Heaven Hill made it onto my Kentucky Bourbon Trail jaunt because, to be honest, I’d seen their barrels at various distilleries in Scotland. Perhaps that’s not fair to Wild Turkey and Four Roses – the two glaring omissions from my trip – but one tends to make ill-informed decisions when one is ill informed, and by that I mean I should have extended my trip by a day and made a complete circuit of the Bourbon Trail. For as it turns out, Heaven Hill is aptly named. Let me state it bluntly: If you’ve only got time for one distillery stop in Bourbon country and you’d really like to understand the breadth of Bourbon’s possibilities, go to Heaven Hill.
Heaven Hill had an inauspicious start. The Shapira family was approached by investors after the repeal of prohibition to start a distillery. The Shapiras didn’t know a barrel from a box, as they say, but they decided to roll the dice by investing their personal fortune in the business venture and hiring a couple of Beam brothers to handle the whiskey. The Shapiras figured they’d make some money, pull out of the business, and return to the dry goods they built their success upon. As fate would have it, the Beam brothers left after a couple hard years and a decision presented itself. Stay in the game or cash out with a heavy loss? Bourbon enthusiasts around the world should be happy they doubled down by buying out the remaining shares and hiring another Beam, Earl Beam, and plowing ahead. Today, Heaven Hill is the second-largest holder of Bourbon, with around 1.2 million barrels in warehouses around the county.
When I arrived to Heaven Hill’s Bourbon Heritage Center on the outskirts of Bardstown, I didn’t realize the location lacked an operating distillery. Tall, white rickhouses dotted a broad, green hill crown, and it was into these warehouses that Lynne Grant, director of guest services, began my visit. Lynne hails from Scotland, where once upon a time she worked for the Edrington Group at places like Grant’s, The Famous Grouse, and Highland Park. In fact, she opened the original Highland Park visitor center. With a master-distiller’s palate and some of the most well-known whisky experts as friends (e.g., Jim Murray and the late Michael Jackson), she’s something of a rockstar in my book. Now she’s taking a turn on the other side of the pond and steadily becoming a superbly well-rounded whisky sage.
Heaven Hill distills at the Bernheim distillery in Louisville. The white dog gets tankered here, to the Bourbon Heritage Center, where it is filled into barrels and loaded into warehouses for aging. All in all, Heaven Hill makes 83 different Bourbon brands, though many are not regularly made and/or represent tiny mom-and-pop labels. On the flip side, they use only a handful of recipes. The mystery deepens. I had the chance to swing through Heaven Hill’s labeling and bottling plant, which included labels for vodkas, gins, rums, and tequilas, among other spirits, but the meat of my tour consisted of two things Heaven Hill is very good at doing: Wood management and in-depth tastings.
Nineteen white, heat-reflecting warehouses, each seven storeys tall and holding 20,000 barrels, flock the hill. They’re open rick warehouses, which means they have gaps on all sides between the ricks and the walls, floor, and ceiling. This allows the best possible airflow throughout the warehouse, which helps normalize the temperature in the rickhouses no matter the season. Like most Bourbon distilleries, they don’t rotate barrels; the logistics would require a small army working around the clock. Instead, ingeniously, barrels that age in the various areas of the warehouse inevitably wind up with different labels in the end, labels that are tied to specific flavors acquired through the aging process. Case in point: Evan Williams and Elijah Craig. Heaven Hill makes both of these whiskies, and they have the exact same mash bill (78% corn, 12% rye, 10% barley). The only differences between the two brands are their proofs and how/where their barrels were aged. It might not seem like much of a difference, but taste those two whiskies and tell me they aren’t different.
Heaven Hill dedicates a lot of time and effort to creating small batch and single-barrel Bourbons. In fact, they were the first Bourbon company to produce a single-barrel Bourbon when they released Evan Williams Single Barrel back in the 1980s. In these warehouses, single-barrel and small-batch Bourbons tend to come from the 5th-7th floors. At Heaven Hill, a small-batch Bourbon is one produced from 70 barrels or less, a much smaller number than the 100-150 barrels that I heard at other distilleries.
The general sentiment in the Bourbon industry is that Bourbon has a sweet spot for maturation length, somewhere between 5-10 years, and that most Bourbons that age longer than that are over-matured. Maker’s Mark even included a sample of what they considered to be over-matured whisky in their tasting panel (I liked it).
Heaven Hill definitely stands alone when the topic of over-aging Bourbon arises. Heaven Hill’s policy is extra-aging. Lynne explains that if you have the right recipe and the right wood management in place, Bourbon can age for a much longer period of time than 5-10 years. They prove it with many old, even by Scotch standards, bottlings: Elijah Craig 18, 20, and 21 year old Bourbon, Evan Williams 23 year old Bourbon, and others that are as old as 27 years. No other distillery in Bourbon country that I visited even came close to having Bourbons this old, and it’s not like Heaven Hill is on some other plane of existence: Everyone has to deal with Kentucky’s often hot summer temperatures and 4% evaporation each year. Is it because they don’t have the stock? Is it because they char their barrels so heavily that it would “kill” the whiskey if left to age for more than 10 years? The answer to both questions might be yes. The underlying take away is that Heaven Hill does an incredible job with wood management, much like Highland Park and Glenrothes, and that is a huge part of making excellent, palatable whiskies.
Heaven Hill’s niche in the market is high-end and extra-age-for-the-money Bourbons. Evan Williams Black Label, which you can often find for less than $15/liter, is Heaven Hill’s flagship, found-in-every-bar Bourbon, and it’s usually between 6-8 years old.
After an informative spin around the grounds, Lynne led me back to the visitors’ center for a tasting in their post, 360-degree tasting room. With no distillery on the premises, the wise people at Heaven Hill decided to focus on tasting, an activity I had grown accustomed to in Scotland and found shockingly lacking here in Bourbon country. The reality is that whiskey tasting has not been the culture around these parts, but I expect that to change as distilleries roll out ever more specialized bottlings.
What followed was a truly epic tasting – one of the best I’ve ever experienced anywhere – though I only consumed an ounce of whiskey to adhere to laws and by-laws. Other distilleries in Bourbon country could learn a lot from Lynne’s tasting.
We started with the Evan Williams 2001 Single Barrel. This is a 10-year-old Bourbon with a rich vanilla nose spiked with caramel, butterscotch, maple, and spices. There’s a faint whiff of bananas foster in there. The profile follows-through on the viscous palate with more caramel and maple syrup, baked apple pie, and oak char. Very good. The sweetness isn’t left unchecked, which I appreciate. Sarah wound up buying this bottle.
Following on from this standard was another one: Elijah Craig 12. Lynne says this is the best value-for-money Bourbon on the market. Clocking in at 94 proof, this Bourbon has a sweeter nose dripping with honey, vanilla, caramel, and light perfume notes. The palate has great mouthfeel – like melted chocolate – and chocolate is a big part of the flavor here, as well as maple syrup, oak char, and rye spice. This is a rich, deep, slightly sweeter whiskey than the Evan Williams. I bought a bottle of this.
Third in line was Heaven Hill’s new wheated Bourbon, Larceny. This is a younger version of their storied Old Fitzgerald. Even at 92 proof, the nose is soft with brown sugar, ripe banana, loads of corn, and cinnamon. On the palate, the corn sweetness stands out alongside brown sugar, wood spice, and more cinnamon.
After three very good whiskies, Lynne starts pulling out the really big guns starting with Elijah Craig 20. This single-barrel whiskey won Whisky Advocate’s American Whiskey of the Year in 2012. It’s easy to see why. This is a rich, big, textured whiskey that manages to balance a boatload of flavors. There’s nuttiness, toffee, apricots and peaches, chocolate, leather, and mint in here. And notes I couldn’t put a name to. My first thought after nosing and tasting it was that it reminded me of a classic, Sherried Speysider. I tasted a bit of red licorice on the end. Amazing dram.
A cousin followed thereafter in the Elijah Craig 21. This bottle was really smooth, adding more oak to the equation without overpowering the whiskey. This dram shared characteristics with the Elijah Craig 20, but it wasn’t as sweet – more dark chocolate than milk chocolate. Actually, Lynne tells me she likes to pair this one with chocolate. The higher the proof, the better it pairs with chocolate since the fat cuts through the alcohol. I dare you to find better Bourbons than the Elijah Craig 20 and 21.
Luckily, I didn’t dare Lynne, because she brought out Parker’s Heritage Collection – Cognac Finished. This one melted my face with awesomeness. This whiskey spent ten years in the cask and a final six months in a Cognac cask. Vanilla bean, pears and cocktail fruit, toffee, bananas, and a variety of floral fragrances bloom on the soft nose. There’s something warm and nostalgic about this one. The flavors unwind on the palate: maple syrup, candied apples, clootie dumpling, cloves, and nutmeg. This is up there with the best Scotches I’ve ever tried. The controversy over finishes hasn’t hit the Bourbon market yet, and it’s not going to start on account of this incredible whiskey.
We aren’t done yet. The Evan Williams 23 appears, and Lynne explains that it was designed for the Japanese market. Lovely, rich oakiness abounds while the sweetness is dialed back in classic Evan Williams fashion. Orange peels, tobacco, and leather interplay with the balanced oak. A very long finish follows. With water, some sweetness develops on the nose, but never goes too far.
Lynne disappears for a few minutes in search of something, which is generally a good sign at tastings. She returns with her very own William Heavenhill bottling, which she leads each year. This one is 126.6 proof and pours out of an old medicine bottle. These are the last drops. At such high ABV, it’s rare to pick up delicate perfume notes, but that’s what hits me first. Then there’s charred orange peel and maple syrup or sap. Mint and dark chocolate, big oak and rye spice suggest a whiskey older than its 13.5 years. This dram reads like a Scotch in its complexity and wide array of flavors. I’m privileged to drink this.
Heaven Hill’s products speak for themselves. Nobody else in Bourbon country is doing it this well. The sheer range of their Bourbons calls into question the basic facts of Bourbon-making you’ve been taught. Every bottling expresses quality and deep lore of the distillation and maturation processes. Go forth to Heaven Hill, learn what is possible with Bourbon, and bring home some earthly treasures.
Disclosure: The Kentucky Bourbon Trail coordinated my visit to Heaven Hill. All thoughts and opinions expressed here, as always, are my own. A special thank you to Lynne Grant for a mind-blowing afternoon.