“The pursuit, even of the best things, ought to be calm and tranquil” – Marcus Tullius Cicero
The seemingly endless pursuit of exceptional flavors is a habit of whiskey drinkers that producers are all too aware of, and all too eager to perpetuate. It’s no sooner than one has acquired every bottle within reason that one could possibly want when, inevitably, yet another line extension or limited edition is released by one’s favorite brand. These things happen with much discussion, and occasionally thoughtful consideration, but it inexorably happens again and again. Death, taxes, and another 10 TTB filings per day, ad infinitum, until the end of time.
With so many new whiskeys constantly coming to market and capturing the enthusiast’s imagination, I take the task of reviewing as many of these releases as possible quite seriously. I do so not because I aim to encourage the endless loop of consumption (though, to be fair, reviews and reviewers are undoubtedly a link in that chain), but because I know well that the vast majority of people do not have the ability or desire to buy or try many of these releases. Reviews enable you, dear reader, to both live vicariously through the palate of another, but also to remove the burden of having to subject your own wallet and taste buds to the dredges of the whiskey release schedule.
While so many of these releases aim to be the Next Big Thing™, the route they take to achieve such an end is typically of the off-the-beaten-path variety. Exotic finishes, atypical mash bills, and marketing fluff rule the day in this realm.
Then, there are the odd releases (and distilleries with the barrel inventory to be so bold) that attempt greatness in the old-fashioned way. These expressions offer well-aged distillate, blended to create the best whiskey possible. Heaven Hill is one such distillery with the ample inventory to regularly chance such an endeavor.
When this release was initially announced there were whispers in the whiskey community that this soon-to-be-annual release was intended to be a “Pappy killer.” In colloquial parlance that is meant to be a compliment. It indicates that a release is intended to compete with the most high-quality (and high-priced) releases of the year.
That this was suggested without irony – given the fact none of those doing the whispering had yet tried it – wasn’t lost on the more cynical among us. An age statement in the upper teens from a heritage brand alone is enough to disrupt the listless languor of those daily label submission filings and send the community into a fervor about the potential of a shiny new object to pursue which might actually be worth the pursuit… but will it be worth the pursuit?
I don’t particularly count myself as a cynic in this case. Heaven Hill – though it isn’t my favorite purveyor of brown liquid – has earned my respect and hard-earned income on numerous occasions. Most recently I’ve been a repeat buyer of their newly released Elijah Craig Barrel Proof single barrel offerings and have essentially enjoyed them all.
I’m also a fan of their workhorse expressions such as the Larceny and Evan Williams lineups, while my outlook on their premium offerings is a bit more austere commensurate with their increased asking price. All of which is to say that while I generally enjoy Heaven Hill’s house profile, due to their ability to produce winners lower on the shelf, I typically have high expectations for their limited releases.
Enter, the Heaven Hill Heritage Collection and its first release: the Heaven Hill 17 Year Barrel Proof Bourbon. Meant to annually showcase one of the distillery’s six unique mash bills, the new lineup is intended to be a sister series to Heaven Hill’s limited edition Parker’s Heritage lineup and comes in the wake of them sunsetting their Old Fitzgerald wheated bottled in bond lineup.
Bottled at 118.2 proof (59.1% ABV) and comprised of Heaven Hill’s core bourbon mashbill of 78% corn, 10% rye, and 12% malted barley, this release carries a hefty 17 year age statement. However, it should be noted that per the front label, this blend is actually made up of 28% 20-year-old barrels, 44% 19-year-old barrels, and 28% 17-year-old barrels, which means the majority of the whiskey in this bottle is actually older than the age statement indicates.
Premium. Limited edition. As these words surely already signal to bourbon enthusiasts the world over, it is priced accordingly at $275 before tax. You should be prepared to shell out quite a bit more than that if shopping on the secondary market is your wont, as bottles of this expression have already fetched north of $2,000. Certain reputable voices in the industry have suggested that this bottle be hoarded and held as an investment likely to increase in value.
I was fortunate enough to procure a sample of this at a significantly lower cost courtesy of the management team at my favorite local bar, who also allowed me to photograph the image above and have first crack at it. That is to say: this is a review of a 2 oz neck pour. If you’re someone who places stock in such a distinction you should take that into consideration when reading my impressions below.
Heaven Hill Heritage Collection Aged 17 Years – Review
Color: Rich mahogany.
On the nose: Seductive but demure dark cacao nibs and fulsome black cherry notes roll out first. Roasted almonds and sweet well-aged oak follow in their wake. Juicy Fruit gum is a welcome surprise and keeps things from veering too far into the “musty library” direction. Allspice and old leather do join the medley, but overall the nose is light on its feet, so to speak, and doesn’t come across as overly dark or dense, though it is wonderfully complex and robust. Lastly there is a bright green apple note that finds a home above it all as well which adds to the balance. After time, cinnamon dusted pie crust and a bit of clove blossom.
In the mouth: The lighter notes enter first before fanning out into the juicy fruit and green apple, while custard then sweet nuttiness and freshly oiled leather find the back of the palate. The spice is in perfect balance with the flavor and never threatens to overtake the experience as each flavor patiently unfolds one after the other. There’s a torched blood orange citric taste that corrals it all in along the edges of the tongue. Again, this pour displays a great balance of light and dark with a finish that is long and leisurely. Marshmallow begins to emerge toward the end with repeat sips, along with a cedar tobacco box note which is joined by an alluring cherry pie that isn’t overly sweet. In time a fernet-like herbal note dashes up the mid-palate. Finally, after a good deal of time, a certain mineralic note develops on the front end of the palate as the custard-and-cherry sweetness disappointingly loses steam while walnut and tobacco leaf notes take over.
This expression has all of the complexity and hallmark Heaven Hill qualities to please fans of the brand, as well as those looking for a contender to BTAC supremacy at the premium end of the market. The flavors are achieved in wonderful balance; where something like Pappy Van Winkle can be a bit reserved and George T. Stagg is noted for being bold, Heaven Hill’s inaugural 17 Year Heritage Collection offering strikes a balance between the two.
That said, I’m inclined to score this in accordance with some of its direct competition. Unfortunately, I think where it justifies its asking price in this comparison mostly lies in the age of the distillate in the bottle. When we take King of Kentucky ($250 SRP) into consideration (which soars higher at 14 years of age) along with the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection bourbons ($99 SRP) which generally range in age from 10-17 years, Heaven Hill’s 17 year age statement is certainly impressive. However, at nearly triple the suggested retail price of the Buffalo Trace offerings of similar age. Because it trails a bit behind the King of Kentucky in quality – which is to say nothing of the difficulty in acquiring a bottle, and asinine secondary market pricing of any of the above – I feel obliged to dock it a point.