I don’t think many will argue that few producers of American whiskey have as diverse and an innovatively driven approach to releasing high caliber, expressions of whiskey, like that of Heaven Hill (HH). Being the second largest holder of bourbon in the world, HH is known for their flagship bourbon, aptly named “Heaven Hill ‘Old Style Bourbon’”, Evan Williams and Elijah Craig. The pinnacle of their potential however, is often seen through their Parker’s Heritage Collection release which is an annual, limited edition whiskey that changes from year to year both fundamentally and idiosyncratically. As testament to this, HH released an 8 year old 108 proof Kentucky Straight Malt Whiskey as the 9th installment of the Parker’s Heritage Collection (PHC9).
Arguably the most abstract of the collection, the PHC9 is essentially the first of it’s kind as it is a Kentucky Straight Malt Whiskey. Not a single malt, and most certainly not a bourbon, this whiskey was aged for 8 years on the 5th and 7th floors of HH’s Rickhouse Y and has a mash bill of 65% corn and 35% barley. Now I can’t emphasize how intrigued I was when I first heard that this would be the 2015 release. As someone who was brought into the whiskey world through Scotch, i’m no stranger to single malts (or malted whisk(e)ys of any breed). In fact I credit single malt Scotch whisky as the gateway dram that led me into bourbon in the first place. As a result, I love everything about barley (must be my Scottish blood), especially when it’s malted into whiskey. Scottish bloodline aside, my American roots wooed me over to Bourbon where I more frequently reach for a pour, but don’t get me wrong, I still love Scotch and reach for that often as well, particularly if its from from Islay. Needless to say this hybrid “Kentucky Straight Malt Whiskey” led me to believe that I would love this release regardless of any preconceptions, based on the genetic makeup of this whiskey – after all it represented those two aspects of whiskey that I love so much. Parker’s Heritage has yet to release a mediocre whiskey and their is, so far, nothing really to judge this by, apart from maybe some American Single Malt’s which typically are all over the place. Seemingly, the PHC9 is a paradox by nature, but with the ‘Parker Heritage’ namesake one can fairly assume that it will be at the very least, quality juice.
2015 Parker’s Heritage Collection 8 Year Kentucky Straight Malt Whiskey
ABV: 54% // 108 proof
Age: 8 years
Nose: Fresh toast, right from the toaster but not burnt. Thick honey, demerara sugars, french vanilla and roasted chocolate covered peanuts. All bourbon on the nose so far until pleasantly light natured barley pokes his head through like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. But their is nothing terrifying about the fresh straw and light grains that hold the funk which possesses an almost green, seed like quality. Raisin, cranberry, vanilla nougat, yellow corn, scone batter and some french toast with a healthy dose of powdered sugar. Tons of breakfast like qualities on this nose – like the inside of a breakfast cereal box filled with cereal grains smothered with a large dollop of honey drizzled all over. Underneath the breakfast is freshly cut oak lumber, but not in the green sense, more youthful again which is interesting considering how heavily charred we all know these barrels were. Through some final whiffs this nose delivered some personal nostalgia, and appropriately so with Thanksgiving around the corner. My grandmother who passed away about 4 years ago comes back to me as I nose this and i’m reminded of spending much of my younger days with her and her best friend while picking out roasted mixed nuts that were never in short supply on the coffee table for guests (and a gluttonous grandson) out of this old, dark well polished mahogany serving bowl: walnuts, cashews, pecans, almonds and peanuts doused in finely grated sugar. I can still remember wiggling my grubby little fingers through that never half empty bowl, looking for the best nuts, roasted to perfection. Peanut brittle says a quiet farewell.
Palate: Spices from the moment this hits your tongue but they stay in check never taking off or overwhelming your palate; cinnamon and wood spices. As the nose implied, you can tell this whiskey was aged in heavily charred barrels. Brown sugars, white corn, nutty with a light but pleasant funk which displays itself in more the synthetic sense, almost plastic, but its subtle and you must listen for it like a whisper in the wind. Mid palate brings a layer of barrel char, cocoa, blonde coffee and honey dripping off the tip of your tongue which then turns to oak and burnt sugars with a pinch of black pepper sprinkled on top. Big maple syrup, and some acetone in the form of furnish polish. Overall playful and chewy – love this youthful barley. Delicately toasted oak spices round things off. Really good stuff.
Finish: Medium-long in length. Final kick shows sweet cinnamon spices that fade semi quick. Barrel char, vanilla, chocolate, caramel, dark coffee, more burnt sugars, black pepper and char from the breakfast toast that started us out on the nose. Light acetone notes persist and oak tannins from the barrel cling to your tongue for dear life. Lastly are reminders of the nut shells that you also had with the toast, more in the form of chestnut along with some wet musty bramble and burnt matchbook.
Bourbon and House Rating: 90
I really liked the PHC9. I think its a solid pour and really I think its a pretty transparent whiskey in that it drank pretty much as I imagined – how a bourbon and a single malt would taste if you crossed them..of sorts. Albeit the PHC9 isn’t a single malt or a bourbon….its really in a league all on its own. But again, I think it takes balls to age something that really hasn’t been done before, for 8 years and have close to no idea how the outcome will be. It was a high stakes gamble with a considerable amount of risk but I think HH knew that and expected it’s reception to consist of mixed feelings. I think the PHC9 was very well rounded, lived up to the PHC name and has something to offer for single malt and bourbon drinkers alike. In all fairness though I could see why some will dislike this, particularly if they dislike single malts, or malted whiskey in general. But then what would you expect from a whiskey that is 35% malted barley…and even more so with someone who dislikes bourbon but prefers single malts/malted whiskeys – then this will for sure be a turn off. That being said I’ve def been hearing more crying from the former.
By far the most interesting release I’ve had all year. As I mentioned earlier in the review, I was excited the moment I heard HH was releasing an 8 year old malt whiskey as it tied two of my favorite styles of whiskey together, not to mention gave a shot of adrenaline into the lifeblood of the standard Fall limited releases. However as people got a hold of this, and the reviews started trickling out, I was surprised at the negative feedback and less than sub par reviews. That being said I always try to not be too dismayed by others thoughts and ALWAYS take every review with several grains of salt. After all, at the end of the day, a review is just one persons opinion – just like the one you’re reading now. I suppose a lot of the negative reviews were from people who maybe had their expectations very fine tuned, perhaps with the preconception that this would compare to previous PHC releases which is ridiculous being that each PHC release has been so unique and different that they are by far the most inconsistent releases of the year part from maybe Woodford Reserve. I just find it a little silly being that nothing has quite been done like this before, and even if their had been a handful, their is so little to use as a point of reference that its really trivial to stand this up to anything other than its own objective self. One could argue that their are some parallels between PHC9 and perhaps a few other American Single Malt whiskeys but again, then you’re comparing to such a microcosm in the spectrum of whiskey. Funny though, that the negative reviews more or less peaked my curiosity and drove me harder to find a bottle to the extent that I actually debated on trying to find this bottle through alternative sources other than my usual spots, but luckily patience did pay off.
Now for the value of this whiskey which no doubt is VERY subjective on who you are and where you are but within the bourbon community its generally understood that we all have a pretty similar viewpoint of value unless you just started drinking Pappy in 2014. MSRP for the PHC9 was (roughly) $99.99. Where I purchased my bottle the price was $119.99, I was out the door spending $117.00 and change, so I paid about $17.00 over MSRP. Quick side note: I work in the spirit industry and my company grants its employees a 10% discount on all products so that was with said discount – without the 10% I would have paid around $130.00 considering CA’s 8.25 sales tax which would have put me at roughly $30.00 over MSRP. Ok, so I paid $117.00 out the door – not bad considering the store I purchased this through got a whopping case (3 bottles), and I only paid $17 over MSRP. I think the PHC9 was worth $117.00. Would I have paid double? No. Would I have paid a 50% markup? Probably not. But I don’t feel I was caught with my pants down either. Remember this is a PHC, so each release is a new, fresh expression – a gamble of sorts, but one with an impressive track record to say the least and in my opinion the PHC9 is a solid winner. I love single malt scotch. I love bourbon (a little more than scotch). So to me the PHC9 was that perfect harmony between the two, a marriage of two grains that usually represent fairly different whiskeys, and I feel HH delivered. Now I’m sure their are people out there that also love Scotch and bourbon but didn’t like this, perhaps considering the price tag. Fair enough. Maybe it was the bourbon heavy side of this whiskey with it’s 65% corn. Alright. Maybe it could have used some rye in the mash bill for good measure, to balance things out in true “rye based” bourbon fashion. An understandable argument as well. Bottom line though is we could sit around stating what ifs and playing the role of Captain Hindsight from now until the bourbon boom ends but all of that is irrelevant because in the end, what we have in front of us is a whiskey made by one of the most reputable distilleries in the U.S. through one of the most respected collections of limited American whiskey which is known for mixing things up by going outside the box. On the flip side, take the Van Winkle and BTAC releases. Year after year, their isn’t all reeeaaally that much variation. Specifically with the Van Winkles, but I could see argument that BTAC does have some, and I would say there is especially with Stagg, Weller and Handy. Don’t get me wrong, I adore the BTAC and they release some of, if not the best bourbon (William Larue Weller) and rye (Thomas Handy) available, but apart from the Weller 19 years back they really haven’t pushed too far out of the box in recently. But of course why would you mix it up with the two most sought after and desired lines of American whiskey ever produced in the United States? Buffalo Trace understands this and I’m sure their train of thought is “If it isn’t broken, why fix it”, and I agree. HH’s game is different with the PHC where they push those boundaries. I agree with that too; push on Heaven Hill.
Diversity and experimentation aren’t probably the first words that come to mind when you look at the Fall limited releases that us bourbon & rye aficionados seek after year in and out. From an objective standpoint, their just aren’t that drastic of margins regarding change and exploration, and for good reason – some of the best domestic whiskeys in the world are ones that simply don’t change. The Van Winkle’s, BTAC, Like the saying goes, “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it”.