This review might not be very useful to you.
The whiskey we’ll be considering today has several attributes (both intrinsic and external) that bring together many of the threads that have been woven through my prior reviews. We’ll be discussing the risks of the single-barrel format, the absurdity of “world’s best” awards, the derangement of consumers, and the malfeasance of retailers. Ultimately, we’ll be considering the futility of pretending that reviews and scores (from me, or anybody else) represent any kind of objective judgment that has useful practical applicability.
So, for those of you who prefer your reviews to be 250-yards-down-the-middle-of-the-fairway: we’ll see you tomorrow. For the remainder: let’s venture into the land of deep uncertainty.
On opening a bottle of single barrel bourbon I usually experience a mixture of hope and fear that leaves me with a queasy sensation. Even when it’s an expression I’ve tried before, there are no guarantees on the second go-round. This is inherent to single barrels; there’s no escaping it other than to forsake the category entirely.
I once likened the experience of buying a store pick single barrel bourbon to gambling, and I’ve been done one better by a correspondent. In a recent discussion of the format, Lloyd Christmas (of Bourbon Truth fame) provided the pithiest summation of the risks and rewards when he described single barrel bourbon as “a liquid Scratch Off Lottery ticket.”
Thus, it’s a little surprising when a single barrel expression becomes widely sought after, particularly subsequent to winning a high-profile award (as these are cynically understood by those in the know to be based on honey barrels that have been cherry-picked for submission). However, that is exactly what has occurred with the subject of today’s review, the Henry McKenna Single Barrel.
Michael Veach recently wrote a superb and detailed history of the Henry McKenna brand which would only be diminished by being paraphrased here. I’ll point out only that the McKenna name was purchased by current owners Heaven Hill, who have constructed their brand portfolio by using names with no connection to the current distillery or its ownership. The whiskey being considered today was launched in its ten-year-old, single-barrel format in 1995.
Back to gambling: the sense of risk and reward is heightened when an expression is rare and/or expensive, which this one increasingly is. The case of McKenna has unfortunately served as a template for subsequent misbehavior around a number of whiskeys.
After garnering the San Francisco’s World Spirits Competition’s “Best in Show” accolade in March 2019, Henry McKenna Single Barrel initially disappeared from store shelves, being later replenished with bottles bearing price tags at multiples of the $35 MSRP (I’ve seen it for more than $100). In what is (hopefully) an all-time low for bourbon culture, the high profile critic who judged the competition received threats and had his tires slashed by McKenna fans aggrieved that someone else liked the whiskey as much as they did.
Setting aside the particular issues pertaining to this whiskey, I’ve written before about the absurdity of the “World’s Best” designations that get handed out here and there. I’ve also posited that objectivity, or pretension thereto, is foolish and disingenuous. I can’t guarantee that my impressions of this whiskey today, right at this moment, will be in any way consistent with any other evaluation. What I think of this might not correspond to what someone else thought a while back; it may not even correspond to what I think in a week or a month or a year.
To recap: You might not be able to find this whiskey. If you find it, it might be marked up to an unpalatably high price. If you can find it for a reasonable ask, it probably won’t be this particular single barrel. Given single barrels will vary widely, I can’t guarantee that the barrel you get will taste anything like this one. Oh, and I am personally a fickle and unreliable and flawed and subjective reviewer, as are we all. If you still care what I’m about to say or how I’ll score this, I am both appreciative of your indulgence and concerned for your sanity.
The particulars: This from barrel #6265, filled on 3/24/2009 and aged ten years. It is bottled-in-bond at the legally mandated 100 proof (50% ABV). As mentioned above, the MSRP is $35. I paid $40 for my bottle, which remains as-yet unopened. This was a sample generously provided by a reader (thanks again, Will).
Henry McKenna Single Barrel – Review
On the nose: The immediate impression is of a luscious wave of oaky vanilla. This lasts for an instant, though, as more compelling and complex aromas reveal themselves: warm maple syrup, duck fat, tarragon, cumin, conifers, and crushed red pepper flakes. The interplay between the elements is delightful, and I’m struggling to recall a time when I felt such hedonistic enjoyment when nosing a bourbon. There’s a hint of the Heaven Hill hallmark wet pennies and clementines, but mostly this is sweet and spicy goodness.
In the mouth: A sumptuous wave of caramelized sugar, macerated red fruit, and sticky toffee pudding carries this from the front of the mouth to the midpalate. There, a blooming heat meets the sweetly spicy note of Mexican brown sugar in a way that envelops the taste buds. The dilute, sweet flavor of chocolate milk marks the transition to the finish, where this re-asserts itself once again with Heaven Hill’s characteristic steely austerity. I’m left with a faint tingle, a mineralic dryness, and a residual warming heat through the mouth as the lingering reminders of this.
This smells great; it’s very tasty, well balanced, and has mostly good texture. It’s got some of the telltale Heaven Hill notes and plenty else, besides. If I could reliably buy this at $40 and had the assurance that each bottle would be as good as this one, I would do so.
But, as noted above, I can’t. Neither can you. That’s a bad thing in some ways, but a good thing in others. We could react to this whiskey by pouting or spouting hateful vitriol online; plenty of others have. I’m encouraging you to take all this in stride, however. I’m going to keep hunting, to keep tasting, and to keep experimenting. I’m contented in the knowledge that I’ll probably be able to find something else as good or better than this.
The only certainty is uncertainty; to pretend otherwise is folly, and bourbon is already full of enough of that.
Photograph kindly provided by Vintage Direct.