Blind tasting whiskey can reveal a lot, thanks to fewer preconceived notions clouding the experience. You’re literally going in blind! Where that can really get interesting is when you start blind tasting whiskeys from the same source but not the same label.
This week, we’re tasting six separate brands that are all made at the iconic Heaven Hill Distillery. All together, Heaven Hill makes a lot of booze. Way more than just six whiskeys. Still, unless you’re deep in the industry, you may not realize that, for example, Larceny and Rittenhouse are cooked off the same stills and rest in the same warehouses. Or that budget brands like Evan Williams and premium brands like Elijah Craig have the same mash bills and are aged in the same place.
To sort through this, we decided to see where the similarities and differences fall with six whiskeys made in the same place. But we’re not sticking to one mash bill from Heaven Hill. We’re ranking six of their whiskeys which include rye whiskey, a wheated bourbon, budget bourbons, and premium bourbon. Click the prices to order the expressions that look best to you!
Let’s dive in!
Part 1: The Taste
There’s a bit of a cinnamon toast nose that leads towards a hint of maple bar. The taste leaves that behind and blows out your senses with how hot it is. Once you get past that bold heat, there are touches of rummy sweetness and dry wood (not cedar or pine — more reedy) with a hint of savory fruit on the very end.
Goddamn! This was hot and nearly blew out my sense of taste. I needed a break and a whole glass of water to get back on track.
There’s a bit of old vanilla husks that’s more woody than sweet on the light nose. A sense of apple peels, stems, and seeds arrive with a very light spice. That lightness is very approachable (after the last sip) while leading towards a note of … banana, I think.
When it comes to heft, this is the polar opposite of the last dram.
Toffee leads to dried fruit and a very minor note of savory fruit. There’s a clear cinnamon vibe on the taste that’s touched by vanilla and dark chocolate … and a hint of dried wicker. The end leads you towards a cherry tobacco smoothness that’s a nice last touch.
Yeah, this is the rye. But damn, it’s going down well with that cinnamon and cherry.
There’s a vanilla vibe on the nose that’s subtle-yet-warm. The taste has this berry bramble like you’re falling through the stems and leaves and end up on a bed of blackberries and blueberries (hello, Elijah Craig). The sip touches on mild notes of vanilla and pepper with a hint of oak with a real velvet body tying everything together. The end leads towards a mild dried floral fragrant note along with those dark berries.
This is a keeper.
There’s a very, very slight vanilla and caramel hit on the nose. The taste is pure water that feels like it’s been dropped with essential oils of vanilla, oak, “spice,” and maybe apple. Wow. This is watery.
I’m honestly a little shocked.
There’s a classic nose of vanilla cake that leads towards cornbread. The taste is light yet peppery with hints at slightly musty oak and tobacco chew. The end is short but really leaves you nodding with a nice balance of tobacco, vanilla, and corn.
Yeah, Evan Williams b-i-b is still solid.
Part 2: The Ranking
6. PennyPacker (Taste 5)
Average Price: $24
This was created as an export-only bourbon for the European market. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, it was the best-selling bourbon in that market. In 2013, it was released on the U.S. market as a bargain bourbon from Heaven Hill via Borco bottling.
This was so watery it was almost offensive. Seriously, this tasted like I left a rocks glass out overnight with a pour of bourbon over ice in it and then woke up and drank it the next morning while downing a few Aspirin. Hard pass.
5. Heaven Hill Old-Style (Taste 2)
Average Price: $12 (one-liter bottle)
This is Heaven Hill’s entry point bourbon. The stuff is matured (for up to four years) in Heaven Hill’s massive warehouses and blended to be quaffable at a very affordable price and accessible proof.
This was shockingly more nuanced and deeply flavored than PennyPacker, even though it’s the same ABV and likely the same mash bill. I’m not the biggest fan of Old-Style — it is what it is and that’s fine — but I got a whole new respect for it this time around. There’s a least a there there when it comes to the taste, albeit fairly light with very middle-of-the-road “bourbon” flavors.
4. Larceny Barrel Proof A121 (Taste 1)
Average Price: $70
This is quickly becoming one of the most sought-after wheated bourbons on the market. The mash amps up the wheat with 68 percent corn supported by 20 percent wheat and 12 percent malted barley. The juice then spends six to eight years maturing in Heaven Hill’s vast warehouses. It’s then small-batch blended and bottled with zero fussing at barrel proof.
Hum… This was a slap in the face as the first dram. It really took a minute to get over since it was so warm. That being said, there’s a lot going on in this dram once you get past the initial warmth and it’s worth digging into more. Though, I’m definitely going to do that on the rocks going forward.
3. Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond Rye (Taste 3)
Average Price: $28
This rye is very much a bourbon drinker’s rye. The mash bill is only 51 percent rye with 37 percent corn, and 12 percent malted barley. The juice then matures under the federal regulations allowing it to be “bottled-in-bond” and is barely proofed down to 100 proof with that soft Kentucky limestone water before bottling.
This was a nice change of pace in this tasting. The cinnamon really popped and gave it away, of course. Still, this is perfectly drinkable and I’m looking forward to making a Sazerac with it.
2. Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond (Taste 6)
Average Price: $18
The juice is standard Evan Williams that’s barreled in a federally overseen warehouse. Then, after those barrels are blended, the juice is just brought down to 100 proof, allowing a bit more of that Heaven Hill craft to shine in the bottle.
This continues to be a whiskey I really can’t get enough of. It’s been my go-to (non-scotch) highball mixer recently. For the price, you just cannot beat this bottle.
1. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof A121 (Taste 4)
Average Price: $75
This expression is all about finding the best barrels in the Heaven Hill warehouses and letting that whiskey shine on its own. These are released three times a year and have been winning award after award. The whiskey in the bottle is generally at least 12 years old and bottled with no cutting down to proof or filtration whatsoever, thereby letting the barrel shine on its own.
This is one of the nicest drams I’ve had in 2021 (the year is young, I know). But that rush of berries is really hard to beat. This stands out as a fine whiskey all around. Moreover, the ABVs are higher than the Larceny, yet this doesn’t punch you in the senses at all.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
There were a couple of throughlines, though they were subtle. That dry reed and stem note popped up throughout. There was a savory fruit note that also seemed to peek in every now and then. It was kind of a melon note but could be more like a squash.
Did these whiskeys all feel like they were from the same distiller?
A few did, yes. You can kind of see how Old-Style gets to Evan Williams and how that can become Elijah Craig with a lot of luck in the warehouse. The Rittenhouse even felt familiar. The biggest stand out was the Larceny, by far. And the less said about the PennyPacker the better.
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