by Scott Hill
For some odd reason, Heaven Hill has always been one of those distilleries that I subconsciously discount and thus largely ignore. Why? I’m not exactly sure. Maybe because I’ve never viewed them as “top shelf” like some of the other distilleries (save Parker’s Heritage, which I’ve never seen on a shelf)? Just maybe I ignore the quality mid-shelf products that I historically love (Pikesville Rye is outstanding, Larceny (wheated) is delicious and I’ve always been a fan of Elijah Craig 12-year), and only consider Heaven Hill to be “bottom shelf”?
The “Evan Williams” and “Henry McKenna” names have never been much of an interests to me. Until now.
A few weeks ago, I again read through the mash bill breakdown on www.bourbonr.com. It’s a great read, and it coincided with the purchase of a bottle of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof (which has to rank in my all-time top-10 bourbons). These series of events got me realizing that Heaven Hill does produce some top-notch bourbons, and deserves some much needed attention.
After a bit of research, I decided to focus on small batch and single barrel bourbon offerings from Elijah Craig, Henry Mckenna and Evan Williams. So I picked up a few new bottles, including a No Age Statement Elijah Craig, the Henry McKenna 10 year, and two varieties of Evan Williams. I’ve intentionally excluded anything barrel-proof, as those tend to be a different animal in my opinion.
This past weekend, I’ve gave them all a whirl in effort to decide whether I could enjoy the lineup, and whether I could discern any differences in five small batch/single barrel bourbons that all originate from same mash bill and only span roughly 4 years of time (excluding the Evan Williams 1783, which I believe is a bit younger).
Evan Williams 1783 Small Batch – NAS (86 proof) ($21)
Nose: Dark fruit, honey, sweet corn, peanuts and acetone
Palate: Semi-sweet, cola and leather, mint; a bit watery
Finish: Caramel but predominantly woody; acetone burn
Overall: An enjoyable pour for something that is a bit too young and unrefined; a little thin but not overly watery; unfortunately, for a few dollars more you can really step up in quality. Nonetheless, I expect worse, and was pleasantly surprised.
Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage – 8 years, 4 months (86.6 proof) ($25)
Nose: Oak, vanilla, light butterscotch, corn, acetone and peanuts
Palate: Sweet leading to spice (cinnamon), vanilla, woody and lime
Finish: Peppery, lime and vanilla.
Overall: Clearly from the same family as the EV1783SB: similar in profile with a noted thicker mouthfeel. Fairly woody and dry from the tannins, and overall a bit more robust than the EW1783SB. Overall better quality and worth the few extra dollars.
Elijah Craig Small Batch – NAS (believed to be a blend of 8 and 12 year) (94 proof) ($26)
Nose: Woody, vanilla, caramel, corn, peanut and mint
Palate: Oak, vanilla, peanut and caramel.
Finish: Oak, dark fruit, sweet and lingering spice (cinnamon).
Overall: Higher proof by about 5% than the EWSBV, which adds to the heat but also richens the mouthfeel. Time has added a bit more woodiness, including the more prominent vanilla and caramel notes. A more enjoyable experience and (from memory) much of what I expected from an Elijah Craig without an age statement.
Henry McKenna Single Barrel – 10 Year (100 proof) ($28)
Nose: Lighter woody nose, soft fruit, vanilla, spice and red licorice
Palate: Dark fruit, vanilla, butterscotch and spice
Finish: Long with spice and wood.
Overall: Great mouthfeel and very balanced. The ECSB-NAS has a bit heavier feel, but fades more quickly; the HMSB carries much longer. Not as bold as the ECSB-NAS, but overall more balanced and smooth.
Elijah Craig Small Batch – 12 Year (94 proof) (Discontinued – $26)
Nose: Fruit, red licorice, peanut, caramel sauce and mint.
Palate: Oak, dark fruit, vanilla, butterscotch and cinnamon; oily
Finish: Oak, dark fruit and lingering spice; a bit dry.
Overall: Its richer and deeper than both the ECSB-NAS and the HMSB. The extra age has served this one well. Just the right amount of depth without being overly complex. This one will be missed.
I slightly prefer the bigger, heavier feel of the ECSB-12 over the HMSB, but it is close. And that surprised me with the higher proof of the HMSB. The HMSB is more balanced, and carries as long as even the ECSB-12 (and longer than the ECSB-NAS). The HMSB is a very nice, more balanced bourbon than either of the ECSB versions, but it’s just not as interesting. The ECSB definitely suffers once you remove the age statement, although both are quite good. And against these three, the EWSBV and the EW1783SB just don’t stand up.
I’m happy with a glass of any of these, but I’d buy four of the five again (I don’t see a need to go back to the EW1783SB, with the others so close in price and availability). If I see an old 12-year of the ECSB on a shelf, you bet I’m picking it up.