How well can you really know somebody?
I am asking myself the whiskey version of this question. Specifically, I am wondering how much deviation from a distillery’s normal flavor profile might reasonably be expected in certain circumstances. Is it possible that a peculiar maturation regime could amplify the (sometimes significant) swings we experience between single barrels, in a way that propels the aromatic and flavor profile far away from the ordinary?
The catalyst for this meditation is the whiskey I have in hand. It comes from a distillery that produces some of my favorite bourbon whiskies; those who know me well might have already guessed that I’m referring to Heaven Hill. The extra intrigue is added not just because I’ll be tasting a single barrel expression, but also because this barrel has aged in both conventional and (for bourbon) unconventional circumstances before bottling.
This is 10 year old whiskey from the WhiskyBase Archives “Butterflies from the USA” series, for which K&L Wines is the exclusive retailer in California. K&L is also listed as having “meticulously selected” this on the label. K&L’s own site for the release provides some helpful additional color:
“This whisky spent six years in Kentucky in used cooperage before making the journey to Scotland for four more years.”
It is referred to as “2009,” which I am assuming indicates the year of distillation, implying that this comes from the Bernheim distillery, as opposed to the old (now-destroyed) Bardstown distillery. As such, this doesn’t really have the scarcity factor associated with “pre-fire” Heaven Hill whisky.
However, it is interesting to note that this is labeled “American Whisky” as opposed to “Bourbon,” with the maturation in used oak (as well as that trip to Scotland) having disqualified the liquid from the latter appellation. What should this mean in terms of the effect on maturation?
Well, (generalizing greatly) Scotland has a cooler, more humid environment than Kentucky. You might recall from prior reviews (those of my own as well as others’) that water evaporates more rapidly than alcohol in hot and dry conditions (e.g. on the top floor of a rickhouse), producing bourbons that sometimes “proof up” to 70% ABV and above. I was therefore surprised to see that the four years in the comparatively chilly Scottish climate did not seem to have diminished the potency of this very much, being as it ended up at 133.2 proof, well above the Heaven Hill barrel entry proof of 125.
What, therefore, should I be expecting in terms of the flavor profile of this barrel? I’m starting from my experience with the standard Heaven Hill rye bourbon mash bill (78% corn, 10% rye, 12% malted barley), with the distillery’s hallmark citric and metallic elements. Beyond that, looking at the relatively high ABV and anticipating something burly, in the manner of the ten-ish year old bottles that have recent been coming out of the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof private barrel program. But, the USP here is that this barrel spent four tenths of its time in Scotland, pointing toward the possibility of more delicate flavors, the types of which emerge from stone warehouses here in the U.S. Then there’s also the issue of the second-fill barrels which, all things being equal, would be expected to exert a less forceful impact on the spirit.
At this point you probably feel as confused as I do, so let’s cut the chitter-chatter and get to tasting some whisky, shall we? Just before I begin, however, some final technical specifics about this bottle that may be of interest:
This is single cask #3448496 (shortened to #496 on K&L’s site), distilled on 8/17/2009 and bottled on 11/11/2019 in a run of 247 bottles at 133.2 proof (66.6% ABV), as noted above. Per the back label, it is non-chill filtered and without added color.
Retail price on K&L’s site was $120, which I will be using for scoring on our price-sensitive scoring bands. This was a sample generously provided by Mike, who once again has my sincere thanks.
Archives Heaven Hill 10 Year – Review
Color: A surprisingly pale golden yellow.
On the nose: Similarly limpid, this has the vaguest nuttiness (perhaps a cashew, if you pin me down) as well as some very subtle notes of confectioners sugar, flower petals, limestone, and a green stalkiness that I usually associate with much younger whiskey. After a while, I start to get a sweet and tart red berry note. Taking some more time reveals the tiniest pinch of cinnamon, but otherwise the aromas here are limited in their breadth and poorly resolved in their presentation, bar that red fruit note.
In the mouth: Much more forceful to start in the mouth, this begins with a blast of sweet fruitiness in the manner of orange flavored hard candies. That fruitiness remains, mutating into a very delicate note of strawberry, itself an unexpected surprise given I can’t recall ever tasting this note in Heaven Hill whiskey before. That note carries on into and through the finish, indeed remaining the dominant characteristic of this whisky from front to back. There’s random flavors that pop up here and there – a metallic nip of steel in the middle of the mouth, some polished wood at the beginning of the finish – but the overwhelming impression is of that uncanny fruitiness.
This isn’t bad whiskey, but it is fairly one-note. The palate is more compelling than the nose, where there is too little diversity and delineation of aromas to really hold my interest. It improves in the mouth, but is basically a single flavor (strawberry) with the occasional accent. To me, this is more a curiosity than a full-fledged example of the best of Heaven Hill. Though it has its place in the mental mosaic of a Heaven Hill completist like myself, I can’t really recommend it to a general audience, not least of all in consideration of the very hefty price tag attached. As a consequence, I am forced to knock a point off of average.
I’m glad to have tried this whiskey, not least of all to add a dot to my “Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte”-like canvas of Heaven Hill’s output. It’s unlike any other, in ways both good and bad. Most importantly: it reinforces a belief in the possibility that changes in maturation conditions can produce extreme divergences in the resultant whiskey. I’d like to see producers like Heaven Hill (and others) embrace this in an experimental fashion, provided they can share the results more economically than is the case here.
Lead image courtesy of K&L. Other bottle images courtesy of WhiskyBase.