Parker’s Heritage Collection – Heavy Char Wheat Whiskey Review

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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 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.

In the last three years, we’ve seen sequential releases of Parker’s Heritage Collection featuring one of heaven Hill’s 5 distinct mashbills aged in heavily charred barrels. Following in the footsteps of 2019’s 8y.o. Heavy char Rye, and 2020’s 10 y.o. Heavy Char Bourbon, this year’s 15th Edtion, an 11 y.o. Wheat whiskey, also sees the second time that a wheat whiskey was released as part of the Collection – the first being 2014’s Original Batch Cask Strength Wheat Whiskey. AS in previous years, thus release was again made from a batch of 75 barrels and the whiskey matured in speciality barrels which were charred for a full minute and a half, as opposed to Heaven Hill’s standard 40 seconds. These “Level 5” barrels were then matured for 11 years on the sixth floor of Rickhouse Y, allowing the whiskey to penetrate further into the heavily charred barrels due to the heat, and the resulting whiskey was bottled without chill-filtration at 122 proof. 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. Add this to a long maturation on the top floors of a rickhouse in the KY heat and the extraction is no doubt significant.

Released in 2019, the 13th edition release of Parker’s Heritage Collection saw the first ever Kentucky straight rye whiskey bottled under this annual release. Made from a batch of 75 barrels, the whiskey matured in speciality barrels charred for a full minute and a half, as opposed to Heaven Hill’s standard 40 seconds. These “Level 5” barrels were then matured for 8 years, 9 months on the seventh floor of Rick house Y, allowing the whiskey to penetrate further into the heavily charred barrel due to the heat, and the resulting whiskey was bottled without chill filtration at 105 proof. This release was the first to feature whiskey matured in heavily charred barrels, as opposed to the traditionally charred barrels typically used by Heaven Hill, and was followed by a 10y.o. Heavy Char bourbon release in 2020 and a Heavy Char Wheat whiskey due in 2021. 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. Add this to a long maturation on the top floors of a rickhouse in the KY heat and the extraction is no doubt significant.

Left to right: 15s char (lvl 1), 40s char (lvl 3), 90s char (lvl 5)

Vital Stats:

Name: Parker’s Heritage Collection – Heavy Char Barrels Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey
Age: 11 y.o.
Proof: 122 Proof (61% ABV)
Type: Kentucky straight wheat whiskey
Mashbill: 51% wheat, 37% corn, 12% malted barley
Producer: Heaven Hill Distillery, KY
Website: 
https://heavenhilldistillery.com/parkers-heritage-collection.php
Glassware: Glencairn

Review

Nose: The nose opens with sweet red fruit dusted with warm, earthy, and sweet baking spices, a touch of vanilla, and sweet caramel bordering on blossom honey. As you nose deeper the red smell closer to dried fruits with some wheat grain and dried citrus peel mix thrown in as well as additional earthy charred oak spice.

Palate: The palate opens viscous with notes of spiced caramel, dried red fruits, and thick sweet honey before ginger and a hit of tannic oak spice lands, bringing faint chocolate, spice-driven heat, and clove notes to the mid-palate. As this touch of heat fades, you’re left with gingerbread and dried fruit notes as well as slightly herbaceous and bitter charred oak notes.

Finish: The finish opens with lingering oak spice and dark chocolate tannins which have mixed with the honey/caramel and baking spice notes to give a spiced cake taste. This fades to a dry aftertaste of cacao, baking spices, and charred tannic oak that leaves the tongue dry and faintly prickling with lingering heat.

Overall 

This is complex, well-balanced, delicious, and brings more to the glass than I would typically expect from a traditional wheat whiskey. It has the red fruit, the grain notes, and the overall enjoyability of a wheat whiskey, but it also has an added solid oak-driven backbone that complements and elevates that wheat profile beyond any wheat whiskey I’ve experienced before. Despite being 122 proof, it drinks closer to 100 proof, and boasts a rich viscosity that replaces a whiskey that should be hot with a beautiful wheat whiskey where the flavours are coming in at full strength and there’s barely any downfalls. To use an outdated anecdote, this is the whiskey equivalent of tuning in a channel on the TV or radio and the quality being perfect, no distortion in any direction, no fuzz in the audio, just crystal clear notes at the volume you asked for. You can also taste where the heavily charred barrels have brought their influence with dusty cacao notes, faintly bitter herbaceous notes, and a decent helping of oak spice, however, when combined with the proof, these breathe life into an otherwise easy-drinking whiskey that would be nice to drink but not particularly memorable. When Heaven Hill barrelled this whiskey into heavily charred casks 11 years ago they probably didn’t know what to expect but from tasting this they were clearly on to a winning combination. In fact, in comparison to Heaven Hill’s flagship wheat whiskey, Bernheim 7 y.o., Bernheim feels comparatively thin on the palate and lacks the same flavour intensity, despite having more butterscotch notes and a touch more red fruit notes. Moving from Bernheim to this the 32 point proof difference does become apparent initially, however, once the ethanol hit fades we’re back in business and this easily outperforms its lower proof sibling.

This is my third experience of a whiskey from the Parker’s Heritage Collection and once again it’s a winner, elevating a profile we all know and love in a way I think Parker himself would have approved of. Of the three Heavy Char releases to date, this is the oldest and the highest in proof, however, this does not detract from the final product whatsoever – in fact, the Heavy Char bourbon drinks the hottest of the three at 120 proof. Given this trend I’m also probably not the only one expecting either a Heavy Char wheated bourbon or Heavy Char corn whiskey to come next! These annual releases continue to feature at the forefront of some of Heaven Hill’s finest 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. This release continues to push the boundaries of innovation and has taught us all a valuable lesson about what works when it comes to using heavily charred barrels for ageing Heaven Hill’s wheat whiskey. 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 these releases with great reverence 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?

This is robust, it’s complex, and offers Heaven Hill fans a unique opportunity to taste their wheat whiskey at a level I’ve never tasted before. With an RRP of $139.99 it’s above my ‘buy now!’ $100 threshold, however, it’s worth remembering that each bottle sold has a direct positive impact on someone’s quality of life. Therefore, I’d say if you can find this for under $200, and it’s within your budget, seriously consider it.

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Before you go…

Before you go…

Before you go…

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