Then in 2015 Heaven Hill brought the 18 yo back but didn’t bring the old price back. Instead the official price of the new 18 yo is about the same as that 20 yo’s (though most stores are currently asking for a LOT more)—presumably helping justify the even higher price of the 23 yo that they’ve also managed to introduce despite all that pressure on their aged stocks… American whisky has well and truly gone crazy, hasn’t it? I guess everybody is trying to keep up with the Van Winkles. Continue reading
As to why a bottler named Malts of Scotland is releasing wine cask finished bourbons of America, I don’t know. They’ve also released a Heaven Hill 2001 from a sherry hogshead and a regulation Heaven Hill single barrel from 2005. All three were bottled this year. Other things I don’t know include: whether this means Malts of Scotland are getting into bourbon in a big way; if these are experiments conducted by Heaven Hill themselves that they got their hands on or if they took the bourbon and finished it in their own casks; why Minnesotans don’t know what to do at four-way stop signs. If you have the answers please don’t be shy. Anyway, I quite enjoyed the last port-bothered bourbon I drank. That was High West’s “A Midwinter Night’s Dram“, and I liked it so much I went out and purchased an expensive bottle. If this is as good I may have to look into whether it’s still available (it was only released in the EU, as you might expect). Continue reading
I had this rye on my list of potential reviews for November but was not super motivated to actually review it. But then last week everyone’s favourite whisky writer, good ol’ Jim Murray went and put it at #2 on his list of the best whiskies of 2015 and now I get to be very, very timely for once. As you know by now, the #1 whisky was a Canadian rye, a pick which even patriotic Canadians are having some difficulty getting behind. No, it’s not Whistlepig or even Lot 40, but some undistinguished rye from Crown Royal: Crown Royal Northern Harvest. Just in case you think that Comrade Murray is striking a blow for the common people (or for Canada even) please be advised that it’s his standard operating procedure to create as much controversy as he can. Still, the Crown Royal selection, as far as I can tell from what Canadians who’ve actually tasted the whisky are saying, seems analogous to picking Speyburn 10 or Jack Daniels as the top whisky of any year. Murray may well be taking the piss. Continue reading
After two weeks of bourbon reviews let’s do a week of ryes. First up, Heaven Hill’s Rittenhouse Rye (this is the 100 proof version). Rittenhouse is beloved of many, both for drinking straight and for mixing, and is usually a very good value. As per the estimable Chuck Cowdery, this is a “barely legal” rye, i.e with the rye content of the mash bill at the legal minimum of 51%. It is apparently made in the Pennsylvania rye tradition but I have no idea what that is. Feel free to tell me.
Rittenhouse Rye, Bottled in Bond (50%; from a sample received in a swap)
Nose: Very mellow indeed: a bed of corn sweetness and above it the standard issue rye notes (pine, mint, dill, cold tea) float without getting too insistent. With more time there’s a bit of caramel and then some jammy fruit: plum? apricot? a bit of orange peel? Some dusty wood behind it all. Gets spicier as it sits (clove, cinnamon). With a few drops of water it gets mellow again, with a bit of citrus, a bit of pine, and a touch of cherry.
Rounding out a week of special release bourbons from some of the most famous American distilleries here is my review of the 2012 release in Heaven Hill’s Parker’s Heritage series (so named for their now-retired master distiller, Parker Beam). The real story here, of course, is the unusually presentable sample label from Sku.
This is only my second outing with Parker’s Heritage. I loved the 2013 release (the “Promise of Hope“) and after tasting the sample I reviewed I went out and purchased a bottle—it was still on shelves in Minnesota in early 2014. But by the end of the year the annual release hype included the not very cult-friendly Heaven Hill as well and it goes without saying that I didn’t even catch a glimpse of the 2014 edition.
This I’m told is a blend of 11 yo barrels of bourbon with rye in the mashbill that usually goes into Elijah Craig and Evan Williams and 11 yo barrels of bourbon made with wheat in place of rye in the mashbill that usually goes into Old Fitzgerald. I’ve never actually had any Old Fitzgerald but that’s neither here nor there. (Here is Sku’s review, by the way—this is from his more voluble period.)
Another Heaven Hill bourbon after yesterday’s Elijah Craig 12. I noted in that review that there’s generally not as much of a jump in quality in bourbon than single malt Scotch from $20 (where the Elijah Craig 12 plays) to $80 and beyond. Well, that $80+ category is where the Parker’s Heritage releases play. Parker’s Heritage is Heaven Hill’s annual Fall release of boutique bourbon. In terms of prestige and name recognition it lags behind the Van Winkle and Buffalo Trace Antique Collection releases (which are all but impossible to find now) and the Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition (which was also harder to spot than a Bengal tiger in the wild this year). I think this year’s release was a bunch of single barrels. If so, I’m not sure which one this sample came from.
Named for Heaven Hill’s master distiller emeritus, and bourbon legend, Parker Beam, who chooses the barrels that goes into it each year, this year’s Parker’s Heritage benefits the Parker Beam Promise of Hope Fund through the ALS Associaton (Mr. Beam was recently diagnosed with this nasty condition). As Heaven Hill donates $20 from each purchase to the fund you should really think of this as a $60-80 bottle plus a $20 donation to charity. With that said, I’m going to feel like a jackass if I have bad things to say about this whiskey. Let’s get to it. Continue reading
Elijah Craig 12 is a classic, affordable ($25 and below) and easy to find bourbon. It is somewhat unusual, I suppose, in being popular with both bourbon geeks and regular drinkers. It is bottled in small batches by the Heaven Hill distillery in Kentucky and is made, I believe, from a not-particularly high rye mashbill. I have tried and enjoyed it a number of times before but this is my first time paying close attention to it.
Elijah Craig 12 (47%; from a sample received in a swap)
Nose: Maple syrup, caramel, cinnamon. Classic bourbon nose. Little bit of orange peel as well. More vanilla as it sits. Very well balanced. Gets dustier with time. Not very woody. A few drops of water bring the caramel closer to toffee.
Palate: More oak on the palate certainly but it emerges after the caramel, cinnamon and clove and a bit of cola pass through. Not a whole lot of change with time. With water the oak gets pushed back a bit and there’s more of a mocha note now. I just wish there was a little more texture/depth.
Finish: Medium. The spices and the oak linger. With more time I get more rye on the finish.
Comments: I like the nose much more than the palate but this is very nice–better with some water, I think. I wish the companies that own the Scottish distilleries (to say nothing of the Japanese) could give us whisky of this quality at this price. It does seem like there is a much smaller jump in quality from $20 to $80 in bourbon than there is in single malt Scotch–and some might say that bourbon is dodgier at the $80+ end of the market than closer to the $20 end. Granted I’m no bourbon maven, but I could be happy drinking Elijah Craig 12 and Old Weller Antique and not much else. Will things remain this way for long? I really enjoyed the Elijah Craig 18 that I got to try a couple of years ago but that disappeared and was replaced by a 20 yo that cost three times as much.
Rating: 84 points.
Thanks to Bryan F. for the sample.