Time to fill in some gaps…
My recent survey of the large Kentucky distilleries surprised me. After a few years of tenacious tasting, I have now tried a representative sample of the bourbons from all the big players in America’s most important whiskey-making state. However, I also noticed a few conspicuous blank spaces in my experience, which I resolved to remedy as soon as possible.
A consistent theme is that these “missing” whiskeys are limited editions, of the type that disappear before they ever hit store shelves. This makes sense; there’s no reason that I would not be able to try a readily available whiskey about which I was curious. However, based partly on a steadfast refusal to pay a significant markup to SRP, I sometimes pass by highly sought-after bottles when I see them. Though I have the moral satisfaction of not giving my money to someone trying to take advantage, my curiosity remains unsatisfied.
I remain convinced that the quotidian whiskeys – those everyday drinkers available everywhere at a reasonable cost – are a more important criteria for grading a distillery than a rare bottle with a price tag out of reach for most working folks. However, tasting the top of the range can also be educational, particularly for those of us looking to form a complete picture of what a given distillery is capable of.
Today’s whiskeys are from the Heaven Hill Distillery, one of the great sources of value in bourbon. From prices in the mid-teens dollars up to the fifties and above, there’s an exceedingly tasty Heaven Hill whiskey to fit most every budget. This is due, in no small part, to the contribution to that distillery made by Parker Beam in his tenure as Master Distiller.
We haven’t talked much about Parker Beam in this space. He’s been mentioned a few times in passing, usually in the context of the Deatsville rickhouses (pictured above and rumored to be his favorite location from which to pull barrels) or just generally as one of the legendary distillers of recent times. I’m happy that the day has come to finally give the great man his due.
Born in 1941, Earl Parker Beam was as close as any to “Bourbon Royalty,” being the grandnephew of Jim Beam. Apprenticing at Heaven Hill under his father Earl Beam (Master Distiller since 1946), Parker assumed the Master Distiller position after 15 years, in 1975. He was responsible for developing some of the best-known Heaven Hill brands such as Elijah Craig and Evan Williams.
Like his contemporaries (Booker, Elmer, and Jimmy) who have shaped the world of bourbon, Parker is known to bourbon fans by his first name. This is also a reflection of the man’s reputed humility; he described himself as “chief cook and bottle washer,” reflecting the glamourless, jack-of-all-trades nature of running a distillery in the lean years. Parker remained a cattle farmer as a sideline until late into his life. Despite his humble bearing, Parker became a bourbon celebrity as he toured the trade show circuit with his aforementioned Master Distiller friends, singing the praises of America’s indigenous whiskey when interest was at a low ebb.
As for Parker’s Heritage Collection: beginning in 2007, Heaven Hill began an annual release to honor Parker. Heaven Hill maintains its own page for the series. Unlike, say, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, there’s no year-to-year consistency in terms of style or even the type of whiskey, which will quickly become apparent from the three very different subjects of today’s review.
Parker was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease ALS (known Stateside as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” after the New York Yankees slugger famously afflicted with the condition) in 2010. Starting in 2013, a portion of the proceeds from the sale of Parker’s Heritage Collection went toward supporting the ALS Association, having raised more than $1 million in the intervening seven years. There’s also the Parker Beam “Promise of Hope Fund,” to which I have made a donation, and would encourage you to consider doing likewise. Parker passed away in 2017, at the age of 75.
The first whiskey we’ll be trying is the 2013 release, the seventh in the series. Called “Promise of Hope,” this whiskey is said to come from Deatsville Rickhouse EE. It is a single barrel aged 10 years, per the label. This was bottled at 96 proof (48% ABV). SRP was $90 upon release. It bears saying (once) that all these whiskeys currently trade hands at multiples of their respective release prices. Fortunately, all these samples were generously donated by Brian, who has my sincere thanks.
Parker’s Heritage Collection 2013 7th Edition “Promise of Hope” – Review
Color: Medium-dark amber.
On the nose: Incredible aromatics straightaway, reminiscent of dusty Stitzel-Weller bourbon. An abundant whiff of butterscotch leaps straight out of the glass and fills the nose. This is accented by some herbal notes of anise and tarragon. This transitions to a resinous, sappy note of freshly cut pine boughs. Roasted carrots – a note I have never before detected in any whiskey – make an appearance. There’s a faint funkiness to this in the manner of a crawlspace or an antiquarian bookstore, but nothing that detracts from the overall presentation.
In the mouth: Less plump and more stern to start, this begins with a slight woodiness and a bitter nutty note of almonds. The fruit breaks through as this moves up the tongue; I get intense flavors of apricot preserves and a sticky medicinal note of cherry cough syrup. The high point is a surprising blooming of fresh floral notes as this reaches the top of the tongue. On the finish, this retains some of the preserved fruit flavor but tacks back toward the initial woodiness, as well as reprising some of the herbal notes from the nose. The whisky leaves a subtly bitter aftertaste and, despite the relatively low proof, a tingly heat on the roof of the mouth.
The nose’s intense aromas are instantly seductive, practically begging for the first sip. The mouthfeel comes off unbalanced toward the barrel side at a few points, but is redeemed overall by the superb fruit and floral flavors at the midpalate. Though I initially looked askance at the bottling strength (give me barrel proof or give me death!), I am pleased to report that this didn’t come off as underpowered or dilute on the palate. Very tasty whiskey; not perfect, but full of character. It’s an obvious buy at the asking price, and I’d be strongly tempted to pay up to double that amount.
Next up is the eighth entrant in the series, from 2014. This whiskey was produced from the first distilling run of what would later become Heaven Hill’s Bernheim Original Straight Wheat Whiskey. Two different bottling proofs were released this year: 126.8 and 127.4. Each carried an age statement of 13 years. This is from the second 126.8 proof (63.4% ABV) batch, which is cask strength. The barrels were matured in Rickhouse Y on Heaven Hill’s Bardstown campus. SRP on release was $90.
Parker’s Heritage Collection 2014 8th Edition “Original Batch Wheat Whiskey” – Review
Color: Medium-dark golden chestnut.
On the nose: In common with the “Promise of Hope” bourbon, this has an exuberant nose with an intense butterscotch note upfront. There’s more herbal scents to this one, however, with a mentholated whiff of eucalyptus following quickly from the initial sniff. A richly sweet scent of hot fudge meets notes of strong iced tea and smoked sausage as this is allowed to breathe in the glass. I get a piquant woody note of freshly-sanded cedar. Yet more time reveals a sweet chocolate, nut, and gooey caramel note of pecan turtles. This is another whiskey that tears the taster between wanting to sniff this forever and also being desperate to take the first sip.
In the mouth: The higher proof is evident immediately, as a hot bloom of alcohol dominates the palate to start. Giving the mouth a moment to recuperate, I am able to discern more of the progression as this moves across the tongue. That butterscotch note reappears at the tip of the tongue, albeit in a more synthetic-tasting form. This tips over into a chemical bitterness as the whiskey approaches the middle of the mouth, where it is joined by a juvenile, green woodiness. The whisky takes on a drying tannic texture on the roof of the mouth as it moves toward the finish, where the heat once again makes itself felt. About the best note in here is a chili spice-infused note of Mexican chocolate that disappears all too quickly as the whiskey fades into the finish.
Again, a strong start on the nose, perhaps even better than the “Promise of Hope.” However, whereas that whiskey mostly maintained its poise in the mouth, this one feels unbalanced and lopsided. The high proof doesn’t do any favors to the presentation of the flavors, which taste as though they were concocted by a chemist rather than occurring naturally. The palate gives over to bitter wood and burning heat in a way that makes this periodically uncomfortable to drink. Not at all my style but, in light of the reasonable retail price, I am deducting only one point.
Third and final is the eleventh iteration, from 2017. These single barrels are also said to have been aged in the aforementioned Deatsville rickhouses. Another single barrel, this time aged 11 years, this comes to us at 122 proof (61% ABV) and is non-chill filtered. Retail price on release was $130.
Parker’s Heritage Collection 2017 11th Edition “11-Year-Old Single Barrel” – Review
Color: Medium golden orange.
On the nose: This smells more like a Heaven Hill whiskey, to me. The nose proceeds from the bottom up to the top the register, starting with a serious metallic note that makes way for ripe oranges and, finally, a big creamy dollop of vanilla. Bundt cake, aloe hand lotion, nutmeg, and a rubbery whiff of pink pencil eraser all make appearances. In total, the most aromatically restrained of the three.
In the mouth: Starting with a tannic nip of wood, this becomes more rounded as it moves into the middle of the mouth. A polished woodiness meets with salty nut flavors in the center of the tongue. A fading citrus note makes way for a green, meaty flavor reminiscent of succulent plants. This turns into an astringent and slightly bitter woodiness that dissipates quickly, leaving an ashy aftertaste and a fading note of vanilla.
This is fine, in the sense of “OK,” meaning not conspicuously great or terrible. It tastes like I imagine an Evan Williams Single Barrel would taste if it were bottled at barrel proof. There are no real flaws here, but also nothing in the way of standout aromas or flavors that would justify any special regard. For roughly half this price, I’d prefer a bottle of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof.
One thing that struck me about the first two whiskeys was the similarities they shared, despite the differences in mash bill. They were also attention grabbing in that they didn’t taste quite like anything I have had from Heaven Hill before. Though the second one didn’t land for me, I appreciate that the off notes were a result of trying to push flavor too far. The final whiskey, however, played it a bit too safe. It tasted like pretty good Heaven Hill whiskey, but we all know there’s plenty of that around at far less than $130 per bottle.
Overall, I am happy to have filled in some of the blank space on my whiskey map. I’m keeping an open mind about future entrants in the series, based on the heights to which the 2013 release ascended. More than anything, I’m grateful to have had the chance to revisit the legacy of Parker Beam, who deserves Heritage Collectionall the praise and respect and fond remembrance he gets.
Bottle images and photo of Parker Beam courtesy of Heaven Hill. Deatsville photo author’s own.