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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 was on course to fill almost 400,000 barrels last year and with continued investment production capacity is growing every year to meet rising demand.
First released in spring of 2018, the Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond series pays homage to the vibrant history of the Old Fitzgerald brand and John E. Fitzgerald with a bi-annual release of bourbon from Heaven Hill’s wheated mashbill. The particular Fitzgerald in question is believed to have been either a distiller of repute or a treasury man well-known for pilfering honey barrels – depending on which story you chose to believe). Bottled in an ornate decanter that was inspired by the Old Fitzgerald Diamond decanter from the ‘50s, there have been multiple releases to date with 2019’s Fall edition marking the fourth release.
Historically, the Old Fitzgerald brand is well-known for the distilling pedigree behind it. First registered in 1884 by S.C. Herbst, it was one of the few American whiskies of its time to be distilled using the pot still method and continuing to do so until around 1913. With the arrival of Prohibition the brand was one of a select few which were allowed to distil under government supervision for the national medicinal trade and was subsequently sold to famous distiller Julian P. “Pappy” Van Winkle. Van Winkle famously introduced wheat to the mashbill instead of rye and once Reappeal was enacted, moved production of Old Fitzgerald to his Stitzel-Weller Distillery. There it became the first great wheated bourbon before the Distillery shut its doors in 1992. In 1999 then-owners Diageo sold the brand and the Old Bernheim Distillery in Louisville to Heaven Hill where it has continued to be produced under the watchful eye of the company widely proclaimed as the industry leader in the Bottled-in-Bond category.
As with past editions, the 2019 Fall Edition denotes a black label and carries a tax strip. A tax strip, in terms of traditional Bottled-in-Bond whiskies, was a signature of transparency which disclosed when the liquid was produced and bottled. As a Bottled-in-Bond bourbon this whiskey also meets all the strict requirements of the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897, i.e. it’s the product of a single distillery from a single distilling season, aged a minimum of four years, and bottled at 100 proof or 50% alcohol by volume. Unlike the age statements seen in previous releases ranging from 9 to 13 years old, the 2019 Fall release is the oldest release to date carrying an impressive 15 year old age statement.
Today I’ll be taking a look at the 2019 Fall Edition of this whiskey. Released around December this whiskey has taken fans by storm. Having never tried any of the previous releases I’m looking forward to putting the tornado of hype surrounding this whiskey to the test – let’s go!
Name: Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond
Age: 15 y.o.
Proof: 100 proof (50% abv)
Type: Bonded Kentucky straight bourbon
Mashbill: 68% corn, 20% wheat, 12% malted barley
Producer: Heaven Hill Distillery, Louisville, KY
Nose: The nose opens faintly sweet, complex, and packed with dark stone-fruit fruit notes that carry a jam-like depth and intensity. These are interwoven with notes of toffee, toasted oak, dark chocolate, warm earthy baking spices, and more fresh cherries stewing in the back.
Palate: The palate opens with thick deep maple syrup, dark chocolate, and a flash of black cherries, followed by peppery earthy spices and cloves that prickle across the palate fading into thick notes of chocolate syrup and oak-driven notes including cacao, toasted oak, and the faint mint and tannic bitterness that comes from older barrels.
Finish: The finish follows from the palate and opens with sweet and tannic oak that dries the sides of the tongue, dark chocolate, lingering cloves from the palate, and burnt caramel before notes which fade into an aftertaste of old charred oak and cacao.
Fantastic! Put simply this bourbon is complex, delicious, and carries all the gold-standard hallmarks of a truly great bourbon whilst delivering these at a proof that showcases them perfectly. It starts big and complex on the nose and palate, gets sweet in parts, spicy in others, and ends with a slightly bitter and tannic oak-driven finish. These flavours also often overlap to produce waves of flavour where one ebbs and the next one has already started to flow across the tongue. You can taste the mature wheat, you can taste the old oak, and you can taste all the wonderful things in between.
One thing that surprised me was the prickling spice on the palate that would be uncharacteristic for a wheated bourbon. However, further research into the topic (and a question to a certain Master Distiller Conor O’Driscoll) yielded that this spice comes from the oak and the breakdown of cellulosic compounds in the barrel over time. In a typical wheated bourbon you wouldn’t get as many of these and they are instead present in high concentrations in rye and old oak, meaning that wheated bourbon released at around 6 – 8 years old would be softer with very little spice. In this bourbon, however, you’ve now reached the point where the peppery oak spice and the mild wheated bourbon have met in the middle to give a wheat flavour profile with a backbone of oak. It doesn’t overwhelm the palate whatsoever, instead the two work together really well to add another layer of complexity to an already multifaceted whiskey and has taught me something new about how an older barrel can start to exhort its influence on the bourbon if the ageing process isn’t monitored closely. In fact, at 15 years old I’d argue that this bourbon has reached its peak and ageing it any longer would have resulted in the barrel completely overwhelming the tasting experience.
This is my first experience of the Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond series and as far as first impressions go I am very impressed by the finished product. I can’t say that this is the best of the series to date but I would be damned if I didn’t admit that this a fantastic bourbon whiskey that keeps you coming back for another sip with delicious ease. Not only have Heaven Hill once again demonstrated why they are the distillery of choice when it comes to getting your hands on great-tasting bonded whiskey, but Conor O’Driscoll and his team have also demonstrated their expert skill in finding, dumping, and blending a whiskey where the influence of age, recipe, and bottling proof are in perfect harmony. I also love the 50’s style decanter that these whiskies come in and wish more modern producers would follow the example of Heaven Hill.
Try or Buy?
The MSRP for this whiskey is $150 and at that price you are really getting an absolute gem. It is, however, over the $100 threshold for an instant-buy recommendation so instead I urge you to find a bottle at a bar, buy an pour or two, and know that your money was very well spent. If the price isn’t an obstacle then grab this bottle firmly with both hands.