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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Bourbon

Henry McKenna

While it’s older brother, Henry McKenna 10-Year Bottled-in-Bond has been receiving all of the press and awards of late, many pass by its unassuming younger sibling Henry McKenna. Was there a real Henry McKenna? And how did Heaven Hill come to acquire this storied brand?

There was a Real Henry McKenna

Some of bourbon lore can be more fanciful than fact, but indeed, there was a real Henry McKenna. Immigrating from Ireland in 1838, he ultimately settled southeast of Louisville in Fairfield, Kentucky. In 1855, McKenna built and began operating a small distillery, focusing on producing a high-quality spirit, making just a single barrel each day. In a few years, he enlarged the distillery to meet the rising demand for his popular whiskey.

By the 1880s, Henry’s son, James, was beginning to run the operations that had enlarged to 3 barrels a day. Henry died in 1893, leaving sons James, Daniel, and Stafford in charge of the growing business. Operations continued until Prohibition. Barrels were consolidated for aging at the A. Ph Stitzel Distillery in Louisville where they were bottled and sold along with the Stitzel & Weller bourbons as medicinal spirits.

Following Prohibition, James and Stafford re-started operations, producing about 20 barrels a day. For a brief period, Julian Van Winkle (of Pappy Van Winkle fame) served as head of sales to help the business get back on its feet. Ultimately, the business and brand (but not the recipe) transferred to Seagrams during World War II.

While Seagrams kept the brand, much of the distillate found its way into other Seagram products. With bourbon’s demise during the 1960’s and 1970’s, sales continued to decline and by 1974, the McKenna distillery in Fairfield was shuttered. By the 1980’s, Seagram was seeking to unload many of its whiskey brands. It was then that Henry McKenna was added to the Heaven Hill family.

The Tasting

Henry McKenna utilizes the same mash bill as several other Heaven Hill products, including Evan Williams and Elijah Craig - 78% corn, 10% rye, and 12% malted barley. There’s no age statement, though the label displays straight bourbon, indicating it is at least 2-years-old. The finished product is bottled at a low 80-proof.

Color: Light copper with some medium legs displayed inside the Glencarin glass.

Nose: Caramelized brown sugar and vanilla. Straight-forward and uncomplicated. Not unexpectedly, very similar to traditional Evan Williams.

Palate: Vanilla and light pepper-spice with gently toasted oak. For around $12-$13, this tasted better than its price-point may indicate. Nicely balanced for what it is, as nothing truly dominates.

Finish: Medium with vanilla and caramel, followed by light oak and spice. The lighter proof leaves a subtle finish without a burn.

Overall: This is a solid low-priced bourbon, albeit only 80-proof. At around $12 for a 750ml bottle and $19 for a 1.75L handle, this can be a great sub-$20 bourbon to have on hand. While the Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond bourbon is one of my favorites for everyday use, I’m surprised by the flavors expressed by this lighter proof version. I may need to keep this around a little more often.

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