Rising from the ashes of Prohibition and into the midst of the Great Depression in Bardstown, KY, Heaven Hill Distillery has grown to be the largest independent family-owned and operated producers of distilled spirits products in the US, and the second-largest holder of bourbon whiskey inventory in the world. The distillery was set up in 1935 after a small group approached the Shapira family seeking capital investment to set up a distillery using their technical expertise. Following personal financial difficulties among the other members of the founding group, their interests in the “Old Heavenhill Springs” distillery was bought out by the Shapira family making the distillery a fully family-owned enterprise. With renewed purpose the family kept on one of the original investors, James L. Beam as Master Distiller, and hired the best bourbon producing talent they could find in their local Bardstown. Four years later in 1939 they released their first product, a 4 year old Bottled in Bond bourbon under the Old Heaven Hill brand. The brand quickly became one of the top selling bourbons in the State and cemented the distillery’s position as one of the top bourbon producers in Kentucky at the time. The name of the distillery originates from the family name of William Heavenhill who was an early pioneer farmer and owned the original property on which the distillery sat. When originally registering the company a clerical mistake resulted in the name becoming Heaven Hill as opposed to Heavenhill.
On November 7th 1996 a fire that started in one of the barrel ageing warehouses spread by strong winds, destroying almost the entire distillery and numerous ageing warehouses. Overall 90,000 barrels of whisky were lost and for the next 3 years the company was dependent on production capacity in neighbouring distilleries. In 1999 Heaven Hill completed the purchase of the Old Bernheim Distillery from Diageo in Louisville and once the distillery was adapted, the production and distillation end moved to Louisville whilst ageing, bottling, and shipping still occur on the original Bardstown site.
Today the modern iteration of the company, Heaven Hill Brands, has become a diversified supplier of whiskeys, liqueurs, vodkas, rums and other spirits. They own 57 rickhouses in Central KY and distribute over 48 brands including 17 bourbon labels such as Henry McKenna, Elijah Craig, Evan William, Larceny, Old Fitzgerald, and Rittenhouse rye to name a few. The distillery also has the largest number of Bottled in Bond whiskies on the market and is the only heritage distiller that features every major category of American whiskey in their 5 distinct mashbills producing traditional bourbon, wheated bourbon, rye whiskey, corn whiskey, and wheat whiskey. Under 7th Master Distiller (and fellow countryman) Conor O’Driscoll the distillery is on course to fill lamost 400,000 barrels this year and with continued investment production capacity is growing every year to meet rising demand.
As the first whiskey to be released by the Heaven Hill Distillery in 1939, Old Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond quickly became the number one selling bourbon whiskey in Kentucky, despite only being a 4 y.o. product. Made to the exacting quality standards of the Shapira family and the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897, it was the namesake brand that launched the Distillery into the public eye and cemented its reputation for producing fine whiskies. In the Late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Bottled-in-Bond designation was used as the gold standard of quality bourbon because it guaranteed a certain level of purity and quality and so from day one Heaven Hill has produced a Bottled-in-Bond bourbon. To be labelled Bottled-in-Bond, the whiskey had to be the product of one distillation season and one distiller at a single distillery, aged in a federally bonded warehouse under U.S. government supervision for at least four years, and it had to be bottled at exactly 100 proof. Additionally, the Bottled-in-Bond label had to clearly identify the distillery where it was distilled and where it was bottled, if different. After its introduction the Old Heaven Hill brand remained Heaven Hill’s flagship bourbon brand until it was replaced by the Evan Williams brand in 1957, not changing labels until the release of Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond in 2012. This change saw it drop the word ‘Old’ from the name and become the 6 y.o. white label Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond that rose to fame in bourbon circles across the world as one of the best value bourbons on the market (costing a mere $12 for a bottle of 6 y.o. Bottled-in-Bond bourbon), despite regional distribution and only being available in the state of Kentucky. Thus, when it was announced in late 2018 that the 6 y.o iteration was to be discontinued, along with several other regional and younger-aged Heaven Hill brands, there was international outcry over the end of an era for low-cost high-quality bourbon. Heaven Hill cited the increasing demand for American whiskey as the main cause, however, they did assure fans that the historic brand would see future releases.
In June of 2019 the day had come and it was announced that Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond was back in its full glory as the newest iteration Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond 7 y.o. Coming with a complete label and bottle revamp, an older age-statement, and wider distribution, many hailed it as a modern-day win for age statement purists as statements continue to fall across the board. Unlike its predecessor, however, the 7 y.o. is not charcoal filtered and also carried a significant price increase that made it clear to fans that Heaven Hill had realised their mistake in underpricing the 6 year old for as long as they had. Critics were quick to jump on the increase but ultimately many agreed that the only thing Heaven Hill had done wrong was that they didn’t just come out and say ‘Hey we realised that we were doing this product a disservice by not pricing it to compete with other brands of similar or lesser quality.’ For their pains fans were getting wider distribution and an extra year of ageing without charcoal filtration so whether these balance the scales depends to be seen.
Today I’ll be taking a look at this modern iteration of Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond. As stated above this is a 7 year old product that honours Heaven Hill’s historic flagship brand Old Heaven Hill. With the name change being purely that, and having never had the previous 6 year old iteration, my aim will be to give an accurate assessment of the bourbon in terms of it’s quality, with its relationship to its RRP in mind.
Name: Heaven Hill Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Age: 7 y.o.
Proof: 100 Proof (50% ABV)
Type: Bottled-in-Bond Kentucky straight bourbon
Mashbill: 78% Corn, 10% Rye, 12% Malted Barley
Producer: Heaven Hill Distillery, KY
Nose: The nose opens with deep caramel, thick vanilla, toasted almonds, faint dried cherries, black pepper, subtle baking spices, dark chocolate, and charred oak.
Palate: The palate has a medium viscosity, opening with deep caramel and vanilla before a flash of dark stone fruit and a wave of prickly rye spice washes over the palate leaving faintly bitter charred oak, earthy baking spices, and thick dark chocolate on the palate as you chew.
Finish: The finish opens with a kick of dark chocolate and faint earthy spice on the sides of the tongue, fading to a buttery aftertaste of charred oak and dark chocolate as the rye spice from the palate continues to linger.
Now this is a workhorse bourbon that everyone needs to try. Although I’ve never tried the 6 y.o. variant, this bourbon works hard and delivers a flavour-heavy dram at a proof that can’t be argued with. It’s big, bold, and packed full of flavours that distinguish it above other Heaven Hill bourbons such as Elijah Craig small batch. Instead of soft butterscotch and faint rye spice this bourbon brings deep caramel, bold rye spice, and unapologetic charred barrel notes. The flavours are intense yet complex with more layers of depth exposed as you continue to chew. The grains from the mashbill still shine through but instead of being rough and ready they are refined and intense in their delivery.
Honestly, I think the team at Heaven Hill have really pulled it out of the bag with this bourbon and it’s no surprise coming from the largest producer of Bonded whiskey in the US. It tastes great, has loads of intensity and complexity packed in, and leaves you wanting more with every sip. In fact, in a recent episode of Bourbon Pursuit, the hosts did a Bottled-in-bond Showdown where they placed 12 readily available Bottled-in-Bond whiskies against one another in a blind tasting including Heaven Hill 7y.o. Bottled-in-bond. The results *spoiler alert* was that author Fred Minnick and co-host Ryan Cecil both placed Heaven Hill 7y.o. as their top favourite of the lineup, with it being awarded second place overall, and beating other very popular brands such as Heaven Hill’s Henry McKenna 10 y.o Bottled-in-bond. Like I said I have never tried the 6 y.o. Bottled in Bond but if it tasted anything like this then it is no surprise that it gained the cult following that it had. I for one am glad that they brought it back as a more accessible product with a wider availability and let’s not forget that in an era where age statements are dropping like flies this release is a shining example of what is possible.
Try or Buy?
As mentioned in the intro this is the controversial part. In my opinion at $39.99 Heaven Hill have priced this whiskey perfectly and for your money you are getting a great-tasting bourbon at a great proof and with something you don’t see that often anymore – an age statement. If this was available in the UK it would be a no-brainer buy and would have a regular presence on my bar despite no doubt costing significantly more than $39.99. Buy buy buy!