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 mash bill. 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 2020’s Spring edition marking the fifth 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 Repeal 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 2020 Spring Edition carries a black label and carries a tax strip stating the year and season the whiskey was distilled and bottled. 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.
Today I’ll be taking a look at the 2020 Fall Edition of this whiskey. Released at the start of Bourbon Heritage Month in September this whiskey went into barrels during the Fall distillation season of 2005 and marks the sixth release of this series. Previously, a 14 y.o. edition was released as an allocated product to only visitors centre and Kentucky and was denoted with a red label. However, this Fall 2020 is the first of the nationally released 14 y.o. edition and features bourbon pulled from different rickhouses, at different floors, and on different production dates than the red label release. Having only ever tried the previous Fall 2019 release and the Spring 2020 releases I’m looking forward to tasting how this whiskey holds up compared to the 15 year old Fall release last year.
Name: Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond Fall Edition
Age: 14 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 thick and earthy with wheat grain mixing with baking spices, old vegetal charred oak, and deep dried red and black fruit. The longer you nose it the more a peppery and deep maple syrup note emerges from under the layers of flavour. Those notes of vegetal oak and earthy baking spices dominate but there’s still some wheat-driven sweetness around the edges.
Palate: The palate opens viscous and sweet with maple syrup and vibrant fruity notes before earthier notes of roasted nuts, oak spice, dried cranberries and cherries, and bitter baking spices emerge alongside old tannic and minty barrels that add delicious depth of flavour. As you continue to chew these a touch of cocoa bitterness also emerges alongside this but it remains mostly just old minty barrels.
Finish: The finish opens with lingering old barrel spices which fade towards cacao, a touch of baking spices, faint dried fruit, and a tannic, faintly vegetal aftertaste.
This tastes very old – in a good way, hear me out. I know it’s exactly 14 y.o., as per the Bottled-in-Bond designation, however, with those old minty notes it has age beyond its years, and I can taste why they’ve held it back until now. If it had been aged any longer I’d bargain that it would have potentially gone too far over on the oak, however, as it stands the wheat supports the subtle barrel and grain interplay perfectly. Sitting here sipping it brings back memories of 2015 Sazerac 18 y.o. rye when the barrel gave it that delicious old dark chocolate and mint profile and a finish that lasted all week. I drank this side by side with the 15 y.o. 2019 Fall Ed. and the 9 y.o. 2020 Spring Ed. and found the 2019 a lot spicier with a heavier red fruit note and more pronounced maple syrup and oak influence; whereas, the 2020 9 y.o. was livelier, with more stone fruit on the palate, a bit more spice than the 14, and the caramel and grain notes were brighter and more pronounced with some barrel influence remaining.
The two 2020 releases have given us two sides of a spectrum. On one side you have bourbon at what many would consider the peak of maturity, with bright and polished flavours, and a certain zeal and liveliness under the surface. On the other side you have an older more barrel-forward bourbon where the subtle flavour complexities come from the marriage between the age of the barrels and now mature grain notes that cling around the edges with a dustier minty side to them.
Try or Buy?
The MSRP for this whiskey is $140 ($10 a year). At that price you are getting a really interesting limited-release bourbon that not only competes very well in its price range but also punches above its weight. As it’s over $100 I have to recommend you try it first but if you’re already a fan of this series you know you’re going to buy this and love it!