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.
First Launched in 2007 to honour Heaven Hill’s late Master Distiller of over 50 years Parker Beam, Parker’s Heritage Collection is an annual limited release whiskey that, until his untimely passing in 2017, consisted of whiskey chosen by Parker himself from some of his favourite spots in the Heaven Hill’s many warehouses or from some of his favourite blends, styles, and barrel finishes. With the first edition introducing the bourbon world to Heaven Hill’s first barrel-proof bourbon, this annual release has since grown to be one of the most sought-after whiskies of the year and has featured a wide range of Heaven Hill stocks including malt whiskey, rye whiskey, wheated bourbon, high rye bourbon, as well as some very interesting barrel finished whiskies and blends.
In the fall of 2012, Parker was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) which is an incurable and progressive nervous system disease which affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing loss of muscle control over time. With his diagnosis announced publicly in early 2013, the focus of the Parker’s Heritage Collection shifted from being a unique whiskey experience for consumers, to also becoming a platform for Parker to both advocate for those with ALS, raise much-needed funds for further research into the disease, and also directly improving the quality of life of those with the disease. As such, since the 2013 ‘Promise of Hope’ release, a part of the proceeds from the sales of each bottle sold has been going towards the US-based ALS association’s Parker’s Promise of Hope Fund. In the 7 years since the creation of the fund, Heaven Hill, their regional distributors, and local retailers have raised over $1 million toward ALS research and patient care.
Announced during Bourbon Heritage Month in September, this year’s 14th edition release of Parker’s Heritage Collection features 10 year old bourbon stocks that had been aged in heavily-charred oak barrels. Continuing the trend started with last year’s 8y.o. Heavy Char Rye, this year’s release again sees a whiskey that was barrelled and aged in heavily charred (Level 5) barrels, as opposed to the usual Level 3 used by Heaven Hill. Consisting of 102 barrels aged on the sixth floor of rickhouse Y for 10 years, the heavy char advances the study and our understanding of how a more intense char allows the liquid to penetrate deeper into each barrel stave and the effects on the resulting flavour. This bourbon is bottled at 120 proof (60% abv) and non-chill filtered to preserve all the flavour compounds. Below are some images (courtesy of Heaven Hill’s website) which show what a level 5 char looks like when compared to the traditional level 3 char. Looking at the two side by side it’s clear how a full minute and a half of heat, as opposed to a traditional 40 seconds, impacts the wood that the spirit then interacts with as it ages.
Left to right: 15s char (lvl 1), 40s char (lvl 3), 1m30s char (lvl 5)
Name: Parker’s Heritage Collection – Heavy Char Barrels Bourbon
Age: 10 y.o.
Proof: 120 Proof (60% ABV)
Type: Kentucky straight bourbon
Mashbill: .78% corn, 10% rye, and 12% malted barley
Producer: Heaven Hill Distillery
Nose: The nose opens complex and deep with notes of deep maple syrup, dried cherries, charred oak, faint citrus peel, earthy baking spices, an earthy and thick mineral note, and a kick from the alcohol.
Palate: The palate opens sweet with caramel, dried black cherries and toasted marshmallow followed by a wave of peppery and almost grassy rye spice and tannic oak that washes across the palate trailing citrus oils. Once this spice fades you get earthy caramelised nuts, tannic oak, maple syrup bordering on dark brown sugar syrup, barrel notes of dry cacao and char, cloves, cinnamon, and a faint bitterness.
Finish: The finish opens with lingering spice fading to baking spices, dried cherries, tannic oak, earthy rye, dry cacao powder, and an aftertaste of dark chocolate, dried cherries, and tannic charred oak.
This has been my first taste of a Parker’s Heritage Collection release and I have to say that it has set a high bar! It’s well-balanced, complex, robust, and packed full of classic Heaven Hill bourbon notes with some of the barrel notes turned up a notch or two higher than usual. In fact, when stripping this down to its very core, it’s the standard Heaven Hill bourbon recipe but aged in barrels featuring a very heavy char. As such, when you drink it next to something like Elijah Craig Barrel Proof (B520 specifically) you get very similar notes but with the Parker’s being more refined, not as spicy as ECBP, and there’s a more pronounced dried cherry notes, dark chocolate notes, and barrel-driven mineral notes. In fact, from nose to finish this whiskey carries some dark and concentrated barrel notes which are hard to describe but really add to the overall flavour profile. When combined with a 120 proof (60% ABV) you feel like you’re drinking something older, darker, and packed full of more bourbon flavours than even Elijah Craig Barrel Proof.
This, however, had me confused because drinking this next to a bourbon that’s 2 years older you wouldn’t typically expect it taste this much better. How can ageing the same mashbill bourbon in a barrel with a much heavier char for a whole 10 years lead to something that’s (A), not a tannic mess, and (B), also tastes better?! Turns out that this is where the magic of heavily charred barrels comes in! From asking the good people at Heaven Hill (who then asked the Director of Research and Innovation at the Independent Stave Company – who supplied these barrels), the short answer is that barrels with a lower char (such as a standard level 3 char) have more “extractives” left behind in the wood which the whiskey can in turn pull out as it ages. Therefore, whiskey aged in a barrel like this for too long can often become over-oaked and ends up tasting like you are licking charcoal. Heavier charr levels, however, do the opposite, leaving lower levels of “extractives” so, in effect, the whiskey can be aged longer with a lower risk of it becoming over-oaked as it matures. Another benefit is that the charring process also results in caramelised sugars much deeper in the wood, meaning that if the whiskey is aged for longer than 8 years you get a much sweeter, silkier whiskey than the age and char level might otherwise suggest. Of course, factors such as time in the barrel, position in the warehouse, warehouse design, etc. all also contribute to the overall flavour profile of a whiskey, but in this case I think we’re seeing the effect of those heavily charred barrels first and foremost.
Like I said, this has been my first taste of a whiskey from the Parker’s Heritage Collection, however, as I sip this I can’t help but feel that this isn’t important. First, the offerings are very different each year so a direct comparison would be a stretch at best. Second, what’s more important is the spirit behind this product, what it hopes to achieve, what it hopes to honour, and the direct positive effect it’s having on people’s lives. As we know, these releases have always featured at the forefront of some of Heaven Hill’s best innovations with either their mashbills, special barrel finishes, or special blends, and this release is no different. First created by Parker Beam to showcase spirits or nuances on classic mashbills that didn’t fit other Heaven Hill brands, Parker’s Heritage Collection has maintained this tradition even after the untimely passing of the man himself, and continues to do so in a way that is mindful and respectful of the standards he set, and his vision for the brand. As with previous releases under the brand, this release again pushes the boundaries of innovation and what we understand about ageing whiskey and the barrels we use. Sure, not every experiment or innovation makes the cut but this one did and has taught us all a valuable lesson about what works when it comes to heavy charred barrels. Do I think Parker would be proud of this release? Yes, and although I never met the man, I have heard him and those close to him speak about this line of whiskies and I think every care and effort has been made by Heaven Hill’s team to craft this release to Parker’s exacting standards.
Try or Buy?
The MSRP of this whiskey is $120 and for your money you’re getting something that’s unique, tastes great, and has a direct positive impact on people’s quality of life. Usually if a whiskey breaches the $100 mark I tell people to try it first but here I can say that if I came across this at in or around the $120 MSRP I wouldn’t hesitate to add a bottle to my collection.