In 2015, after catching a Sunday-morning radio interview with bourbon aficionado Fred Minnick, I immediately ordered his book, Bourbon Curious [commission link: https://amzn.to/30wBgE8]. It was while reading the history of a number of great distilleries and individual brands that he mentioned Henry McKenna Bourbon, produced by Heaven Hill in Bardstown.
Yes, Heaven Hill produces a lot of brands – some great – and some bargain-shelfers. Heaven Hill was founded in 1935, and today is the 7th largest alcohol supplier in the US, and the 2nd largest holder of bourbon whiskey inventory in the world. Many of the products from this family- owned independent distiller – while lowly in price – are top-notch. Henry McKenna is one of them.
A Deep History
Heaven Hill traces its roots back to 1935, shortly after the repeal of Prohibition. A number of local investors, including Joseph Beam and the Shapira family, pooled resources to establish a distilling business. Over the years, the Shapira family bought out the other investors and the descendants of the Shapira brothers own the business today. Major brands include Elijah Craig, Larceny, Evan Williams, Pikesville Rye, Rittenhouse Rye, its own Heaven Hill line (with the famous 6 year Green Label), and Henry McKenna.
Today, while the headquarters, rickhouses, and visitor center remain in Bardstown, Heaven Hill’s primary distillery is the former Bernheim Distillery in Louisville. Purchased in 1996 following a massive fire at its primary distillation plant in Bardstown, the facility has received considerable expansions and upgrades. There’s only been a handful of Master Distillers at Heaven Hill – many of them related back to its original Master Distiller, including Parker and Craig Beam. Recently, Craig Beam stepped down to run other parts of the business and Connor O’Driscoll, a veteran of nearby Brown-Forman, Woodford Reserve, and Angels Envy has taken the mantle.
My tasting came from barrel #5442 that was barreled on 8-4-2008. The mashbill for Henry McKenna 10 Year Bottled-in-Bond is a hefty 75% corn, 13% rye, and 12% malted barley. While the Bottled-in-Bond label requires it to be a product of a single distillation season, by one distiller, at a single distillery, stored in a federally bonded warehouse under US government supervision for at least 4 years, and bottled at 100 proof – this product has been aged to a whopping 10 years. And, purchased at a $30-$35 range – with a 10-year age statement – it’s a rare find! I used to be able to find this consistently at many stores but today, thanks to the recent boom, it’s much more rare.
Eye: Dark amber exhibiting long legs when gently swirled in the glass.
Nose: Very traditional notes of caramel and vanilla. Some buttery sweetness and even honey notes.
Palate: A medium mouthfeel. While I pick up notes of caramel, vanilla, oak and spice, none overpowers the other. This is a very complex and balanced bourbon – an incredible accomplishment for a non-blended, single barrel product.
Finish: Medium-long with silky smoothness rising into a spicy crescendo. Some longer aged bourbons carry a lot of oaky-woody flavor. This was anything but. Again, exceptionally balanced.
Overall: This product has been receiving a host of accolades of late, including Best in Show, Best Single Barrel Bourbon, Best Bourbon, and a Double Gold at the 2019 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
As a single-barrel product, consistency in quality is true art and reflects the talent of the Master Distiller. This is one bourbon that can beat bottles much higher in price. If you’re out and about and spy a bottle in the $30-$35 range, confidently grab the opportunity to sample a very fine bourbon.