Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond 17y.o. (Spring 2022 Release) 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 producer 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 were 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 the 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 inspired by the Old Fitzgerald Diamond decanter from the ‘50s, there have been multiple releases to date with 2022’s Spring edition marking the seventh release.

As with past editions, the 2022 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. For this release, barrels were pulled from across three floors of rickhouse V at Heaven Hill Distillery’s main campus in Bardstown, Kentucky. The bourbon was barreled in the fall of 2004 and bottled in the spring of 2022, making this the first 17-year-old bottle in the Old Fitzgerald series. I’m very curious to see how this will compare to previous releases, especially the 2021 Spring release which was the best of the Old Fitzgerald releases I’ve had the pleasure of trying.

Vital Stats:

Name: Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond Fall Edition
Age: 17 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
Website: https://heavenhilldistillery.com/old-fitzgerald.php
Glassware: Glencairn

Review

Nose: The nose opens with thick dark caramels bordering on butterscotch, mixed with dried red and black fruit, faintly herbaceous baking spices, black pepper, leather, and dark charred oak. As you nose deeper dark chocolate notes continue to emerge alongside a touch of ethanol and tannic oak.

Palate: The palate opens thick with deep dark chocolate notes, near-burnt caramel, old herbaceous oak, bitter cocoa, big dried fruit notes, and tannic oak spice. As you keep chewing, notes of fire-roasted almond and more fruit notes also come through.

Finish: The finish opens with lingering bitter herbaceous oak, baking spices, charred tannic oak, and an aftertaste of earthy ground nuts and flavours of charred oak that linger on the palate long after you’re finished.

Overall

At 17 years old this is both delicious and it also gives you everything you’d expect from an older bourbon.  At the centre of the profile lies old dusty oak notes which are surrounded by red fruit notes, wheat notes, herbaceous notes, earthy baking spices, dark chocolate notes, and dark caramel notes. These come together in the glass to deliver a complex and flavourful drinking experience that’s balanced in such a way that the oak never overwhelms the other flavours but bolsters them instead with maturity. There’s also a hefty spice kick from the oak tannins which builds on the palate as you drink and wouldn’t be unexpected from a bourbon of this age. 

What surprised me most about this whiskey is its age statement and the fact that despite having matured for nearly 70 Kentucky seasons, that familiar Heaven Hill wheated bourbon character still comes through beautifully on the nose and palate. Ageing bourbon to this age is a skill in itself and the difference between a drinkable whiskey and one that’s bitter and over-oaked comes down to the knowledge and competence of your maturation team. Tasting this I will say they picked the best moment to pull these stocks because although the oak doesn’t overwhelm the profile yet, I’d argue that this bourbon has reached its peak and ageing it any longer may have resulted in the barrel completely overwhelming the tasting experience.

For my final tasting of this whiskey, I put it next to the 2021 Spring release which was 8 y.o. and delivered the best Old Fitzgerald I have tasted to date. At nearly half the age of this release, the 8y.o. has deep caramels, warm spice, and red fruits in all the right places giving a Heaven Hill wheated bourbon at its absolute prime and beating many of the older releases in blind comparisons due to its overall profile and lack of aggressive tannic spice. Compared to this,  I found the 17y.o. to have much more maturity and depth to its overall profile with more viscosity on the palate, darker caramel notes, black fruit as opposed to red fruit, more tannic spice, and a lot more dark chocolate notes. This made it quite difficult to pick a favourite because I could definitely see myself gravitating to either depending on the mood I was in and both are exceptional bourbons for their own reasons.

Try or Buy?

With a suggested retail price of $185 this is, unfortunately, a try before you buy. If you’re a fan of the series or feeling flush all I’ll say is that for a 17-year-old bourbon it comes in at a great proof, does not disappoint, and may not come around at this age again!

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