On Monday night, we welcomed Travis Zinkel, a sales manager from Heaven Hill Distilleries, who hosted a guided tasting of five whiskeys.
Know Your Whiskey
Heaven Hill began just after prohibition during the Great Depression, so it will be entering its 79th year in business at the end of 2014. The company operates out of Bardstown, KY in the heart of U.S. bourbon production. Committed to quality and history, Heaven Hill is the "largest independent, family-owned and operated producer and marketer of distilled spirits in the country."
The company is less known for its brand name as for its invidual whiskeys and spirits—ever heard of Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, Rittenhouse Rye, or Parker's Heritage? Hpnotiq, Christian Brothers Brandy, Dubonnet Rouge? They all come from Heaven Hill.
You may also not know Heaven Hill quite as well as Beam, Wild Turkey, or Jack Daniel's, because they tend not to spend nearly the amount of cash on commercial advertising (but this does help keep whiskey prices down).
Since all five of the whiskeys we sampled carry the "bottled-in-bond" label, we'd like to take a quick aside to explain this designation before getting into each one.
"Bottled-in-bond" was created to be an extra stamp of approval for distilleries to prove their whiskeys were being created to a higher standard. It's the U.S. Government's way to ensure buyers about the origin, ingredients, and quality of a whiskey. Travis told us the good ol' US of A approved this measure eight years before the Pure Food and Drug Act (which eventually birthed the FDA)—gotta keep our priorities straight.
Officially, bottled-in-bond whiskey must be: - 100 proof - Aged 4 years minimum - The product of one distillery in one production season - Labeled with the distillery's location and bottling location
Mellow Corn Whiskey
To be designated "corn whiskey," the spirit must be composed of 81% corn or more, aged in either new uncharred or used charred barrels. Per the bottled-in-bond label, Mellow Corn is aged four years. Travis kindly calls this "The PBR of whiskey." The classic simple label hasn't changed since 1945, and being so corn-heavy, it's almost the lighter gateway precursor to bourbon.
Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond ("White Label")
Following in the footsteps of the more popular Evan Williams Kentucky Straight Bourbon (or "Black Label"), this whiskey has the same original mash bill: 78% corn, 10-12% rye, and the remainder malted barley. Since it's bottled in bond, this is 100 proof vs. Black's 86 proof, and it is aged a minimum of four years.
Heaven Hill 6-year Old Style Bourbon Bottled-in-Bond
The lesser-known Heaven Hill bourbon has the exact same recipe of the Black and White Labels, but flavors do change with the barrel, rickhouse location, and more. This whiskey is aged six years and also is 100 proof. Travis considers this the "best bang for your buck" in all of Heaven Hill's product line.
Henry McKenna Single Barrel
Henry McKenna Single Barrel is the only extra-aged bottled-in-bond single barrel bourbon in the world. With these restrictions come more taxes, so this bottle comes out more expensive, but the quality is reflected in the flavor. McKenna is aged 10 years and bottled at 100 proof, with every bottle hand-labeled with the barrel number whence it came.
Rittenhouse Straight Rye
Rittenhouse was the only rye whiskey in our tasting, but it is a unique and increasingly popular one these days. This is a rye "produced in the tradition of the classic rye whiskeys" at 100 proof with a mash bill of 51% rye and 49% corn. Much different than many of the rye-heavy ryes being made recently, this is sweeter and more balanced when consumed by itself. The demand for Rittenhouse has skyrocketed the past couple years with bartenders and home mixologists calling for higher proof whiskeys for classic drinks.
Our Tasting Notes
Mellow Corn is just what you'd expect from the title—a corn whiskey that is relatively sweet and mild. Not picking up as much character from the used barrels, it tastes like a more mature "young bourbon" without the unfinished flavors of truly new whiskey. The finish is surprisingly smooth and can be sipped by itself; for fans of corn whiskey, there's a lot to love.
Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond begins very sweet with vanilla and frosting on the nose. The vanilla and corn come through on the tongue, followed by banana and caramel. The alcohol burn finish is only slight for a 100 proof bourbon.
Heaven Hill 6-year Bottled-in-Bond is similar to the White Label with corn and sweetness in the beginning, but the extra age in the barrel gives this one more wood notes and a much longer finish. Lovers of oak flavors will enjoy this more than the White Label.
Henry McKenna Single Barrel is the richest of all, both in flavor and dark color, and rightly so being aged 10 years. Mint comes through in the aroma, and this tastes strongly of caramel, with hints of orange and vanilla. The extra age brings lingering oak notes throughout. Easily the most complex of the bunch.
Rittenhouse Rye was enjoyed by many of our group by itself, even as the only rye amongst a list of bourbons. This is relatively sweet due to the high corn content, but at 100 proof it would stand up well in classic cocktails like the Sazerac, Manhattan, and Old-Fashioned.
The Collective Favorite
Although we didn't take an official vote, word on the street is that the majority of the group most enjoyed the McKenna Single Barrel for its richness, boldness, and wood flavors coming through with the extra aging.
Thanks again to Travis for the time, expertise, and bringing five whiskeys and lots of good info!
And thanks to all those that came out. If you’d like to join us at future tastings, sign up on our email list at seattlewhiskeycollective.com.