A few months ago, I rode shotgun with my bourbon-hunting daughter to help her transport a friend’s horse to her new home. As we sat down to dinner, with much appreciation, her friend slid a bottle of Bernheim Wheat Whiskey across the table on instructions from her dad, “Get him something good!”. The Bernheim name is integral to the whiskey history of Louisville, Kentucky, and even today, has foundational ties to Heaven Hill.
A Louisville Giant
Today, a few miles south of downtown Louisville, the Bernheim Forest trails are adorned with several natural wood giants that highlight the native landscape. The 14,000-acre nature site was established by its benefactor, Isaac Wolfe Bernheim. Moving to Kentucky, he set himself up as a bookkeeper for a wholesale liquor company. By 1872, he and brother Bernard had saved enough money to set up their own liquor distribution company – Bernheim Brothers.
Operations moved to Louisville in 1888 and continued to expand. The purchased the Pleasure Ridge Park Distillery where they could produce their own whiskeys, including an elite whiskey brand called “I.W. Harper”. It’s said that the “I.W.” came from his own Isaac Wolfe name. Throughout Prohibition, Bernheim continued to produce medicinal spirts. Following Prohibition, Bernheim sold his interest to the Schenley Distilling Corporation in 1937.
While Bernheim passed away in 1945, his name lived on. The Bernheim Distillery opened in Louisville in 1992 by United Distillers. Five years later, United Distillers became Diageo. The taste for dark spirits continued to weaken and Diageo sold the modern facility to Heaven Hill in 1999 to replace its distilling operations ravaged in a 1996 fire.
Introduced by Heaven Hill in 2005, Bernheim Wheat Whiskey comes in a tall, shouldered bottle bearing its signature wheat grain. The mash bill is 51% wheat, 39% corn, and 10% malted barley. Barrels utilize a #3 char where the distillate ages at least 7 years (as per the 7-year age statement on the bottle) and are bottled at 90-proof.
From the website, we’re told to expect a mildly sweet whiskey, with hints of vanilla and honey, along with toffee, berries, toasted oak and spice. Heaven Hill isn’t alone in offering a whiskey with wheat as the majority grain - Woodford Reserve also offers a wheat whiskey.
Eye: Rich copper amber. Short and slender legs are in my Glencairn glass when swirled.
Nose: A burst of vanilla and vanilla leaps out of the glass, followed by wafts of grassy hay. This is light on the nose – not heavy, spicy or woody.
Palate: More vanilla and lighter summer fruits are on the palate, followed by grass and cinnamon spice on the back side. This is a well-balanced whiskey with plenty to explore.
Finish: Medium-long with gentle wood and spice. Light and pleasant.
Overall: This is a nice wheat whiskey and something different to balance out traditional corn-rich bourbons. Similar to Woodford’s Wheat Whiskey and Malt Whiskey, this is a lovely change of pace to “mix things up a bit”. With a $30 price point, you’ve got a unique and balanced sensation, with a labeled age statement. All in all, it’s good to know that the Bernheim legacy continues to live on in the city he helped develop.