Heaven Hill Experience
We'd been waiting for this final punch on our Kentucky Bourbon Trail passport for some time now. COVID had stymied our plans more than once, and an ill-timed strike had occurred when we were again "in the neighborhood". Not unexpectedly, though, "the third time's the charm". Join us as we tour the Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience in Bardstown, Kentucky.
All in the Family
Heaven Hill was founded by the Shapira Family in 1935. It remains the largest family-owned and operated distillery in the United States and is the second-largest holder of aging barrels of whiskey in the world. They operate two experiences - the Evan Williams Experience in downtown Louisville, and the Heaven Hill Experience adjacent to some of their bottling and aging warehouses in Bardstown, around the corner [literally] from the mansion that inspired My Old Kentucky Home.
There are no tours, per se' at this experience. You may recall that the distillery at this site was destroyed in a horrific fire in 1996. In the months that followed, Kentucky distillers banded together and allowed Heaven Hill to borrow production from various sites, including at Beam and Wild Turkey. It is truly humbling to think of how the industry came together to help a fellow rival. At the time, there was significant excess capacity; today, that wouldn't be the case.
Seven of forty two rickhouses were engulfed, and flames flowed down to the historic distillery. As the family considered its next steps, United Distillers (now Diageo) approached them to see if they would be interested in its Bernheim Distillery 30 minutes distant in Louisville. Bernheim was one of most modern distilleries at the time, with plenty of capacity, and then some, to replace the loss in Bardstown.
As a result, the visitor's center in Bardstown is an experience - and not a working distillery. The Heaven Hill Experience offers several tours at the Bardstown location: You Do Bourbon (allowing you to bottle your own bourbon), Whiskey Connoisseur Tasting (allowing you to sample some of their oldest and most exclusive bourbons), and the Magic of the Mashbill Tasting that we selected.
Another great benefit of making the journey to the Bardstown experience is that on most days, if you're willing to arrive early and wait in line, limited releases of their most exclusive bourbons are made available, including the likes of Henry McKenna 10-Year Bottled-in-Bond, various Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond releases, and older variations of Elijah Craig. Be sure to follow the Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience on Facebook for the details.
Following a moment of panic as we fought our way past the waiting throngs for the day's limited release, we were whisked to one of the three tasting rooms onsite. During the 45 minute tasting, our guide shared the history of bourbon, the Shapiro family and the various Heaven Hill brands. The tastings will vary, but for our experience we sampled Mellow Corn, Larceny, Elijah Craig Small Batch, Rittenhouse Rye, and Evan Williams Peach.
Mellow Corn: This unique corn whiskey is made from 80% corn, 8% rye, and 12% malted barley is bottled-in-bond. As a corn whiskey, it is aged in used bourbon bottles (making it a whiskey, and not bourbon). I love the retro label that has not changed since its introduction in 1945 (for real). Golden in color, it is full of vanilla, oak, spice and the juicy notes of a child's juicebox. This has become a popular spirit for many bartenders to use in their creative cocktail endeavors.
Larceny: Heaven Hill's most recent foray into a wheated bourbon hits on all cylinders. The mash bill consists of 68% corn, 12% malted barley, and replaces the more typical rye grain with 20% wheat. At 92 proof, this is a vanilla bomb and holds up well in cocktails or with ice.
Elijah Craig Small Batch: This is one of the best, classic bourbons. Coming from a mash bill of 78% corn, 10% rye, and 12% malted barley, the finished product is bottled at 94 proof and pays homage to the father of bourbon. Dark amber in color, there is sweet caramel, vanilla, and toffee that is married with gentle spice and oak. Mmm mmmm.
Rittenhouse Rye: Starting from a modern-rye mash bill of 51% rye, 37% corn, and 12% malted barley, this is produced as a bottled-in-bond expression. There is a mix of fruit and grain on the nose and palate balanced with pepper and spice. On its own, this was enjoyable, but I could also see this serving as the foundation of a great Manhattan or Old Fashioned.
Evan Williams Peach: Dragging my wife along on bourbon tours isn't the easiest thing to do, but once in a while, there is something that strikes her fancy, and this was it. Bottled at 65 proof, this is a blend of Evan Williams bourbon and sweet, Georgia peaches. I've tried a few of these flavored whiskeys and they were just "over the top" with glucose-sweetening and a very artificial taste. Not so with this. Yes, peach was forward, but the vanilla, caramel and honey notes of bourbon were right behind. This would be delightful in the summertime mixed with tea.
Following our enjoyable tasting, it was a short walk across the gift shop to take in the 1935 Distillery Theater and the Brand Gallery museum. Forty guests at a time can enjoy the immersive 11-minute show with 7 screens that fly in and out using digital multiplex technology. The special effects made it so it appeared you were viewing into the distillery through the original 1935 windows.
After a quick view, we took in the Elijah Craig exhibit honoring the "Father of Bourbon". The walls are made of charred oak and curved to mimic the shape of a bourbon barrel. Another exhibit shared the story of the Larceny brand and its ties to Treasury Agent John E. Fitzgerald and his ability to choose outstanding barrels, as well as the differences in typical bourbon mash bills and a wheated bourbon.
A Bottled-in-Bond gallery shares the story of the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 as well as highlighting the Heaven Hill family of bonded spirits. Lastly, there's a history of the Shapira Family, Heaven Hill, and the bourbon industry. You can even step in for a photo opportunity with the family. We were also greeted with another tour guide sharing even more samples from the Heaven Hill lineup, including Evan Williams Apple, Evan Williams Egg Nog, and Elijah Craig, which we happily sampled. The Evan Williams Apple flavored whiskey would make a fine addition to a Coke or served in a cocktail. And the Egg Nog, creamy and delicious on its own, would be lovely in your weekend coffee.
This was an enjoyable visit to one of the giants in the industry. If you're taking in the Heaven Hill Experience, you'll also find a number of other nearby distilleries, including Willett, Barton 1792, Bardstown Bourbon, and Lux Row Distillers. For a bite to eat, consider the Talbot Tavern - a historic stop on the former stagecoach line that served the area before Kentucky statehood.