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.
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.
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.
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.
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.