Where you live can sometimes limit your ability to find good whiskey. For us, not everything is available in our local Austin liquor stores, even when it comes to the cheap stuff. One of our first reviews was of the J.T.S. Brown bourbon, (a version that is available nationwide), but one of our friends noticed that there was a different version on the shelves in Kentucky and brought a bottle home to share.
The brand was originally named in honor of John Thompson Street Brown Jr. who, along with his half brother, founded a wholesale liquor business that eventually became the Brown-Forman behemoth in the United States. The bourbon was created by J.T.S. Brown and Sons in his honor, but the brand was later transferred to Heaven Hill Distillery to continue production.
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, and would become the first master distiller of the facility.
As the years went on, the Shapira family bought out all of the other investors to become the sole owner of the business and changed the name to “Heaven Hill 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. The business survived and in 1999 they purchased from Diageo a new distillery in Bernheim, where production now takes place (but all aging still takes place at the original Bardstown facility).
That 1935 bet has paid off — big time. Heaven Hill Distillery is currently the largest 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.
- Learn More: What Is Bourbon Whiskey?
While this bottle might not have a prominent website or really much information available, there are some things we know from research and some other details we can glean from the bottle itself.
As a Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey, this is required to start with a mash bill that contains a minimum of 51% corn. Reportedly, the whiskey we’re dealing with is Heaven Hill’s standard mash bill, which should be 78% corn, 10% rye, and 12% malted barley. Those grains are cooked and fermented to create a mildly alcoholic liquid that is then distilled to create the newly made whiskey.
This is where the “bottled in bond” stuff starts to kick in. As with any typical straight bourbon whiskey, this spirit needs to sit in a charred oak barrel for a minimum of two years — but in this case, that “bottled in bond” label means that it gets an additional two years for a minimum of four in a barrel, and that facility needs to be a bonded warehouse that is inspected by the U.S. government. Once it finishes aging, a number of casks are blended together to create the right flavor profile, but (thanks to another quirk of the law) all of those casks need to come from a single distillery and more specifically from a single “distilling season” (basically a six month window). The end result is that you can be sure that this whiskey is from one distillery, made around the same time, and closely monitored throughout its life.
The whiskey is then bottled at a higher-than-normal 50% ABV and shipped, but apparently only to Kentucky — this specific bottle doesn’t appear to be sold anywhere outside its home state.
If you’ve seen one bottle, you’ve seen them all. This is basically a wine bottle with a screw-on plastic top and some labels.
It’s pretty clear that the labels haven’t changed in quite some time. The design looks straight out of the 1950’s, complete with gold background, cursive writing, and the portraits of three old white men on the front.
Probably the boldest thing about this bottle is the statement (not once but twice) on the front label that this is “KENTUCKY’S FINEST” bourbon. Somehow, I doubt the accuracy of the statement… but I appreciate the aspiration!
There’s a darker and richer aroma here than with the normal version of their bourbon, with more dark chocolate and brown sugar coming through prominently. Behind that is a little bit of cedar wood, some vanilla, and a touch of toffee caramel. All are great aromas, without anything unpleasant or overwhelming.
Those aromas translate very nicely and clearly into the actual flavor profile. First up is a healthy dose of brown sugar and dark chocolate, followed by a bit of that cedar wood component. As the flavor develops, it tastes just a bit like someone took a blowtorch and went a hair too far on the brown sugar, leaving this blackened, burnt sugar flavor that comes with a bit of a bite. That burnt brown sugar note lasts into the finish and, combined with some of that cedar note from before, is what really lingers on your palate.
Usually, you expect that when you add a little bit of ice, the darker and sometimes bitter components of the flavor profile will be toned down. And while there are some changes to this whiskey when we added ice, thankfully the darker and richer notes still shine through.
What is really happening now is that the burned sugar flavor we saw before is pretty much gone, along with the hair of bitterness it brought with it. You’re still getting those delicious darker flavors: the toffee caramel, the hint of dark chocolate, even that more earthy cedar note — but without going too far and turning into something scorched. A much more enjoyable sip without losing any of the major flavors.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
There’s something about a darker, richer, smokier take on an old fashioned that I particularly enjoy, and this absolutely hits the nail on the head.
As soon as you take a sip, you can see all of the components swirling together and balancing nicely — the dark and richer tones of the bourbon with the herbal aspects of the bitters. It’s a great performance that just needs a hint of sugar to really shine (more to balance the bitterness of the bitters more than anything in the bourbon).
I do think that this would benefit from the orange peel or a dash of orange bitters more than other versions of an Old Fashioned that we’ve tried. It doesn’t have that citrus note you sometimes see in higher end spirits, so you’ll have to add that yourself. But that’s a minor quibble on an otherwise good cocktail.
I hate to say it, but I don’t think this works very well in a mule.
The darker and richer components of the bourbon certainly make an appearance and counteract the ginger beer, but I think it over-balances. It goes in a deeper direction than usual, pulling this cocktail out of its usual “bright and cheerful” profile. The bitterness also comes back a little bit, mainly because there isn’t nearly as much sweetness in the corn content compared to what we normally see and leaves that aspect of the ginger alone.
This is just a dark, bitter, and frankly slightly unfortunate cocktail.
What we’ve got here is a bourbon that is punching well above its weight. This whiskey has all the power and depth needed to make really great cocktails, something that the original version lacks, and does it for like $2 more per bottle. It is an absolute steal.
Is it perfect? Nah. There’s certainly better stuff out there on the market — but you’re going to need to pay nearly double the price for anything else approaching this level of deliciousness.
|J.T.S. Brown Bottled in Bond Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Kentucky, United States
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: 3 Years
Proof: 50% ABV
Price: $15.99 / 750 ml
Overall Rating: 4/5
An excellent budget bourbon, as long as you can find it.