I’ve always been a reader, and I make sure to set aside some time to crack open a good book — one of which was The Best Bourbon You’ll Never Taste by Charles Cowdery. In his book, Cowderly explores the history of A.H. Hirsch Reserve 16 Year Straight Bourbon, which some people consider the best bourbon ever made. While I’ve not yet had time to finish the book, it did inspire me to pick up this bottle of Hirsch The Horizon to sip as I read.
Adolph Hirsch was an investment banker who, in 1974, decided to commission a 400 barrel run of bourbon from Schaefferstown Distillery in Pennsylvania (which would eventually become Michter). Apparently, Hirsch had invested in the distillery and, rather than giving a straight cash infusion, he decided that he wanted something in return for his cash. The whiskey was distilled by Schaefferstown Distillery’s master distiller Dick Stoll, who had learned his trade from Everett Beam, and used the Schaefferstown Distillery’s standard recipe for the grain bill — 75% corn, 13% rye, and 12% malted barley.
Those 400 barrels sat in the rickhouse until 1989, at which point the distillery considered them to be “over aged” and functionally useless. These barrels passed from one whiskey man to another, unsure of what to do with them — until they came to settle in Julian Van Winkle’s ownership. Julian took the smart step of transferring the now 16 year old bourbon into steel tanks to stop the aging process, where it stayed until 2003 when the Van Winkle family decided to bottle it and ship it for sale under the Hirsch brand name.
The reception was nothing short of epic. These few cherished bottles became known as some of the best whiskey in the world, regularly fetching north of $4,000 per bottle and on par with anything that the Van Winkles themselves may have manufactured.
Naturally, with that kind of a reception, someone thought it was a good idea to capitalize on the brand and make these bottles a regular occurrence. A San Francisco company named Hotaling & Co (an importer for spirits like the Japanese Nikka Whisky) purchased the brand and started blending sourced bourbons to try and recreate the magic of that original bottling. Their concept for the brand is one of experimentation and discovery; not necessarily trying to distill their own spirits, but rather trying to create a blend of spirits as delicious as possible.
- Learn More: What Is Bourbon Whiskey?
Hirsch the Horizon is a blended bourbon created from spirits that were manufactured in Lawrenceburg, Indiana (our guess would be MGP, the massive bulk spirits distillation factory). Each bottling of the spirit has a different blend of bourbon strains, so the specifics are always detailed on the back of the label.
For this bottle, two strains of bourbon are distilled and matured separately and then blended prior to bottling — but both use the combination of corn, rye, and malted barley that was seen in the original version of Hirsch’s spirit. The majority of the whiskey comes from a grain bill of 75% corn, 21% rye, and 4% barley, with 6% of the source spirit having a higher rye content of 60% corn, 36% rye, and 4% barley.
For both strains, the grains are milled, cooked, and fermented to create a mildly alcoholic liquid. That liquid is then distilled (again, probably in MGP’s massive column stills) to create the raw whiskey which is then placed into new charred oak barrels to mature.
For the majority of the spirit, it is aged for 5 years and 4 months — but the 6% containing higher rye content gets a little extra time in the barrel and clocks in at 6 years and 2 months.
Given the experimental nature of the Hirsch brand, I appreciate the disclosure of the detail behind the blend ratio and various aging and mash bills. This is a practice that I would love to see more often.
I enjoy the way this bottle looks. The stout rectangular bottle has a simplistic elegance to it, with slightly rounded corners and two small indentations adorn each side. Just above each of these indentations is an embossed sextant, evoking that idea of discovery and adventure. The bottle has a short neck and is topped with a synthetic and wood cork.
The label stands out in a good way — mostly thanks to the bright, bold teal color of the label, which jumps out on a shelf. The brand and sextant logo are both in gold color and are the most easily visible elements. The rest of the information is secondary, with basic black text that early contains all the necessary information. The label on the back is short and pretty unobtrusive, even though it wraps to both sides.
The bourbon looks delicious with a rich amber color and smells like caramel, petrichor (that aroma just after a fresh rain), and mild anise. Those earthy notes most likely come from the high-rye of the second blended bourbon. All in all, it has a very pleasant aroma without the sharp alcohol bitterness or bite that can accompany a bourbon.
Unfortunately, all of the pleasant feelings and hopes for this bourbon went out the window when I actually took a sip. I had to do a double take — there was no way that a bourbon that gave off a rich, sweet aroma can be the same as the bourbon I just drank.
First off, the sweetness does not exist on the palate. It’s simply disappeared, despite the heavy corn content in the mash bill. What you do get is a very heavy black pepper flavor (which I usually associate with a high rye content), accompanied by notes of walnut, slight plum, and oak. It finishes with a deep burning sensation.
The taste is the complete opposite of the nose, and I do not find this pleasant to sip.
Looking to salvage my two Jacksons worth of investment, I dropped a couple ice cubes into the glass and hoped for the best.
On ice, the aroma is all but gone… which is fine, I guess. It only provided false expectations when I tried this neat.
The flavor is more mild, which is what we would expect the ice to do. There is still a black pepper flavor, but now it’s more subdued and has more of the expected sweetness of a bourbon. And the best news: that sweetness seems to offset the bitterness I saw before when taken neat.
This is definitely better than drinking it neat… but still not a great experience.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
Have you ever had an old fashioned that was made with too much bitters? That is the best way to describe this cocktail. It’s very bitter forward, with the spicy black pepper flavor taking the forefront.
If you look really hard, there are some sweet hints that can be found deep in the drink. The combination of those slightly sweet notes with the bitters and black pepper almost makes me think of a cup of coffee.
The strangest thing about this cocktail is that usually — especially after the addition of sugar, bitters, and ice — most of the alcohol burn that accompanies a spirit is gone. But this might be the first old fashioned I’ve had that finished with a slight burn.
Finally, a use for this bourbon that truly works. The spicy, bitter forward notes blend well with the ginger beer and create a very well balanced Kentucky mule.
My biggest problem is that this is still a little… plain. It would be great to see other notes come out in this drink, since there is not much more going on outside of the ginger beer and bitter notes of the spirit. This works well, but it’s more of a consolation cocktail rather than a go-to mule bourbon.
I am still excited to dive deeper into the Best Bourbon You’ll Never Taste novel, but I am thoroughly disappointed in the Hirsch namesake bourbon. I was hoping for significantly better whiskey given that they had all of the ingredients for success: good financing, good branding, and the opportunity to select pretty much any whiskey they wanted for their products. But in this case, the investment just didn’t pay off.
This is an experimental bourbon brand, so I understand that not everything will work. I really hope that they keep this up and try some other varieties, because there’s undoubtedly something delicious out there for them to discover. This particular variety, unfortunately, is in the “does not work” category.
|Hirsch The Horizon
Indiana, United States
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 46% ABV
Price: $34.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 1/5
The original A.H. Hirsch Reserve may sell for thousands of dollars on the secondary market, but this is barely worth the the $35 I paid.