lar·ce·ny /ˈlärs(ə)nē/ noun: theft of personal property.

This review could have been very short. If I liked the bourbon, the verdict would have been “this is a steal!” If I disliked the bourbon, I would have concluded “I was robbed.” That was it. That was the joke. I’m certain my dear editors would have been unimpressed, rejecting the piece or slotting it into a less-than-coveted Sunday evening spot.

Fortunately, a wrinkle has presented itself which will at least make this review longer, if not more interesting. More on that in a minute.

I’ve been on a Heaven Hill kick of late. This is mostly because the distillery produces a wide range of bourbons with price points ranging from the bottom shelf to allocated unicorn bottles. Heaven Hill releases the kind of formats that generate excitement among whiskey enthusiasts: bottled-in-bond, single barrel, barrel proof, hyper-aged, and what have you. They also dabble, perhaps more than anyone else, in the dubiously named small batch format. Regardless, there’s plenty of angles for contemplation and comparison.

Speaking of comparisons: how much variation is there in whiskey? The answer is a fusion of “it depends” and “more than you might think” (or than the quality control departments of the distilleries would like).

For example: single barrels are more fun when they diverge from the standard flavor profile of the reference expression; it’s actually a bit of a disappointment when they taste too similar to the standard bottling.

For a mass-market expression, however, the distillery’s goal is for every bottle from every batch to taste more or less the same. Quirks and peccadilloes are not only not charming, they’re problematic. Still, taste enough bourbon (or the same bourbon enough times) and you’ll become aware that not all bottles are created equal, and sometimes this inequality can be dramatic.

Today, I’ll be tasting two bottles of the same batch of Larceny Barrel Proof. One was purchased by me, while the other was a sample given to me by a generous correspondent (thanks, William). In addition to making an assessment of this on its own merits, I’ll be looking to see if there’s much variation between these two bottles acquired independently.

First, though, we’ll have to do a bit of review of the Larceny brand, as it has yet to garner any reviews here on Malt.

As I’ve griped before, Heaven Hill has a habit of repurposing the stories and myths of historical whiskey personalities for its own branding activities, regardless of the connection (or lack thereof) with the Shapira family and either their (now destroyed) Bardstown distillery or the present-day Bernheim distillery.

Larceny continues this ignominious tradition in stealing (get it?) the good name and reputation of a 19th-century civil servant. The alleged “larceny” in question concerns John E. Fitzgerald, known more broadly as the namesake of Old Fitzgerald. In his professional capacity as treasury agent, Fitzgerald was the keyholder for federally-bonded warehouses. He has been posthumously accused of abusing his position to treat himself to honey barrels of the finest bourbon whiskey, which themselves became known as “Fitzgeralds” and resulted in the christening of the brand.

Setting aside that this is probably comprised of lies piled on a heaping helping of rubbish and covered in nonsense sauce, its impact (in this case) is mostly limited to the design of the bottle, which features Mr. Fitzgerald’s name (twice), three keys, and one keyhole. Thankfully, all this folderol doesn’t have much to do with what’s in the bottle.

As for what’s in the bottle: Larceny is produced from Heaven Hill’s wheated mash bill (68% corn, 20% wheat, 12% barley), which is shared by (you guessed it!) Old Fitzgerald. In the interest of full transparency: I am “meh” on wheated bourbon. I have had some good ones and some that are pretty mediocre. Adam has put in his two cents on the grain. I’m going into this with an open mind, but you now know where I stand.

The entry-level expression in the Larceny range is a 92 proof (46% ABV) bourbon; while there’s no age statement on the bottle, Heaven Hill unhelpfully informs us that the bourbon has “a six-year-old taste profile.” If there’s a distillery that produces better whiskey with worse verbiage around it, I’m actually not aware of its existence. Let’s carry on…

Moving up the range, we’ve got Larceny Barrel Proof, the subject of today’s review. Similar to Heaven Hill stablemate Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, the Larceny Barrel Proof is released in three annual batches. As before: each batch is labeled with a code in the form XMYY, where X is A, B, or C to designate the first, second, and third batches, respectively. M is the month and YY is the year. This batch is A120, meaning it was the first batch of 2020, released in January of this year.

This is Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, from “a mingling of 6 to 8 year old bourbon.” It comes to us non-chill filtered and bottled at barrel proof, which in the case of this batch is 123.2 proof (61.6% ABV). I paid $70 for a bottle. Let’s get ready to mingle!

Larceny Barrel Proof Batch A120 (Taylor’s Bottle) – Review

Color: Dirty copper.

On the nose: On the front of the nose this is very much like the other Heaven Hill bourbons, even though it’s from their wheated mash bill. I smell wet pennies and overripe clementines, same as on any bottle of Evan Williams. A subtly rich note of chocolate fudge meets the smoky-sweet smell of burnt ends. There’s a dry woodiness that encapsulates all this. With some more time to air out, I am getting all sorts of bonkers aromas: Pecorino Romano, mole sauce, and the smoky smell of burnt candle wax.

In the mouth: This enters with a momentarily creamy mouthfeel, before perking up with the spicy and woody flavors of cardamom and cedar. The crescendo at the middle of the mouth has a dry note of limestone. This transitions via a salty note of peanut butter into the classic Heaven Hill finish, with a lingering metallic aftertaste, this time accented by earthy notes of dry clods of soil. There’s a slightly off-bitter note of wood here as the only point of criticism, though this is sedate enough as to not spoil the overall effect. Remarkably, this has a persistence but never a burn; the high ABV is well balanced against the other textural and gustatory elements.

Conclusions

Wow. I would have never pegged this for a wheater, so similar is the profile to the bourbons from Heaven Hill’s rye mash bill. At the same time, this has all sorts of unique flavors and a texture which (presumably) benefits from the wheat in its comparative softness, despite the younger age and high proof. This is the equal of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof; all-in-all, I’d be an enthusiastic repeat buyer.

Score: 8/10

Now let’s see what difference, if any, we can discern from a second bottle.

Larceny Barrel Proof Batch A120 (William’s Bottle) – Review

Color: Again, copper with a bit of tarnish.

On the nose: Entirely more nutty to start. Salted peanuts and cashews abound, in a way that is preemptively mouth drying and has me reaching already for a glass of water. I’m getting some vegetal scents, fluoride toothpaste, and a little bit of unleavened dough, but little of the wonderfully rich and uncanny aromatic profile that distinguished its predecessor. The vaguest whiff of chili pepper and a faint hint of jasmine incense is all this provides by way of additional nasal intrigue.

In the mouth: This has an expansive and rich woodiness to start. It falls slightly flat as it hits the middle of the mouth, with more of a dilute and barrel-driven mouthfeel. There’s a noticeable step down in flavor compared to the prior dram. I’m getting little to none of the Heaven Hill signature notes; rather, these have been displaced by a soft texture and nondescript heat that, nonetheless, dissipates rapidly as this disappears on the finish.

Conclusions

A surprising disappointment, this falls well short of the heights attained by the prior dram. Tasted blind, without assurances, I would have sworn up and down that these were not only different batches, but entirely different bourbons. Whether this was a consequence of aeration, transportation, or an intrinsic variation in quality, I cannot say. However, while I would have happily shelled out $70 again for the prior bottle, this one would have dissuaded me from repeat custom.

Score: 5/10

Honestly, I am shocked. I was nearly certain these would be functionally identical, in a way that made this review seem pointless and overwrought. The outcome could not have been more surprising, which leaves me nearly at a loss for words (precisely the first time that would have happened).

What should you do with these contrasting assessments, dear reader? Other than hoping and praying for a bottle that resembles the former more than the latter, I’ll be damned if I know. I’m counting myself lucky to have but a sample of the second and an entire bottle of the first, if only to be able to circulate yet more samples that refute the negative conclusions reached by those less fortunate than myself.

In the meantime: I could regurgitate some platitudes, but the moral of this story is obvious. No bottle represents the whole, and no verdict is absolute. This could be read as a dour bemoaning of the futility of critical assessment, but I prefer to interpret it hopefully: as a rebuke to prejudice and a reminder that the next bottle might be better than the last, though they appear identical to the eye.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some whiskey to steal.

CategoriesAmerican
Taylor
Taylor

Taylor's a native of Chicago. After heading to university in Scotland, he graduated from drinking Whyte & Mackay and Coke to neat single malts. He's also a keen fan of Japanese whisky, having visited the country regularly over the last several years, where he was able to assemble a decent collection before prices went batty.

  1. Phil
    Phil says:

    How many moles go into making mole sauce? Also are they roasted, boiled or sautéed? Are they ethically sourced?

    Also given their penchant for earthworms does this mean that Larcerny has more of a claim to terroir than Waterford?

    Yours, concerned Mole rights activist, Phil

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      Phil, you wouldn’t be laughing if you had tasted Oaxaca’s delightful mole (moh-LAY) sauces, comprised of smoked chilies, spice and chocolate. Regardless, I look forward to trolling you in the comments of your article tomorrow. Smell you later.

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      Max, I haven’t reached out to Heaven Hill, not least of all because I don’t have the suspect bottle in question. I don’t think this was corked, as it had none of the oxidized or madeirized notes I typically get from bottles with that problem. It was just kind of soft and weak, in the way of lesser wheated bourbons I have tried. Sorry I can’t be more conclusive, but cheers nonetheless.

  2. Avatar
    John Fitzgerald says:

    I had a similar situation, but in reverse. I ordered a sample of an Octomore, which I loved, so then I ordered a bottle. But when I opened the bottle, it smelled / tasted very little like the sample, and not for the better (to me). It still tasted like an Octomore, but I thought that perhaps they had mislabeled the sample, and that I actually got a sample of a different Octomore edition. However, after several months and the bottle at a level of about 2/3rds full, it has become much more like the sample I first tried and loved.

    So, I have concluded that the initial taste disparity came down to the higher air to liquid ratio in the sample bottle, coupled with added air exposure when making the initial pour into the sample bottle and lots of sloshing around (mixing the air and liquid) in transport of the sample from Europe.

    In general, I have found that the majority of the scotches I enjoy (from the Islay, Campbeltown, and Island regions) improve as the bottle goes down (more air exposure / oxidation) to an extent (probably deteriorating more than improving beginning at about 1/4 – 1/8 full), though there are a couple bottles I have that were at their best when first opened (e.g. the Macallan Classic Cut 2017 edition).

    Bourbon, I’m not so sure about… I do like Eagle Rare 10 better after the liquid level has gone down and the bottle has sat for a while; same with a recent Maker’s Mark Private Select. The other bourbons I have, I can’t say that I’ve sensed much of a difference between earlier and later pours. Further experimentation warranted!

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      John Fitzgerald (if that is your real name, you thievin’ so-and-so), any experienced whiskey drinker will come to the same conclusion. Some whiskeys improve with a bit of air (in the glass or bottle), some degrade, and over a long enough period of time (based on my sampling of some 1950’s-era Jim Beam that had spent far too long in a depleted bottle) some of them go completely bad. I hope one of my colleagues will take a leaf out of our John’s experimental dilution playbook and consider a sequential tasting of differently-oxygenated whiskey. Cheers!

      1. Avatar
        Johnny Fitz says:

        Yeah, that would be neat (no pun intended). As a follow-up to your review, you could try cleaning out the sample bottle you have from William’s bottle, then pour in some of the Larceny A120 of your bottle into it, shake it occasionally to simulate transport, let it sit for a few days, and then see how they compare.

        A bit on another aspect which you touched upon in your review – I know customers (or at least I) expect that all the bottles from the same specific batch (when it comes to bottles with such designations) contain the same liquid inside, made of the same mix of barrels, and perhaps one way to consider the likelihood of this is to know how many bottles of a batch were produced, and if there is a “marrying tub” at the distillery with sufficient capacity to fill that many bottles (info that might be able to be gleaned from a distillery tour). For example, is there a tub at Lagavulin large enough for marrying all the barrels that will be used for the entirety of each year’s Distiller’s Edition? If not, then there will be the chance for some variation if you don’t get bottles from the same case.

        1. Taylor
          Taylor says:

          Excellent points and suggestions, all. The very first distillery on my tour list (once travel restrictions are eased) is Heaven Hill. God willing, I’ll be able to report back sooner rather than later.

  3. Avatar
    Anders Larson says:

    Hi Taylor,

    Wow, that is very interesting–at first I thought I misread that you would be tasting the same batch side-by-side (as in, what’s the point since it’s the same juice). But I must say that I have experienced the same phenomenon, albeit with the same bottle on different days. Things can be so surprisingly varied depending on daily context. Similarly, I remember getting a mini bottle of Benromach 10 once, already knowing that I love the stuff, and realizing that it seemed terribly off and bitter/dry. It didn’t dissuade me from still going for a whole bottle, and that bottle was fabulous and precisely as I remembered how it ought to be. My take away has been that I never completely trust a sample/mini bottle and reserve judgement on a brand/product until I have hopefully gotten through all or a good chunk of a bottle. The entire journey through a bottle to me is the best way to complete an assessment of a whisky. Not that sample reviews cannot also be informative, but we are imperfect beings and some days things just taste better than others!

    Skål!
    Anders

    1. Avatar
      Bufanda Barbosa says:

      I agree. I know reviewers can be pressured to maximize the number of their reviews (and without becoming alcoholics), but I always take reviews based on samples or initial uncorkings or flights with salt grains. I’ve had plenty of bottles where I was very enthusiastic about the first dram, and would rate it 8-9/10, but then after finishing the bottle, I would rate it 6/10 – not because it changed with oxidation, but because my initial evaluation was based more on novelty, and that often wears off over time. I’ve also had the reverse occur, and bottles I initially didn’t like much became some of my favorites.

      A related example are the Pepsi vs. Coca-Cola taste tests: Pepsi is usually rated higher overall based on sample-size tastings, but Coca-Cola is usually rated higher overall in whole can / bottle evaluations. Car seats are another related example: they are made to feel the most comfortable for very short durations (max. would be the duration of a test ride), since that’s what people make buying decisions based on, so a seat you think is great after a few minutes in it, might feel terrible after a road trip, and vice-versa.

      I think you’re also right about different ratings on different days / settings. I’ve had drams that tasted mediocre when tasted outdoors, or after other drams at a bar, or shortly after eating food, but on their own after a properly reset palate (e.g. at least a few hours after my last meal) at home, I’ve considered them much better. People may also not realize just how much one’s palate can be impacted by certain things, like ice cream, after which I’ve found there’s no point in trying to seriously evaluate a whisky in the same day – everything tastes so much thinner and less rich after the palate has acclimated to ice cream.

      Not that this is a setting in which I drink for personal enjoyment, but there’s a reason why when we’re honing / evaluating recipes for our products, we have special tasting rooms, which are only for one person and not much larger than a closet, are all one neutral color, are as odorless as possible, are soundless, and have nothing but a table and a chair which match the color of the room.

      I concur that every review would *ideally* be an “end-of-bottle” review, where there’s ample opportunity to experience the dram on its own after a reset palate, side-by-side with other drams, with varying degrees of water and oxidation over the course of months, etc., but reviews would then often come out too late if it’s a “batch” or a “limited edition” for people to be able to buy or avoid based on the review. So, I think sample reviews serve their purpose, but I always appreciate “end-of-bottle” reviews, like Aqvavitae’s “Recycled Reviews” on YouTube, when I can find them.

      1. Avatar
        Anders Larson says:

        Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I agree–Aqvavitae’s Recycled Reviews are some of my favorites. I really appreciate his attitude and perspective when it comes to whisky. And on the ice cream note–I’ve definitely noticed that rich dairy definitely messes with my palate. On the other hand, one of the absolute best drams I’ve ever had was a heavily peated Islay (might have been Big Peat) after a few hours after having some nice fatty, fried cheese curds. Sublime–it completely accentuated all the best qualities of that dram.

        1. Avatar
          Bufanda Barbosa says:

          Ha! That’s awesome! I’ve never had fried cheese curds myself, but I’ll keep that in mind if I ever do have them. Cheese and peat complimenting / accentuating each other – sounds like some bottles of Ledaig (though not the O.B. 10 year) I’ve had: smoke / peat / “farm” (hay, manure) / cheese… disgustingly delicious, for a few folks out there anyway, and you may be interested to give some a try if you haven’t already if you are interested in trying to find something close to peaty cheese curd nirvana in a bottle.

  4. Taylor
    Taylor says:

    Anders, indeed, bottles change over time. A limitation of accepting samples for review is that you don’t get to sense that evolution, which can sometimes be verdict-changing (see my review of the Wild Turkey Revivial for an example of a dramatic turnaround for the better). Where possible, I try to revisit a whiskey over a few weeks or more in order to take this into account. Failing that, leaving a glass to rest for a few hours often unlocks layers of smell and flavor that are compressed when it’s poured straight from the bottle. Hope this helps? Skål!

    1. Avatar
      Anders Larson says:

      O’ absolutely–it’s still great and fun to try samples. Because, after all, if you find a cracker there is absolute joy in celebrating that one singular moment. And funny you mention Wild Turkey–one of my eureka moments with this phenomenon came because of a bottle of 101 that started weak but after a few drams and several weeks made me fall in love with Wild Turkey. I feel like every bottle of 101 I get continues to improve with air and time in the bottle. (PS, your Turkey vertical with David Jennings from last fall, I believe, is one of my all time favorites and helped kick start a deep dive of my own into their offerings, for which I owe you both many thanks!)

      1. Taylor
        Taylor says:

        Anders, I am overjoyed to hear that. It was also one of my favorite reviews to write, because I was able to learn at the knee of a man who is not only an expert in his focused area of specialization, but who has subsequently become an invaluable advisor and trusted friend to me. That’s the power of whiskey!

  5. Avatar
    Apple Wino says:

    Recently, I opened a bottle of Springbank 10 YO and wondered what all the fuss was about. It just tasted thin and simple. But then a couple days later, I understood what all the fuss was about. Wonderful stuff. So I definitely believe in evolution based on exposure to air.

    On the other hand, I highly recommend this experiment from Tater Talk that attempts to undermine the whole idea of bottle evolution: “Did my bourbon change in the bottle? 1 year test”. Definitely worth a read to keep an open mind. And hey, maybe this test only applies to spirits made with large percentages of corn.

    https://tater-talk.com/2018/08/30/did-my-bourbon-change-in-the-bottle-1-year-test/

  6. Avatar
    TheWhiskySleuth says:

    Interesting comparison Taylor! The very same thing happened to a friend of mine as we did a blind tasting last week. The dram in question was actually Phil’s favourite, springer 15. We were stumped by how fruity this was and completely missed the mark, guessing some sort of Scotia. When our host for the evening revealed the bottle my friend was stumped. He had exactly the same batch on the shelf, and at a near identical fill level too. He then tried them side by side and came to the same conclusion, they were almost unrecognisably different. The only difference, one bottle had been opened and enjoyed in Surrey, the other on Jersey.

    Possibly related, I do not know, but I have also often wondered what subconscious bias we give to those whiskies we have bought ourselves, over samples gifted. Perhaps there will have been some research before buying, or simply the decision to part with our hard earned cash, either way I’m sure we overvalue slightly those whiskies we buy ourselves.

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      Sleuth, it’s an intriguing question. I’ve seen the opposite proposed- that we’re more inclined to judge free samples clemently because we didn’t feel the pain of parting with our own money for them (setting aside any accusations of bias or favors-for-favors). I’ve actually tracked my scoring of whiskeys I received as free samples or gifts vs. those I bought myself. Across almost 200 reviews, the free whiskey averages a 5.48, while the purchased whiskey averages 5.80. I’m not sure the difference is meaningful, but you can do with that what you will! Cheers!

  7. Avatar
    Lasciv says:

    Outstanding Review…i did my own review on this batch, well it ended up with a quarter left from full. Guess I have to reevaluate my palate after I do my inclinations.

  8. Avatar
    Apple Wino says:

    I just managed to find a bottle of this release by visiting carefully-selected liquor stores during a holiday trip.

    My bottle conforms to the first tasting note. Really excellent and much better to my palate than the bottle of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof (was tempted to write ECBP but resisted) batch A120 (to compare Heaven Hill bottlings with identical nominal designations).

    This release definitely gets a wide array of responses. After reading some really negative reviews, I was wondering if I should buy a bottle. But permissive holiday spending led me to a great purchase. Perhaps there really were two batches.

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      Apple Wino, it’s entirely possible, given the high degree of variation in the samples I had. Just goes to show you: ignore critics and take a risk; you may be rewarded! Cheers.

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