“Sounds about right.”
This is what I said to myself as I weighed the specifics of the bottle in my hand: Heaven Hill (more on that in a moment), single barrel, wheated mash bill, nearly five years old, 120 proof, $50. This all seemed… fine? A little young, perhaps, but such is the state of play in the world of bourbon whiskey in the year 2021.
Was I influenced by the strong recommendation of the store’s spirits specialist, or the fact that this was the last bottle on the shelf? Did I recall that a friend had asked me about it, and I am an inveterate provider of opinions? Whatever the factors that pulled at my subconscious, I took the plunge and bought the bottle that I’ll be reviewing for you today.
This is a cask strength single barrel from the Rebel brand, owned by Luxco (now part of MGP). At the very least – on paper – this isn’t the type of flaming rip off that we’re used to getting from Luxco. To try to find an equivalent: their Rebel Yell Single Barrel (carrying a 10 year age statement) has recently had the price raised to $60, though that comes at a strength of only 100 proof. On a $/ml of alcohol basis, we’re talking $0.11 for this versus $0.16 for the Rebel Yell, though the additional age of the latter is a complicating factor.
All-in: I’m feeling OK about the price of this, setting aside my usual misgivings about sourced whiskey generally and the occasionally ludicrous offerings from Luxco in particular. Speaking of ludicrous, here’s a list of all the meaningless words that appear on the label affixed to this bottle: “special limited edition,” “hand selected & extraordinary,” “wheated – defiantly smooth.”
While these terms lack much informational content, I did focus on one word: “for,” appearing here in the context of “distilled and aged in Kentucky for Lux Row Distillers Bardstown, Kentucky.” This might be as close to transparency as we ever get from Luxco, and some gentle prodding of the aforementioned store employee confirmed that this was, in fact, distillate from Heaven Hill.
That leads us to another obvious point of comparison: Heaven Hill’s own cask strength wheated offering, Larceny Barrel Proof. Though there’s no formal age statement on that expression, I recall some vague language about it being six-to-eight-year bourbon. So: moderately more mature, but it also carries a higher price tag. A crude linear extrapolation backwards from the midpoint of that range would give a rate of $10 per year of barrel age, which is bang in line with what I paid.
I was pleasantly surprised that the two Larceny samples I tasted fell into the OK-to-very-good category, given I have experienced friends that loathe the stuff. While I’m predisposed to rush to advance judgment, I believe there are enough countervailing headwinds and tailwinds here to keep me objective, or at least able to use ambivalence as a proxy for impartiality.
“But,” interjects a straw cretin of my own invention, “it’s a barrel pick!” Indeed, dear nitwit, it is, and all the rulesrelated to that format apply. There’s another germane question here: are the odds of snagging a good single barrel better when a choosing from a set of selected barrels?
As always, Binny’s (the chain that selected this barrel) seems to believe that if one single barrel is better, then two are good, and a dozen are the best. I’m surmising this based on the 12 separate single barrels of this expression currently listed on their website. In fairness to them: part of their prodigious production of picks is likely necessitated by the company’s sprawling footprint of stores, which couldn’t be adequately stocked with a lone barrel here or there.
I’ll now engage in an unconventional practice called a “pre-mortem.” Pretending that I’ve already tasted this (as I write, I haven’t) and it’s a total dud, what might I surmise? Other than upbraiding myself for failure to adhere to my own aforementioned rules, I’m left with a bottle of decent strength whiskey to use (sparingly) as a base for cocktails, with the ability to distribute samples of this to friends and fans. I’ll also have one more tile to add to my mental mosaic of Heaven Hill, and I believe that enhanced familiarity with the many styles coming out of one of America’s most important distilleries is never a bad thing.
Time to find out the hard way. For the reference of our most pedantic readers: this is barrel #7533509, filled on 11/2/2016. I am informed that this had a full five years of maturation but, given that this passed the five year date relatively recently, and taking into account the disruptions to Heaven Hill’s operations from this fall’s strike, I am slightly skeptical of this claim. Regardless: we’re in that ballpark and the proof, as always, is in the bottle…
Rebel Cask Strength (Barrel #7533509) – Review
Color: Medium orange.
On the nose: The first sniff is pure joy, as this has all the classic Heaven Hill notes (ripe clementines with a metallic accent) dialed up to 11, with the addition of a gooey fudge brownie aroma. There’s some black tea notes, an extracted vanilla aroma, and some darker nuances of ash and tar. After a few minutes in the glass, a fitting note of wheat bread nods to the mash bill, with the addition of some fresh mint sprigs. Overall, the aromatic presentation is reminiscent of the more potent Elijah Craig Barrel Proof batches, or some of the better batches of Booker’s. So far, I’m getting what I came for.
In the mouth: A mirror of the nose’s progression, albeit in more austere form. That first citric flavor puckers the lips and bites the tongue, before receding to allow the chocolate notes to emerge. The center of the palate is gripped by a rock-hard limestone that abates to reveal flavors of brown sugar and herbaceous notes of thyme. A final sour burst of orange bites slightly, before this eases into a texturally softer finish. The whiskey is recapitulated as lingering aftertastes of mint julep echo the brown sugar and mint notes from the mouth and nose, respectively.
This is an excellent example of Heaven Hill bourbon, offering hallmark notes from that distillery augmented by a few surprises. There’s nothing to indicate that the five years in the barrel were too brief a maturation; this has developed a broad spectrum of flavors that are of equal intensity, resulting in a consistent experience from the first sniff to the final sip. Not all my single barrel gambles pay off, but this one is a winner in terms of delivering very solid, flavorful bourbon at a competitive price. I’m giving this a correspondingly positive score.
Image courtesy of Binny’s.