Henry McKenna Single Barrel has been known as a solid, mid-shelf, value bourbon.
Its specifications knock down many of the pins that bourbon fans want:
And yet, even with all it brings to the table, this bourbon has not traditionally been highly sought after. Maybe that’s because its label does not bear the words “limited release” or “special edition.” Maybe it’s because of its general availability.
Well, those days may be over.
At the recently convened 2018 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, one of the most prominent spirits competitions in the world, Henry McKenna Single Barrel was named “Best Bourbon.” Not best “single barrel” or other category – best overall bourbon.
Before the official announcement from the 2018 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, Fred Minnick posted an article discussing his experience as a panel member for the whiskey awards. He tracked Henry McKenna Single Barrel’s progress through the rounds, explaining his initial impression of it (as tasted blind, it was denoted only as “Glass A”) this way:
Beautiful and complex…At 100 proof, it packed more flavor than anything I had tasted at this point in the competition. Layered with toffee, caramel, almond butter, honey and fried pie crust, Glass A offered something special.
We’ve reviewed Henry McKenna Single Barrel previously. Although, and this actually seems fitting given its reputation and position prior to the award, we basically reviewed it in passing.
Due to its recent recognition, we decided to revisit the bourbon. Because it is a single barrel product, there can be variation between bottles. In fact, Fred Minnick’s article touches on the fact that some may suggest that the particular bottle submitted at the 2018 San Francisco World Spirits Competition was from a “honey barrel” that does not accurately represent what is typically found on retail shelves. Minnick shot down this argument, stating that he was told the bottle that was submitted for the competition was simply pulled from a local San Francisco shelf, almost as an afterthought.
Anyway, because single barrel products can vary from bottle to bottle, we decided to compare four different bottles of Henry McKenna Single Barrel to see whether there was any appreciative variation, but also to see whether they could change the bottle’s standing in our own minds.
Henry McKenna Single Barrel (barreled 8/16/2005)
Nose: Sweet caramel candy; underlying fruit (which emerged much more after a few sips – apricot, peach, apple, plum), cherry; lacking in spice, which is expected given the low rye content; charred oak and charred grill grates; salty peanut shells; vanilla/lemon cake.
Palate: Roasted peanut shell and charred oak; soft caramel; some dark chocolate. Much less fruit than the nose.
Finish: Somewhat abrupt; a bit dry with some toffee, roasted peanut shell, and charred grill grates.
Henry McKenna Single Barrel (barreled 10/22/2007)
Nose: A chocolate candy bar filled with caramel, nougat, and nuts (though less nuttiness than the first sample); pepper spice, pre-ground black pepper; sawdust; not as much fruit as the first sample, but some raisin and date. Suede leather.
Palate: A cooling effect initially due to the oily mouthfeel; some mint; chocolate covered cherries; toffee; french silk chocolate; vanilla.
Finish: Longer than the first sample, probably due to the mouth coating/oily texture. Some fruit – apple, cherry.
Henry McKenna Single Barrel (barreled 12/14/2007)
Nose: Peppery oak; peppercorns; dark chocolate; fresh-sawed oak, which makes it smell younger than the others; overripe peach; more ethanol than the others; some almost cloyingly sweetness, like processed white sugar; vanilla.
Palate: Stinging white sugar, like pixie stick sugar; peppery; under-ripe blackberry; noticeable lack of nuttiness; very drying.
Finish: Dry and short; not any noticeable change from the palate.
Henry McKenna Single Barrel (barreled 12/20/2007)
Nose: Toffee, brown sugar; sweet and salty peanuts; mature oak and cedar; some faint butterscotch and caramel; vanilla; some fresh red pepper.
Palate: A thicker mouthfeel – almost chewy; vanilla; a lot of candy bar flavors, like a Snicker’s bar; some slight bitterness similar to a high cacao content chocolate; some blackberry, but not very fruity; some red apple skin; some underlying black pepper.
Finish: The longest of the four; some bitter chocolate and tannins; vanilla; light pepper.
One of these bottles was not like the others. The third bottle, barreled 12/14/2007, had the highest variance. It was almost cloyingly sweet and had a sharper note to it that the other bottles did not have.
The other three bottles were much more consistent with each other. However, the standout winner for us was the fourth sample, barreled 12/20/2007. This one also, interestingly, had the darkest color.
Nevertheless, even the fourth bottle did not stand out in the way that Minnick described in his article. It is still difficult to see how Henry McKenna Single Barrel’s ceiling could reach that point.
We circle back to where we started. Our initial impressions remain mostly unchanged. Henry McKenna Single Barrel is a great value bourbon, but a “best bourbon” it is not. So long as those seeking out this bourbon have calibrated their expectations according to what this bourbon has been known for – rather than what it was recently awarded – it should not disappoint.
If you’re interested in a behind-the-scenes look at our sampling, and some commentary with additional details about Henry McKenna Single Barrel as compared to some of Heaven Hill’s other bourbons, check out the video below:
Gentlemen devoted to the finest.