A few weeks ago, we reviewed Five Brother’s Bourbon from Heaven Hill. I had first tried it on a tasting tour at the distillery (the “Magic of the Mashbill” experience). That tasting consisted of five different products, one of which was my first exposure to Henry McKenna. I remember it being a tasty bourbon, and wanted to give it the full Thirty One Whiskey treatment. And while I couldn’t bring that exact bottle home from the fabled land of bourbon, a bottle magically appeared at my corner store after I arrived back home.
Established in 1935, shortly after the end of prohibition, Old Heavenhill Springs Distillery was founded by a group of investors in Bardstown, Kentucky. They were gambling on the idea that alcohol production would be a booming business and invested heavily in being one of the first companies to stand up and service that market. One of those investors was well known distiller Joseph L. Beam (first cousin to Jim Beam) who would also become the first master distiller of the facility.
As the years went on, the five Shapira brothers bought out all of the other investors to become the sole owner of the business and changed the name to “Heaven Hill Distillery,” which was a typo on the paperwork from the original Heavenhill distillery. Despite being bought out, the descendants of Joseph Beam remain the master distillers of the facility to this day.
Their primary distilling facility burned down in 1996, destroying 90,000 barrels of whiskey and lighting the creek that feeds the distillery on fire for nearly two miles downstream. According to our tour guide, Bernadette, the fire melted five fire trucks and burned for nearly four days. She also said that “the truth is agreed upon fiction”… so take that as you will.
The business survived and they purchased a new distillery in Bernheim from Diageo in 1999 where production now takes place, but all aging still takes place at the original Bardstown facility.
The 1935 bet has paid off — big time. Heaven Hill Distillery is currently the biggest family-owned distillery in the United States and the second largest holder of bourbon whiskey inventory in the world. Their flagship brands include Deep Eddy vodka and Elijah Craig, and their facility hosts the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival.
As far as the name, Henry McKenna was born in Ireland in 1819. As a youth, he worked odd-jobs around an Irish whiskey distillery and eventually immigrated to Lexington, Kentucky in the mid-1800’s. In 1855, he opened a grain elevator and mill just outside of Bardstown. Not wanting to waste excess grain, McKenna started a distillery and began his journey as one of the fathers of Kentucky bourbon.
- Learn More: What Is Bourbon Whiskey?
A “bottled in bond” whiskey has quite possibly the strictest requirements around it to bear that label, and for good reason. I’m sure you’ve heard of the old trope that moonshine will make you go blind, or some similar outlandish-sounding statement.
Well, back in the late 1800’s, that could very well be true. There were a lot of adulterated bourbon being sold — imagine drinking bourbon that was flavored or colored with iodine, tobacco, or other unsavory elements. A group of distillers led by Colonel Edmond Haynes Taylor, Jr (commonly now known for a taupe and yellow cardboard tube containing his namesake bourbon: Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr) pressured the US government to pass the Bottled-In-Bond Act of 1897.
“Bottled in bond” bourbon has the same base requirements as a generic bourbon (being at least 51% corn based) and as a “straight” bourbon it also needs to meet specific alcohol content requirements at different points in its production. However, as a “bottled in bond” straight bourbon, once produced it must sit in a government inspected and monitored warehouse for a minimum of four years — two years longer than a normal “straight” bourbon. This was done for two reasons: it allowed distillers to delay the payment of taxes on the whiskey until it was bottled, and (more importantly) it provided the consumer a guarantee that the product being purchased was not altered.
In this case, Henry McKenna starts with the standard Heaven Hill mashbill of of 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malted barley. That all gets mashed, fermented, and distilled in the Heaven Hill distillery in Bardstown. The whiskey is then placed into new charred oak barrels for a period of ten years, in a government bonded and monitored rickhouse, before being bottled at 100 proof (50% ABV) and shipped out the door.
The bottle feels both unique and eerily similar at the same time (but I cannot think of any similar bottles off the top of my head, so take that for what you will). It’s a relatively stout bottle, with a sharp shoulder and a long slender neck — imagine if the Maker’s Mark bottle were round and not dipped in wax (there, I thought of one).
The bottle has a dark green and yellow color scheme, similar to older US currency… which is honestly a motif that they lean into way too much, specifically with the ridiculous sticker that is across the top of the bottle which carries a “100” styled like the OG Benjamin. Yes, that is the proof of the bottle, but there is no need to make it look like antique cash.
What I do appreciate about the bottle is the handwritten elements noting the barrel number and barreled date. My bottle came from barrel 13,346 and was barreled on November 2, 2011.
The bourbon gives off a mildly sweet aroma that reminded me of the smell of a watered down cola. There are also some earthy notes behind the cola similar to cedar and soil, and the combination is very close to the smell of petrichor (that smell outdoors after it rains).
The flavor is everything I look for in a great high-proof bourbon. Most prominent are fruity notes with some mild sourness (think key lime pie or cranberry dressing). There is also quite a bit of spiciness in the form of ginger and clove note. To tie it all together, there is just a hint of sweetness that resembles flat Diet Coke.
It’s all well and good, but there is something else going on that can only be described as filtering all of those flavors through a leather sock (do they make leather socks or are those just called shoes?). This is the petrichor-like flavor that permeates the entire spirit, and I think it comes from the high alcohol content.
Overall, I think this is just as delicious as I remember it being on the tour. There are a lot of complex flavors, it’s balanced, and it has a richness that permeates throughout the entire glass.
Woof! (I am writing this with the holiday classic “Home Alone” playing in the background, and Kevin’s commentary about Buzz’s girlfriend is apt here.)
The only flavor that comes through on the rocks is dull bitterness. It’s hard to even pick apart even small individual notes — it’s like every flavor has been dulled into a bland homogenous flavor that comes across as bitter. I would even argue that Malort, which if you’ve never had it is known for its harsh bitterness, has more distinct flavors than Henry McKenna on the rocks.
I do not know what happened here, I just cannot explain it. The sweetness is gone. The fruit notes are gone. Remember how I described the neat spirit as being filtered through a leather sock? Well, now imagine if that sock were worn on a 100 mile hike before pouring some Diet Coke through it.
I was so dumbfounded here that I decided to pour my drink out and start the tasting again. Sadly, I got the same results. Neat: fantastic! Rocks: Malort level bitterness, but somehow less interesting.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
Full disclosure: I took a small break following the first round of drinks. Part of me was afraid to continue, worried that I’d have to write a surprisingly negative review of a beloved whiskey… but as a consummate professional I figured it was my sworn duty to see this through to the end. And thank goodness I did.
I am once again dumbfounded, but now in a pleasant way.
This is everything that I would want in an old fashioned. The bourbon shines through as the star of the cocktail, you can pick up notes of bitter fruit along with the orange, and the dull sweetness is fluffed up by the added sugar. Pulling it all together, the bitters all seem to be in balance between the angostura and sock-filtered-Diet-Coke.
Just to try and bring some scientific method to the mystery that is Henry McKenna, I made another old fashioned with a different type of ice (refrigerator made vs. large cube), and the results were the same. Another top notch old fashioned. I’m not mad, but I am a little perplexed.
To make a good Kentucky Mule, a bourbon doesn’t have to be great — it just has to have enough depth of flavor to stand up to the ginger beer, which is a really loud mixer. In this case, the resulting cocktail is just… meh. Which, to be honest, might be a Heaven Hill standard because I said the same thing about Five Brothers.
It’s mostly bitter (not surprisingly), and there aren’t many flavors other than ginger. The bourbon is all but lost behind it, and there is no balance and no complexity.
Sipping this bottle is like experiencing bourbon whiplash. It’s fantastic neat or in an old fashioned, it’s mediocre in a mule, and (for some inexplicable reason) absolutely horrendous on the rocks. I really expected more from a 10 year bottled-in-bond bourbon.
Fittingly, over the course of writing this, my background watching has now progressed to the classic sitcom Seinfeld — specifically, the episode “The Strike”. In the episode, Jerry dates a woman who is either very attractive or “ugly” depending on the lighting. I cannot think of a more relevant pop-culture reference to describe this bourbon. (Also, there is some ridiculous subplot about something called Festivus… maybe you’ve heard of it?)
|Henry McKenna Single Barrel
Kentucky, United States
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Special Type: Bottled In Bond
Aging: 10 Years
Proof: 50% ABV
Price: $63 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 3/5
It’s great neat… but be prepared for the airing of the grievances and feats of strength if you drink it on the rocks.