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Best Distillery: Heaven Hill?

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Besides being BrendJ's birthday (Happy Birthday Scully!!), yesterday was also Saint Paddy's Day, a holiday which is commemorated in the Lynn and Sean O'Lipman household in honor of our bourbon heritage. Many people who begin studying bourbon history are surprised to learn that the "Scots-" part of "Scots-Irish" is really a misnomer. Oh, it's true that there are many Scots families involved in the settlement of Kentucky, but the people historians call the Scots-Irish were the people we now call Northern Irish. Their great-grandparents would have been the last members of their family to have ever set foot in Scotland. And although there is some debate about it, most likely (which, of course, means "what I happen to believe") they were the people who brought the art of distilling whisky to the rest of the Emerald Isle, and later to the new world.

Yesterday was also "Cork Day" in our little corner of the bourbon world. Despite it's romantic, very Irish-sounding name, cork day had nothing to do with the Jameson distillery in Midleton, Cork County. Rather, it is one of several days throughout the year when it's time to dust off all the bottles in the collection, and re-wet the cork in each corked bottle. This is done by carefully inverting the bottle while ALMOST removing the cork, twisting, and replacing. Doing this periodically ensures that the corks don't dry out. It's also a great time to refresh my memory of what that particular bourbon tastes like. I used to be able to do this in a single day, but no more. I only do sections at a time now.

I was doing one such section yesterday, when I began to think about Linn's long-held contention that, if there were only one single distillery left he would prefer it be Wild Turkey (Boulevard, actually, but let's not quibble over details). His points about the completeness of the high-quality offerings from that distillery are well-taken, and I agree with them, and I was thinking about this... and then I took a drink of Evan Williams 1990 Single Barrel for the first time in several months. Sheesh! How come I keep managing to pass this by? I'm just as blown away by the depth and complexity of this bourbon as I was the first time I tried it, and the 1991 (which I've STILL never seen available) is supposed to be even better. So I says to myself, "Self..", I says, "how come Heaven Hill isn't your choice for most complete single distillery?" After all, they certainly have it over WT (and everyone else) as far as variety is concerned. They have some of the best bourbon ever made (and if you count some of what they sell to other bottlers, that claim gets even more valid). And they produce these wonderful whiskeys to retail at prices far more reasonable than many inferior products.

I started comparing, using my beloved Wild Turkey as the comparator...

(1) Wild Turkey's basic product, regular 101, while maybe not as fine as the original 8-year-old, is still a wonderful mainline bourbon, and at $13.99 none of Heaven Hill's better-known products can equal it. But a Heaven Hill commemorative that is difficult to find even in Kentucky, Dowling Deluxe (100 proof, and a true 8-year-old), comes close enough for me, and is priced at only $9.15

For a more comparable $12.99 Heaven Hill offers Elijah Craig 12-year-old. I think even Jimmy Russell wouldn't try comparing regular 101 to this wonderful bourbon. Wild Turkey does make a 12-year-old, selling for nearly $50.00, but it tastes like oak tar and is best suited for a very special niche market that values that type of flavor; even devoted fans of WT-12 wouldn't suggest using it for their everyday pour.

(2) Getting into the premium brands we have Russell's Reserve, at $22.99, which is easily one of the bourbon world's best whiskeys in that price category. It would probably be THE best, except that Evan Williams Single Barrel ($21.95) is also in that price range and beats it for flavor and complexity.

(3) Skipping Rare Breed (next in line as far as cost goes, but I want to save it for last) we have Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel. Although, at $35.75 a bottle, it's more expensive than Heaven Hill's Elijah Craig 18-year-old Single Barrel, the variation in quality I've found has disqualified it as one of my personal favorites. In our collection, I have the last remains of a bottle filled on 11-12-98 from barrel #1 (this is the same batch that Linn reviewed here awhile ago), which is pretty good, but not as outstanding as another we once had that was my favorite whiskey ever, while it lasted. I don't have it anymore, so I don't know the date or barrel number. But the one I have displayed on our shelf was bottled from barrel #4 on 10-13-97 and is absolutely terrible. Harsh and bitter, it tastes more like J. W. Dant than like anything I'd expect from Austin-Nichols. You always have to allow for some inconsistency with single barrels, but the variation in Kentucky Spirit is enough to cause me not to want to buy it anymore.

Now if there's one thing I truly believe about bourbon drinkers, it's that we all have different ideas of what's good. I know there are people out there right now checking to discover that the bottle of Kentucky Spirit they love so much is the same one I can't stand. Okay. But Heaven Hill offers (and consistently) J. W. Dant 100 proof, with many of the same characteristics, for $11.49 a bottle, less than a third the price of K.S.

(4) I wanted to save Rare Breed for last because I really put it at the top of Wild Turkey's list, even though it's not the most expensive. Rare Breed would be legally a six-year-old, although no age statement is given on the label. In reality, although the YOUNGEST whiskey in the mix is about six years old (there might be some five, but I'm not positive about that), there is more eight and twelve-year-old whiskey than six in the bottle. And it's bottled at barrel proof (around 54.5%), making this the best expression of Jimmy Russell's art you can get in America. Heaven Hill has nothing at all to compare with this at any price.

And that's the only reason why I'd still pick Wild Turkey as the one distillery to have, if we could only have one. That single category makes all the difference for me, and probably for others who appreciate full-cask-strength bourbon. Boone, could you pass this on to Max for me? Heaven Hill needs a barrel-strength bourbon that offers the same kind of value-for-the-price that they have in every other category. It's the only thing they're currently lacking. Suggestion: How about a barrel-strength, seven-year-old Old Fitzgerald? It would blow the socks (or pants) right off Old Weller Antique and bring recognition back to Pappy Van Winkle's original flagship brand. For a company like Heaven Hill, who prides itself on maintaining the proud old bourbon names, it seems to me that this would be an ideal project.



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John, as we all know, Buffalo Trace has been awarded the honor of best American distillery by The Malt Advocate. Heaven Hill has a very long way to go if they ever want to reach that pinnacle. I should think that it is not what's on the shelves now that counts, but rather what good work will Max & Craig make of the newly purchased Bernheim distillery.

Wild Turkey is the best example of a mid-sized distillery focused on a single bourbon and a single rye. They do this very well. Whatever our favorite bottling may be the point is we all have one.

I expect great bourbons to flow from L&G. in the near future.

Take a look back in time. Did anyone ever think that Stitzel-Weller, Bernheim, Old Taylor, or Old Crow would ever go out of business? Did anyone ever think that bourbon's market share would drop so low?

I thank God that someone somewhere is willing to pay outrageous prices for over aged unbalanced bottlings. This along with more moderately priced single barrels and small batchers is the saving of the industry. Without these profits would there be any bourbon at all?

Linn Spencer

Have Shotglass. Will Travel.

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