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2015 Parker’s Heritage Malt Whiskey: Review and Tasting Notes

2015 Parker’s Heritage Malt Whiskey: Review and Tasting Notes

 

Last year, when Heaven Hill’s Parker’s Heritage Collection release came out, I characterized their annual offering as “like a box of boozy chocolate… you never know what you’re gonna get.” Indeed, last year’s version was a wheat whiskey – a fabulous, awesome wheat whiskey – and the years before that saw a “lovely selection of ten year old bourbon…  an 11 year old cask strength small batch… a 27 ! year old…  a cognac-finished… you get the idea. Box of chocolates.” This year, the ninth version of the collection, we get a Kentucky malt whiskey.

A KENTUCKY malt whiskey? When you read that, you’re probably thinking that would be the one piece of chocolate that bourbon fans would eye warily in the box – the piece that lingers long after the other chocolates have been eagerly snapped up. Malt whiskey is something that they do very well over in Scotland, and even in Japan, but good old Kentucky? There are a growing number of American malt whiskeys, especially of the craft variety – Stranahan’s is a great example, and other notables include Westland, Cut Spike, Balcones, Hillrock, St. George, Hudson, and Corsair. But Kentucky distillers? They’ve mainly stuck to bourbon and rye.

This year’s Parker’s Heritage release started with an experimental run of 141 barrels of  whiskey that master distiller Craig Beam put up in November 2006 – at 65% malted barley and 35% corn. It sat for a bit over eight years in new charred oak barrels (on the relatively high 5th and 7th floors of Heaven Hill’s Rickhouse Y for all you barrel geeks) before being bottled at 108 proof, with no chill filtering. Co-master distiller Denny Potter noted that Heaven Hill has “always prided ourselves on the high percentage of barley malt in our straight bourbons and ryes” – so there is a reason they decided to try out a more malt-centric whiskey so many years ago.

Will the market be clamoring for a Kentucky malt whiskey? I don’t know. But last year’s Parker’s Heritage wheat whiskey certainly showed the demand for a unique, well-made Kentucky whiskey that’s neither bourbon nor rye. Props again to Heaven Hill for pushing the whiskey envelope, and for supporting a good cause in the process (a portion of proceeds again benefits ALS research). So on to the tasting notes…

Parkers Heritage MaltParker’s Heritage Collection, 2015, Kentucky Straight Malt Whiskey
108 Proof
Approx. $100 Retail ($5 goes to Heaven Hill’s efforts to support ALS research)
Tasting Dates: September 01 – 08,  2015
Thirsty South Rating: Good Stuff*

Dark amber color, actually looking a good bit like maple syrup. It will get a bit cloudy (and lighter amber) with ice.

The nose is fairly mellow, subdued. You certainly get a bit of the wood influence from those eight years in the barrel, with faint cedar, maybe even a bit of pine, light brown sugar, light leather, a bare trace of vanilla. A touch of water or ice brings out a bit of crisp tangerine peel (not full on orange) and almond, plus a bit of poached pear. Behind it all is a noticeable but not in-your-face grain presence, lightly toasty and warm, a bit oatmeal-like even.

Sipping neat, it comes across a touch hot at 108 proof. Toasty/lightly-charred wood notes continue to emerge, as the dry wood elements from the barrel, somewhat sawdusty, are much more prominent here than on the nose. They are certainly more pronounced than the sweet aspects you’d typically get from a bourbon – and the grain notes from the malt still come through here as they do on the nose. A touch of water or ice expectedly smooths it out, brings out a light touch of caramel, and a very faint citrus fruitiness in the background, plus that sweet poached pear again. I still find it to be fairly mellow stuff – without the cinnamon brown sugar punch of Heaven Hill’s bourbons, nor the smoke or salinity most people may associate with Scotch.

The finish has a dry heat to it, and a hint of smoke (no peat, I repeat, no peat) – long and slightly bitter, though still pleasant. If you ask me, a cube of ice is the way to go, rather than neat, to get the most out of it.

Conceptually, I suppose this delivers exactly what you might expect from an eight year old Kentucky malt whiskey from a talented distiller – you get a balance of the typical Kentucky new char barrel, the grain-forward notes of a malt whiskey, and an overall profile that is a bit hard to pin down versus typical American whiskies. It’s not quite here (Kentucky) nor there (Scotland), but somewhere in the middle – a unique, well-integrated whiskey that doesn’t punch too hard in any direction. For those of you who seek out intriguing whiskies, this is certainly worth trying, and a great example of a big distiller’s take on American malt whiskey to contrast with its craft malt whiskey counterparts.

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* Thirsty South Rating Scale:
Wow – among the very best: knock-your-socks-off, profound, complex liquid gold!
Excellent – exceptional in quality and character, worth seeking out, highly recommended
Good Stuff – solid expression of its type/varietal, enjoyable and recommended
Fair – fairly standard or exhibiting obvious though minor flaws
Avoid – move away folks, nothing to see here, a trainwreck
Full Disclosure: Tasting sample provided by Heaven Hill.
Pikesville Rye and Rittenhouse Rye: Review and Tasting Notes

Pikesville Rye and Rittenhouse Rye: Review and Tasting Notes

 

Here’s the big news first – Heaven Hill has a new rye whiskey out that’s essentially an older, higher proof version of the beloved Rittenhouse Rye Bottled in Bond. This new one is six years old (at least) and 110 proof, rather than four years old and 100 proof. Wow, what’s not to love about that? Heaven Hill has time and time again put their amazing bank of great, aged whiskey to excellent use, and there’s no reason to think this won’t be another home run along the lines of the their Elijah Craig barrel proof releases.

DSC_1129Where this gets a bit confusing, though, is with the label. This new rye is not a Rittenhouse – rather, it is called Pikesville. Pikesville is also the name used on a younger (three year), lower proof (80), regional rye brand from Heaven Hill. Both of these Pikesville whiskeys share roots going back to a Maryland brand that originated way back in the 1890’s and was acquired by Heaven Hill in 1982. Neither of these Pikesville whiskeys should have anything to do with Rittenhouse Rye. But they do. Got all that?

Heaven Hill is careful to make clear that they produce Pikesville in Kentucky. And remember how I said this was essentially an older, higher proof Rittenhouse? Sure enough, Heaven Hill has confirmed that Pikesville (a self-proclaimed Maryland-style rye) and Rittenhouse (a self-proclaimed Pennsylvania-style rye) are indeed the same mash bill (51% rye, 39% corn, 10% malted barley). So it goes… as long as they taste good, who am I to quibble with the distinctions between a Maryland-style and Pennsylvania-style when they’re both actually made in Kentucky and are essentially siblings of each other?

The new Pikesville rye has started rolling out in select markets, and will be seeing national distribution this fall. Rather than just taste it on its own, I decided to do a side by side with the Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond. While Rittenhouse doesn’t carry an age statement, word is that it’s basically four year old whiskey, so the Pikesville has roughly two years of extra time in the barrel on it. Heaven Hill has also said that Pikesville’s barrels have been carefully chosen from a more specific section of the rick houses than what Rittenhouse is pulling from. So here we go – a four year old, Pennsylvania-style rye and six year old Maryland-style rye, both made in Kentucky – head to head.

DSC_1136Rittenhouse Rye Bottled in Bond Straight Rye Whiskey
100 Proof, Approx. $24 Retail
Tasting Dates: June 15 – July 17, 2015
Thirsty South Rating: Good Stuff 

First off, I want to point out that this is the Rittenhouse that was distilled by Heaven Hill (D.S.P. KY 1 for all you whiskey geeks) – not the older version that was distilled by Brown-Forman. Rittenhouse has long been a favorite for rye-based cocktails, especially when you can find one for $20 (it has crept up to the mid-$20s in most retailers).

On the nose, there’s some honey and butterscotch, but it’s buried beneath green wood, a cinnamon edge, a hint of vanilla. Neat, you get a rush of heat, then some dark brown sugar, a bit of rum raisin, dark cocoa powder, assertive rye spice, and a rich syrupy (but tingly) finish. This is no minty/super-herbal rye – it wears it’s hefty corn presence prominently and wears it well. A cube of ice rounds out the Rittenhouse nicely and helps balance the spicy edge and the dark, sweet core. But really, this rye is on the beast-end of the spectrum – it’s a bit too powerful for its own good when drinking neat, but works wonders when paired with lighter ingredients in cocktails like a Manhattan.

DSC_1131Pikesville Straight Rye Whiskey
110 Proof, Approx. $50 Retail
Tasting Dates: June 15 – July 17, 2015
Thirsty South Rating: Excellent 

The color here vs. the Rittenhouse is quite similar, maybe a bit darker for the Pikesville, but both a pleasing copper hue. Dang, right away on the nose, you get a lot more nuance, a lot more character, a lot more… intrigue. Despite the higher proof, the nose comes across more integrated, less heat. There are waves of honey and brown sugar and vanilla – typical bourbon notes – but the rye presence keeps the sweetness in check, weaving in and out with subdued floral notes, warm cedar wood, dark cocoa-coated almonds (funny enough, I’ve gotten a similar note from the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof – is there something going on in those Heaven Hill barrels?).

Sipped neat, the Pikesville continues to show the benefits of those two years in the barrel. The spice level perks up – sharp jabs of nutmeg and clove and cinnamon, again the warm wood, and those cocoa-coated almonds playing out over a long warm finish. Over ice, even nicer, still sharp. A touch of water also helps bring out the depths of flavor. You do get the commonalities with the Rittenhouse (Maryland vs. Pennsylvania, be damned) – and, again, this is clearly not a rye of the heavy-mint/dill variety.

Verdict: So the extra few years and 10 points of proof on the Pikesville are indeed beneficial. I’m still more likely to use Pikesville for a Manhattan than to sip neat, which makes it a pricey option to amp up a drink, but whether in a cocktail or sipping over ice, Pikesville offers a solid upgrade over the already-very-solid Rittenhouse Rye. The Maryland vs. Pennsylvania semantics don’t bother me at all – they’re both good drinks, made by a good distiller, and competitively priced. I’m betting the Pikesville will not be an easy one to track down, so if you do see a bottle and you’re a rye fan, do give it a shot.

DSC_1124

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* Thirsty South Rating Scale:

Wow – among the very best: knock-your-socks-off, profound, complex liquid gold!
Excellent – exceptional in quality and character, worth seeking out, highly recommended
Good Stuff – solid expression of its type/varietal, enjoyable and recommended
Fair – fairly standard or exhibiting obvious though minor flaws
Avoid – move away folks, nothing to see here, a trainwreck

Full Disclosure: Tasting sample of Pikesville provided by Heaven Hill.

DSC_1127

Parker’s Promise of Hope

Parker’s Promise of Hope

Parkers Heritage Promise of Hope BourbonAs I write this in the first few days of January 2014, a bitter cold is making headlines and turning much of the nation into a mean and nasty freezer state. The remnants of the storm they called Hercules are still being felt in the northeast. The thermometers read less than zero in a big swath of the midwest. And a lot of people are struggling to get through this cold snap. They’re worried about getting stuck in their home due to ice or snow, or even finding a warm place to stay the night. Frivolities like limited edition spirits in fancy bottles are decidedly not top of mind.

Me? I’m fortunate enough to say I’ve got it relatively easy. Atlanta is far from the worst of this weather, my heat is keeping things a comfy 72 degrees in my house, and I’ve got plenty of food, water, (bourbon), and friends and family to keep me healthy and happy for the time being. But I can’t help but think about those in need, and ways to help them out (here’s one way – and some helpful hints on dealing with the cold as well).

Which is all a roundabout way to introducing the latest Parker’s Heritage Collection bourbon release from Heaven Hill, dubbed Promise of Hope. This year’s release (out since October 2013) is distinguished by the fact that, for every bottle sold, $20 is being given to the ALS Association to help fund research and patient care for those effected by ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Parker Beam himself, the master distiller who has worked with Heaven Hill since 1960, was diagnosed with ALS  in 2013, so it’s a cause clearly very dear to the Heaven Hill family.

At $90 or so, this is not cheap bourbon, but knowing that it supports a cause like this takes the sting out of the price. Previous Parker’s Heritage Collection releases have run the gamut from an 11 year old cask strength small batch in 2007 (its first year), to a 27 ! year old release, to a cognac-finished release (by the way, Heaven Hill, please update your website, since the last edition shown is from two years ago!). This year’s Promise of Hope is fairly straightforward in its premise – a 10 year old single barrel bourbon that simply hits all the things Parker Beam looks for, from the age, to the location in the rickhouse where it matured, to the proof (96) it was bottled at. It’s basically the very best of the best of what the Evan Williams Single Barrel can be (at a higher proof). Which is to say that it’s very, very good. Prototypical Evan Williams/Elijah Craig excellence.

Amazingly, there’s still some of this stuff to be found if you get lucky. It hasn’t fallen prey to the mania around bourbons like Pappy or the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. If you do see a bottle, I highly recommend picking it up. It’s a good cause, and a great bourbon. Tasting notes and review below.

Parkers Heritage Promise of Hope BourbonParker’s Heritage Collection, Promise of Hope, Single Barrel, 10 year old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
96 Proof
Approx. $90 Retail
Tasting Dates: November 2013 – January 2014

I have to admit that I wasn’t fully appreciative of this bottle on the first few tastes back in November. It tasted, well, a bit pedestrian for the price. The fact that I knew it was basically Evan Williams Single Barrel (though hand selected especially for this  release by Parker Beam) maybe played with my mind a bit, since EWSB runs for roughly a fourth of the price (a great bargain). But Promise of Hope is a bourbon that has grown on me over time, becoming a regular go-to when I’m in need of something to warm me from the cold or simply bring a slow smile to my face.

The nose here hits basically every note you expect it to hit… toasty oak, burnt caramel, cinnamon and vanilla, orange peel, a bit of crisp apple fruit, then a sharp mineral edge at the end. And, yes, the proof is just right for sipping neat. Plenty strong, tongue coating richness, but not at all too hot. Those same elements you get on the nose come out strongly on the palate, the fruit and grain a bit more pronounced, but the spicy cinnamon coming on stronger, too. Cloves and baking spice carry through into a finish that keeps going and going and going. Robust without being domineering, balanced and wholly integrated. It’s enough to keep you happy on a cold winter night, and it also puts you in the mind of thinking about the challenges that others are facing, and the fact that even a little thing like supporting a charity with a purchase (or a donation) can have an impact.

Thirsty South Rating: Excellent*

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* Thirsty South Rating Scale:
Wow – among the very best: knock-your-socks-off, profound, complex liquid gold!
Excellent – exceptional in quality and character, worth seeking out, highly recommended
Good Stuff – solid expression of its type/varietal, enjoyable and recommended
Fair – fairly standard or exhibiting obvious though minor flaws
Avoid – move away folks, nothing to see here, a trainwreck
Full Disclosure: Tasting sample provided by Heaven Hill. Donation made by Thirsty South to the ALS Promise of Hope Fund.