Heaven Hill at Whisky Live 2013
The first week of April means two things for me: I will probably be stressed about basketball, and I will probably be relieving some of that stress at Whisky Live. More laid back than the leviathan that is WhiskyFest, WL is a fantastic chance to discover some new drams, provide supporting or damning evidence for potential purchases, and reconnect with friends both human and bottled (but never with bottled human -- that’s just too Mutter Museum for this venue). General impression: this was my favorite WL in years. I didn’t miss the huge brands (nothing against them; they’re just easy to find); there were a lot fewer creepy drunks; and the mix of genders and races who absolutely knew their stuff backward and forward was a welcome sign of the industry’s evolution toward a more inclusive community. This year I spent time getting to know or better know a host of boutique distillers, including Balcones, Boutique-y, Brenne, Corsair...eh, it gets a bit hazy after that. But I’m never one to forget my dear old friends from Kentucky, and so I spent a fair amount of time with one of my favorite big bourbon distillers, Heaven Hill. To call a distillery the size of Heaven Hill “low-key” may seem ridiculous, but compared to the mad circus that surrounds lines like Pappy Van Winkle and the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, Heaven Hill seems downright relaxed despite a steady stream of fantastic spirits trickling out of their stills in scenic Shively, where they relocated a few years ago after a fire wiped out their original facility. As a Kentuckian and a Louisvillian, I’m always proud of the home team, and recently -- Red State and Blue State notwithstanding -- Heaven Hill has been making it really easy to be proud of them.
Larceny: Very soon after its release in 2012, Larceny found itself my go-to whiskey at the bar. If you are looking for exotic notes and challenging complexity, look elsewhere. Larceny tastes like bourbon. Really solid, imminently sippable bourbon. If that’s a crime, well then at least the bourbon is aptly named. Speaking of which, the name is derived from former master distiller John “Old” Fitzgerald’s rumored habit of occasionally helping himself to his best stock (the keyhole on the label represents his abuse -- I say reasonable application -- of his rickhouse keys). Larceny is all caramel and brown sugar, with a dash of oak varnish and cinnamon spice. A fine friend indeed, and one with whom I intend to spend significant quality time. Medalist at the 2012 NY International Spirits Competition.
Bernheim Original Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey: Bernheim is another dear friend, and after too long away from it, I was happy to reacquaint myself. Larceny, like Makers Mark, Weller, and Rebel Reserve (ha, you thought I was going to say Pappy) is a wheated bourbon, but Bernheim (named for an old Louisville distillery which in turn was named after a pioneering Kentucky distiller and philanthropist) is a wheated whiskey. It can’t be called bourbon because it opts to use a majority of wheat in its mashbill instead of corn. The result is an impressive “essence of wheated bourbon” experience. It has a bourbon sweetness, but the predominance of wheat over corn means it lacks the sometimes thick and oily mouth feel, making for a much lighter experience. Honey and lemon, a dash of allspice, with chocolate covered cherries on the finish.
Parker’s Heritage Cognac Finish Bourbon: Finishing whiskey in weird barrels is old hat in Scotland, but Kentucky has been cranky about it. Boutique distilling’s willingness to experiment as a means to compete with the big guns forced the major distillers to respond however, and Heaven Hill’s response has been the Parker’s Heritage line, named after their master distiller Parker Beam. The fifth edition in the line had a tough assignment. The fourth edition wheated bourbon was one of the best whiskies I’d ever had. But cognac-finished whiskey is fast becoming one of my obsessions, or as much of an obsession as it can be with only a few examples. Parker’s Heritage Cognac Finish doesn’t quite measure up to the wheated bourbon, but that’s like saying my wardrobe doesn’t quite measure up to Janelle Monae’s. It’s still a great and interesting bourbon -- and lord knows there are great bourbons, and there are interesting bourbons, but there are few that are both. Thick, rummy, vanilla, with a hint of coconut and sticky toffee pudding. A little spice on the finish, and a superb way to finish out my night.