Today officially marks the start of “spooky season” — the beginning of October and the run-up to Halloween. For this year’s celebrations, my editor thought the perfect thing to do would be to force me to confront the thing that scares me the most: the bottom shelf of the liquor store. So over the rest of the month of October, we’re going to review eight liquors that all cost less than a trip to Starbucks and hope I don’t cry for my Blanton’s halfway through. And we’re kicking it off with the J.W. Dant Bottled in Bond Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.
Joseph W. Dant was born in Marion County Kentucky in 1820, and at the age of 16 in 1836 he took an old poplar tree and turned it into a whiskey still. Not exactly the most popular of still making materials, but for newly founded distilleries, the practice was fairly common in those days. Dant operated a true grain-to-glass operation: he grew the grains, selected the best ones from the crop, and distilled them on site into whiskey.
The distillery was a success, selling bottles as far away as New Orleans (which he supplied by floating them down the Mississippi on a raft himself), and by 1850 he had expanded his operation to include a new brand dubbed “Yellowstone.” In 1870 he moved to a new, larger distillery that was designed to be gravity fed — the fermentation tanks were located above the stills in the building, allowing the liquid to simply flow from one step in the process to the next without the need for pumps or buckets. After the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897 came into law, he began producing bottled in bond bourbon (one of the first distilleries to do so).
Dant died in 1902 and left the business to his two sons, J.B. and Bernard. J.B. took the Yellowstone brand name and opened a separate distillery where he continued to produce it, while Bernard continued to grow the original distillery. Both companies would be profitable, but with the onset of prohibition both were shuttered and the last stocks of whiskey were purchased by the Stitzel-Weller distillery group.
Once prohibition was repealed, the brothers would try to revive their family business but neither distillery would soar to the same heights as it had once seen. The J.W. Dant Distillery was re-opened in 1936 only to be sold in 1941 and shuttered in 1951. The Shenley company purchased the rights to the J.W. Dant name in 1952 and started using the brand name on a charcoal filtered bourbon of their own design in 1957, but thirty years later the Heaven Hill Distillery would purchase the brand and re-use it for a rebottling of their standard whiskey.
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 become 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 (including the Beams) to become the sole owner of the business and changed the name to “Heaven Hill Distillery”. Despite being bought out, though, 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. But 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. 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?
From what we can gather, this seems to be a re-bottling of Heaven Hill Distillery’s standard bourbon — just at a lower price point that normal.
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.
You might notice the term “sour mash” on the bottle — this is a reference to the practice of using the leftover from previous distillation runs to supercharge next vats of fermentation. It’s a traditional technique in Kentucky distilling, and one that tends to make for a more flavorful and consistent spirit.
At this point, 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; however, 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 for sale.
With the exception of the plastic screw-on top, this bottle looks like it is straight out of the 1960’s.
The bottle design is simple and straightforward, with a rounded cylindrical body, round shoulders, and a medium length straight neck. The glass on this bottle is clear, which nicely allows for the color of the liquid inside to shine through. It’s all capped off with the aforementioned plastic screw-on cap, which might be the cheapest feeling part of the bottle.
The labeling is straightforward: clean, readable, and unassuming. If we’re going with a 1960’s aesthetic for this product, then I’m loving it; I feel like it goes perfectly well served by a white-coat waiter on a green felt table top next to a cobbler shaker. I especially love the logo for the company, which seems to be four kernels of corn arranged inside a circle spelling out the Dant name. It’s a nice call back to the farming history of the Dant family, and a reminder of what went into making this bottle.
One thing that does annoy me a bit is that they explicitly state 1836 as the date that this brand was established. On the one hand, they are technically correct… but this is the fourth or fifth re-incarnation of that distillery depending on how you look at it. This isn’t the same beast that was bottled nearly two centuries ago, so I feel like trading on that history is a bit of a cheat.
There’s a nice, rich color to this bourbon, which (thanks to the strict bottling controls) we know for a fact is solely thanks to the barrel aging and not due to any artificial coloring. I’d call it a dark rust, like the orange-y rust you’d find on the bottom of a ship while it’s being constructed.
Coming off the glass are two specific notes: brown sugar and cedar. Mixed in is also some vanilla and orange citrus, but the aromatic note from the cedar and that sweetness with a hint of molasses are front and center.
The very first thing I taste when taking a sip is some delicious dark chocolate combined with a hint of vanilla. That’s followed very quickly by some brown sugar to add sweetness and some additional depth, alongside some orange citrus which balance the flavors out with a bit of levity. As the flavors develop, the cedar makes an appearance along with a hint of black pepper spice, and on the finish I get a healthy dose of corn to remind me that I’m drinking an American bourbon.
What’s remarkable here is that the flavors are rich, well saturated, and nicely balanced. They might not be overly diverse or complex, and they lack the velvety smoothness of some other spirits, but it’s a surprisingly fine sipping bourbon.
As you’d expect, dropping a couple cubes of ice into the glass changes thing — you’ll notice from the first whiff that there’s a difference. Instead of the aromatic cedar and citrus components, all that’s left in the aroma is brown sugar and a touch of vanilla.
Thankfully, there is a bit more diversity in the actual flavor, as the dark chocolate has stayed behind to contribute some depth and richness to the flavor profile. That, plus caramel, brown sugar, and vanilla are the biggest notes that I’m getting at this point. As for the cedar and corn, though… those flavors have officially flown the coop.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
There are few things I love in this world more than a dark, rich, complex old fashioned. It just gives me the smoky cigar club vibes that I crave, and is an absolutely delicious experience. While this version of the cocktail might not be as complex as some others I’ve tried, there’s actually enough depth and richness in here to make me a satisfied customer.
That dark chocolate up front is the key to this whole puzzle. It provides the perfect foundation for the aromatics of the bitters to balance out, and from there this just becomes a rich and sweet ribbon of flavor. I would love to see more fruity notes in here or a bit of black pepper spice show up — but despite that lack of complexity, this is still a fine showing.
A whiskey doesn’t need to be super complex or particularly interesting to make for a good Kentucky Mule. All it really needs is some depth and some character. And while this whiskey has all the depth you’d want, the character is unfortunately missing in action.
There is a solid balance between the flavors between the darker, richer bourbon and the lighter, tangy ginger beer and lime juice. This is a delicious cocktail that really plays to the strengths of all of the components, with the brown sugar, dark chocolate, and vanilla flavors of the bourbon playing a critical and enjoyable role in the cocktail.
What I don’t get is anything complex or interesting on the finish. It’s a pretty boring and flat ending to an otherwise delicious drink, and something that a little extra rye content would really have helped in my opinion.
Well, it turns out there’s nothing to be afraid of here. This is a well executed, worthwhile bottle of whiskey to pick up. It has all the flavors you might want, and provides them for a downright reasonable price. (Here’s hoping the remainder of my spooky season bottom shelf bottles will be just as pleasant!)
The biggest problem with this bottle is the competition. Which, interestingly enough, primarily comes from other Heaven Hill brands. This bottle of J.W. Dant is about as expensive as a bottle of Evan Williams, which has a slightly better flavor profile and is a better value (in my opinion).
Now, this is absolutely worth the ~$13 you’ll spend for 750ml of this whiskey… but just know that there are better options if you can lift your gaze a couple feet from the bottom shelf to the middle rack.
|J.W. Dant Bottled in Bond Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey|
Kentucky, United States
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Special Type: Bottled In Bond
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 50% ABV
Price: $13.11 / 750 ml
Overall Rating: 3/5
Dark chocolate, brown sugar, vanilla, cedar, and a touch of orange citrus. While not super complex, it’s nicely balanced — and yours for a really low price point.