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 2021’s Spring edition marking the seventh 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 2021 Spring Edition carries a green 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. Unlike the age statements seen in previous releases ranging from 9 to 15 years old, the 2021 Spring edition is the youngest release to date carrying an 8 year old age statement. I’m very curious to see how this will be reflected in the whiskey given it now falls into the same age range as stocks blended into other Heaven Hill releases like Larceny Barrel Proof.
Name: Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond Spring Edition
Age: 8 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 with thick brown sugar syrup, dried cherries, a touch of earthy wheat, and faintly bitter barrel spices. As you nose deeper more red fruits comes out alongside deeper barrel notes of char and tannic oak.
Palate: The palate opens with brown sugar & maple syrup notes before wheat grain, earthy baking spices, and tart red fruit notes emerge alongside a touch of spice. Once the spice fades barrel driven notes of cacao, faint cloves, and dark chocolate emerge.
Finish: The finish is dry and oak-driven with lingering chocolate, dried red fruit, and tannic spice leading into a warm aftertaste of chocolate, tannic oak, and faint dried cherries.
As the youngest release of Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond this is a delicious bourbon that captures all the flavours I’d expect from this calibre of release and style of whiskey. It’s viscous, complex, strikes a delicious balance between sweet caramels, red fruits, and charred oak notes, and is bottled at the perfect proof to enjoy without having to argue with the alcohol on your palate. On the palate chocolate oak notes really shine through with dark sugar syrups and red fruit notes supporting whilst a thrum of spice ties the whole lot together nicely. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that this is the best Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond I’ve tasted yet. Even in comparison to the 9.y.o release we saw in Spring 2020 which was oak-heavy at the first sip and had considerably more spice, this release hits the ground running from the start and shows why many experts consider between 6 and 8 years old to be the sweet spot for bourbon maturation. At this age, the cellulosic compounds in the barrel have only started to break down and so there’s none of the characteristic fiery spice I’ve gotten previously in these whiskies. Instead, there’s just enough spice to drive flavour nuances, deliver a truly wonderful sipping experience with all the trimmings of a premium bourbon, and remind us that very old age statements doesn’t necessarily equate to a superior quality bourbon.
Another interesting thing about this whiskey is that, as mentioned earlier, at 8 years old it falls very in close in age to Larceny Barrel Proof which is a blend of 6 – 8 year old bourbon from the same mashbill. Although presumably blended from a smaller number of choice barrels and carrying the prestige associated with being a Bottled-in-Bond bourbon, there’s definitely room for comparison considering the difference in RRP between the two products. When I put these side by side I found the Old Fitzgerald to have a more earthy oak-forward profile overall that added an almost regal edge. The Larceny Barrel Proof (A121) on the other hand was similar in profile but fruitier on the nose and a touch livelier on the palate with thicker caramel notes, more fruit, and more spice with less oak notes. This was no doubt down to the fact that Larceny BP is bottled uncut and unfiltered, whereas Old Fitzgerald BIB is cut down to 100 proof and chosen to fit the profile of Old Fitzgerald. It’s also worth reiterating that as a blend of 6 – 8 year old wheated bourbon, Larceny Barrel Proof really falls into that sweet spot before the oak begins to make its presence known in wheated bourbons and subsequently add additional spice and influence as the whiskey continues to mature.
It’s great to see that the team at Heaven Hill are truly dedicated to their craft and never ready to simply rest on their laurels and release the same thing twice without good reason to do so. Despite knowing that a 12 – 16 year old product would sell out all day every day they’re still not willing to compromise on quality for the sake of an age statement and this whiskey makes this point resoundingly clear. Here we have a bourbon that’s bottled at an age that isn’t as glamorous as double digits, yet the quality blows previous much older releases away in every side by side I’ve done so far!
Try or Buy?
With an RRP of $85 owning one of these beautiful bottles has never been more of a possibility! Yes, Larceny BP is $50 a bottle but for the extra $35 I’m jumping on this every chance I get because this whiskey is worth every penny!