Named in honour of its Irish founder, the Henry McKenna brand dates back to 1855 when Irish immigrant Henry McKenna started a small distillery to make use of waste coming from his grain mill which he operated in Fairfield, KY. His bourbon soon became famous for its exceptional quality and very few barrels-a-day production rate. The brand survived Prohibition (by being bottled and sold by Stitzel and W. L. Weller & Sons), World War II, was sold to Seagram, and finally had its US domestic rights sold to Heaven Hill where it has prospered since. Currently there are two offerings under the Henry McKenna brand, the 10 y.o. Bottled-in-Bond, and the NAS Henry McKenna Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey.
The Henry McKenna brand has a rich and storied history that is almost a storybook example of the American Dream that so many sought when they emigrated to America in the 1800 & 1900s. Dating back to the mid-1800s, the brand has seen its share of triumph and misfortune as it rode out the waves of the US whiskey industry and the numerous challenges present therein. Today it is one of the many brands produced with distinction by the Heaven Hill Distillery and has in recent years rose to notoriety after winning numerous prestigious awards and achieved very high review ratings for the 10 y.o. Single Barrel Bottled-in-Bond offering. Made using the standard Heaven Hill high-rye mashbill, the ‘brown label’ Henry McKenna is an 80 proof straight bourbon that comes in at about 3 y.o., whereas the 10 y.o. is Heaven Hill’s oldest continuously-released Bottled-in-Bond whiskey and again honours McKenna’s love of producing the very mature whiskies through extensive ageing, which made his brand famous.
Today I’ll be looking at the 10 y.o. Single Barrel Bottled-in-Bond Henry McKenna bourbon. As I said this offering has gained notoriety in recent years for the very prestigious awards it has won as well as the praise it received by Bourbon Writer Fred Minnick. Since it’s new-found fame it has become an allocated product due to the high levels of demand, however, Heaven Hill continue to produce and release it on an ongoing basis.
Name: Henry McKenna Single Barrel Bottled-in-Bond (Barrel #1968 Barrelled on 4/4/2005)
Age: 10 y.o.
Proof: 100 Proof (50% ABV)
Type: Kentucky straight bourbon
Mashbill: 78% corn, 10% rye, and 12% malted barley
Producer: Heaven Hill Distillery
Nose: The nose opens with a deep caramel, faint vanilla, and white pepper jumping from the glass before touching on dried cherries. It then turns towards a darker vegetal note with traces of old oak, cloves, cacao powder, and bitter oak char with more dried cherries emerging as you keep nosing through the charred oak notes.
Palate: The palate opens with a syrupy viscosity, bright caramel, and an earthy note of brown-sugared nuts which precedes a wave of peppery rye spice. As the spice fades, it returns to earthy baking-spice notes but with the now added prickling spice that lingers from the rye spice. As you continue to chew this bourbon the rye spice fades completely bringing out cacao and dark chocolate notes packed around a bitter clove-heavy charred oak note that forms the back line of this bourbon.
Finish: The finish opens with earthy caramelised nuts rolled in baking spices with a dash of black pepper thrown in for good measure and leading into an aftertaste of earthy rye spice, and faintly tannic charred oak.
All things considered, this is a solid bourbon and well deserving of some of the praise it has received. Does this mean that every bottle will lead to a spiritual awakening? No, but you would be hard pressed to argue against how well Heaven Hill have married the barrel influence with the grain notes to produce a bourbon of impressive age and proof. As with most Heaven Hill bourbons the barrel influence shines through and combined with the high-rye content makes for a flavour-heavy bourbon that would easily fight its way to the higher rankings in a blind tasting.
When putting this bourbon next to the tower of top awards it has won it’s always important to remember that it is a single barrel bourbon. This means that there’s going to be differences between barrels (nothing too major one would hope!) and the barrel that won all those awards won’t be the bottle you have on your shelf. In saying that, there is no doubt a very strong effort to maintain consistency across what gets earmarked for Henry McKenna. When I first tried my bottle, I was genuinely surprised by how viscous the mouthfeel was and it was almost like a bourbon-flavoured syrup it was that thick. However, as time went on, I’ve grown to love it and appreciate the work of the thick viscosity in driving and keeping those deep flavours on your palate for longer.
When it comes to Bottled-in-Bond bourbons, Heaven Hill are the undisputed market leaders. Having started with a Bottled-in-Bond bourbon as their core whiskey their commitment to the category is still seen in the large number and variety of Bottled-in-Bond whiskies they continue to produce. This whiskey is another feather in a large cap that not only tastes great but also honours one of Bourbon history’s unknown legends in both name and attention to detail.
Try or Buy?
Currently the MSRP of this bourbon is around $40, however, it is set to go up to $49.99 in the near future. Many will feel that this price difference (for a bourbon that used to cost $30) is a bit of a hike but as is the way with anything still bearing a double-digit age statement, the prices are only going one direction. There’s also an argument that this was always worth it’s weight in gold and at $49.99 I would definitely pick up a bottle based on the bottle I have here.
For UK bourbon drinkers the reason we haven’t seen any of this bourbon in a while is because Heaven HIll don’t actually own the international distribution rights for this product, Four Roses does. However, if you’re quick you might still be able to get one of the few that still manage to make it over to round out your collection.
Much of the brand history referenced in this article is thanks to the tireless work on Michael Veach’s fantastic bourbonveach blog. If you’re interested in the colourful history of American whiskey I can highly recommend his blog.