Head to Head: A Tale of Three Old Fitz’s

As a part of our winter series on bonded spirits, in this episode we will be comparing three bottles of the same bourbon, Old Fitzgerald, Bottled-in-Bond. Two are from the same distillery (presumably). Special thanks to White Dog & Tommyboy for giving me these bottles (yes they were gifts, those guys are both outstanding individuals).

All three are 100 proof wheated straight bourbons with no age statement (NAS).

The bottles

1) 200 ml bottle with faux tax stamp, distilled & bottled at DSP KY 16 (Stitzel-Weller), Louisville, Kentucky, USAIMG_20130201_155428

2) 1 liter bottle, no tax stamp, distilled at DSP KY 16, bottled at DSP KY 24 (Glenmore) Owensboro, Kentucky, USA

3) 750 ml bottle, distilled at DSP KY 1 (Bernheim), Louisville, Kentucky, bottled at DSP KY 31, Bardstown, Kentucky (current edition)

Appearance

1) Medium copper with fairly thin legs and necklace.

2) Darker, with similar legs and necklace.

3) Same as #1 but with thicker legs

Nose

1) Alcohol, tea, tarragon, caramel corn.

2) Oak, toffee, corn chips, old wood, ancho chilies.

3) Grape bubble gum, alcohol, spearmint

On the palate

1) Full bodied and sweet. Alcohol, creamy caramel. The vegetal notes are gone.

2) Full bodied and slightly drier. Oak, toffee, Mexican chocolate.

3) Medium bodied and even drier. Dry oak, a bit of caramel corn and mint.

Finish

1) Sweet and hot. Seems to get drier as the finish goes on. A bit of oak, then fading back into caramel corn.

2) Woody. The wood lingers for a long, long time with pralines in the background.

3) Pretty hot and minty with touches of oak, eventually settling down into a caramel sweetness.

Parting words

I’ve been wanting to try this line up for a long time. A few things interesting things arose in this tasting. First was how much oakier the later Stitzel-Weller bottle was than the earlier one. The logical explanation for that would be that the bourbon going into the later one was older than that going into the earlier one. Why the maker would do that is a puzzle. Perhaps the infamous whiskey glut was reaching a climax when bottle 2 was filled? Bottles labeled with “Bottled-in-Bond” have to be filled with spirit from the same distillery and the same distilling season. So another explanation for the greater wood influence could be a series of hot summers during the aging period for that batch of whiskey.

Another interesting phenomenon was how minty bottle #3 got as the tasting went on. #1 had an herbal note at first, but that went away within a few minutes. That mint is considered one of the signature notes for the Heaven Hill stable of bourbons. Bottle#3 has convinced me that Heaven Hill, the current distiller of Old Fitzgerald, is now using its own house yeast strain in its manufacture. They are clearly not using Stitzel-Weller yeast or the “Schenley yeast” master distiller Parker Beam reported finding at DSP KY 1 when Heaven Hill took it over.

Finally, while differences certainly showed up between the three, I was surprised at how similar they all were too each other. There was none of the sweet vanilla in #1 & #2 that many of us who are accustomed  to drinking our Stitzel-Weller from bottles labeled “Van Winkle” might expect. Aside from the minty finish on bottle #3, I doubt I could distinguish any of these from each other in a blind tasting. Not to say #3 is the equal of #1 or #2; it’s not. But they are all middle to lower shelf wheated bourbons and they all perform that role well.

Old Fitzgerald, Bottled-in-Bond, whatever the distiller, is recommended.

Head to Head, White on White: Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond vs Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond (White label)

1) Evan Williams, Bottled-in-Bond (white label)

2) Heaven Hill,  Bottled-in-Bond, 6 years old (white label)

Maker: Heaven Hill, Bardstown/Louisville, Kentucky, USA

Age

1) NAS (4 y/o minimum)

2) 6 y/o

Proof: 100 (50% ABV)

Nose:

1) Alcohol, roasted corn, caramels

2) Alcohol, basil, toffee, leather, corn tortilla.

On the palate:

1) Medium-bodied. Hot and sweet. Caramel and not much else, but that’s not a terrible thing.

2) Medium-bodied. Butterscotch candy, a bit of oak, peppermint.

Finish

1) Alcohol, corn syrup, lingers for a little while and then fades.

2) Heat, a little corn, wood, tarragon.

Mixed:

1) OK. Not good in a whiskey sour. Clashes with the lemon in a very unpleasant way. Does very well in a Manhattan if good bitters and a good vermouth are used.  Serviceable in an old fashioned and in Coke.

2) Does well in all applications. The sour has a nice whiskey muddiness but doesn’t clash with the lemon juice. The Manhattan is good, but the herbal notes in the HH throw it slightly off balance. Does very well in an old fashioned and in Coke.

Parting words: These are both excellent value bourbons from, yes you guessed it, Heaven Hill. It’s something of a specialty of theirs. Evan Williams BiB is new  to Michigan. I had never tried it before and while it didn’t blow me away it certainly met expectations. As much as I appreciate the higher proof and enjoy the BiB style, I almost think I enjoy the standard Evan Williams a bit more. Seems like it has older whiskey in the mix that the BiB doesn’t because of the requirements for BiBs. At any rate, this is still a good value. Evan Williams BiB is recommended.

The Heaven Hill line is sold primary in the American South, but we do get one wretched expression here in Michigan, the 80 proof Old Heaven Hill (gold label). I wouldn’t use that to clean my drain. Heaven Hill BiB is infinately better. It is in the classic Heaven Hill style. The yeast and corn are the stars here. The yeast provides the trademark mint/eucalyptus (and tarragon and basil to my palate) flavors with the rye riding shortgun. The corn brings the sweet caramel out from the wood. This is not one of the top 5 whiskeys I have ever had, but it stands alongside Very Old Barton BiB one of the best bourbon values, period. To sum up, I will quote my friend and bourbon connoisseur Cliff. Upon tasting Heaven Hill white label at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival last fall he remarked, “This is good bourbon. This is good bourbon. This is solid bourbon!” Heaven Hill BiB, 6 y/o (white label) is highly recommended.

Evan Williams Single Barrel, 2000 vintage

Maker: Heaven Hill, Bardstown/Louisville, Kentucky, USA

Barrel: 440

Barreled/Bottled: 8-14-00/3-9-10

Age: 9 y/o

Proof: 86 (43% ABV)

Appearance: Dark copper with thin sticky legs.

Nose: Oak, toffee, allspice, crystallized ginger, lavender, tarragon.

On the palate: A little thin, but silky like those boxers your girlfriend got you for Christmas. Caramel, oak, sugarplum, mace, peppermint.

Finish: Dry. Oak, mint and alcohol fading into a sweet tingle.

Parting Words: The 2000 vintage of Evan Williams Single Barrel was the first to be distilled at the newly revamped Bernheim distillery in Louisville. Heaven Hill’s original distillery (and several warehouses) burnt down in 1996. The label was redesigned for the 2000 vintage so it’s very easy to distinguish between pre-Bernheim and Bernheim vintages.

Since this is a single barrel product, there will be some variation between different barrels. Heaven Hill does a very good job of picking barrels with similar profiles in a given “vintage”. Judging by barrel 440, 2000 is one of the best, on par with the pre-fire vintages 1994 & 1995 and the “in exile” vintages 1997-1999. It is perfectly balanced between oak, caramel, spice and herbal tastes and aromas. This a very enjoyable whiskey. The only knock on it is the usual knock on this series: the proof is too low. In spite of that handicap, this is still top notch.  Evan Williams Single Barrel, 2000 vintage is highly recommended.

Note: Since this is a single barrel product, there will be some variation between different barrels. That said, Heaven Hill does a very good job of picking barrels with similar profiles in a given “vintage”.

John E. Fitzgerald Larceny

Maker: Heaven Hill, Bardstown/Louisville, Kentucky, USA

Style: Wheat Bourbon

Age: NAS

Proof: 92 (46% ABV)

Appearance: Reddish copper. Lazy, clingy robe.

Nose: Alcohol, caramel, cola, oak, leather. A vague, undefinable Heaven Hill-ishness that instantly makes me think of the Bardstown Bourbon Heritage Center.

On the palate: Medium-bodied. Pretty close to the nose. Vanilla Coke, old leather jacket, mango nectar, sweet cinnamon, allspice, oak.

Finish: Sweet and fruity, then spicy cassia, then burn. Fades to a long-running tingle on the lips.

Parting words: Larceny is a brand-spanking new addition to the venerable Old Fitzgerald line of wheated bourbons put out by Heaven Hill. Heaven Hill acquired the line after United Distillers (a corporate ancestor of Diageo) closed the Stitzel-Weller distillery in Shively, Kentucky and divested itself of all its wheated bourbon brands (except for one, but that’s another show). Since the Heaven Hill acquisition, many bourbon lovers have considered Old Fitz a poor relation to the Weller wheated bourbons made by Buffalo Trace. Like the Parker’s Heritage Collection Wheated bourbon release of a couple years ago, Larceny is an attempt to rectify that.

Larceny does not rise to the dizzying heights of the 2010 PHC, but it is definitely an improvement. It stands up to its competition, namely Maker’s Mark, Weller Special Reserve and even the 90 proof Old Rip Van Winkle. It would be a mistake to compare it to something older and more expensive than those. It’s delicately sweet like a wheater should be, with some nice fruit and spice not found in its peers. It lacks the bitter char notes that often crop up in Maker’s and sometimes overpower the Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond.  Larceny won’t change your life, but it’s a pleasant weeknight sipper. It also paired nicely with a book I am reading about the theft of saint’s relics in the early middle ages. Larceny is recommended.

Evan Williams Single Barrel, 1998 Vintage

Maker: Heaven Hill, Bardstown/Louisville, Kentucky, USA

Distilled: Early Times, Louisville, Ketucky, USA (Brown-Forman)

Barreled: 9/28/1998

Bottled: 4/2/2008

Age: 9 yrs, 5 mos

Barrel: 374

Proof: 86.6 (43.3% ABV)

Appearance: Auburn with thin clingy legs.

Nose: Oak, pecan, alcohol, raw almonds, hint of cocoa, touch of wild blackberry.

On the palate: Amaretto, caramel, toffee, burn, much less tannic on the palate than in the nose.

Finish: Pretty hot and aggressive, but not unpleasant. Caramel, vanilla, dark chocolate, a kiss of oak. Lasts a very long time.

Parting words: The Evan Williams Single Barrel series has been going on for quite a while now. While all are single barrel (duh), all the barrels picked are very close to each other in flavor profile so there is usually little variation between bottles from the same “vintage”.

This one, the 1998, is one of my favorites. It has a big, woody nose but turns to soft caramel in the mouth, reminiscent of Elijah Craig 12 y/o or some of the Old Forester Birthday Bourbon offerings. There’s a reason for the latter resemblence. In 1996, the old Heaven Hill distillery in Bardstown burnt to the ground in the biggest distillery fire on record in the US. In the spirit of collegiality that Kentucky distillers have for each other, Beam and Brown-Forman helped out Heaven Hill and contract distilled for them while Heaven Hill got its current distillery in Louisville (purchased from Diageo) up to speed. The 1997 vintage was produced by Jim Beam, and the 1998 and 1999 ones were produced by Brown-Forman.

This series is easily collectable and very drinkable, especially in the summer time. Not all vintages are particularly interesting, but always good. One of the few drawbacks to them is the low proof. In keeping with other Evan Williams expressions, the single barrel edition is 86 proof (and some change), pretty low for a product like this. Despite the low proof, this vintage still shines as one of the best. Evan Williams Single Barrel, 1998 Vintage is a very good whiskey and is highly recommended.

Evan Williams

Maker: Heaven Hill, Bardstown/Louisville, Kentucky, USA

Age: NAS

Proof: 86 (43% ABV)

Appearance: Bright copper.

Nose: Corn syrup, mint, eucalyptus, butterscotch.

On the palate: Medium-bodied and sweet. Corn, butterscotch, vanilla, caramel, something slightly floral.

Finish: Minty, sweet. Vanilla toffee, mint julep.

Parting words: Evan Williams is the second best-selling brand of bourbon whiskey in the world. I have trouble figuring out why. Why it doesn’t outsell Jim & and Jack, that is.

Evan Williams is Heaven Hill’s flagship bourbon. It’s a distillery known for value bourbons, and Evan Williams is no exception. For a bourbon of this youth and price, one should expect a lot less. It’s not particularly subtle, but it is much more complex than Jack Daniels and more pleasant than Jim Beam. It straddles the line between the minty (yeast-related, IMO) and caramel characteristics of Heaven Hill bourbons, exhibiting a balance rare on its shelf. Evan Williams (black label) is recommended.

Bernheim Original Straight Wheat Whiskey

Maker: Heaven Hill, Louisville/Bardstown, Kentucky, USA

Age: NAS

Proof: 90 (45% ABV)

Appearance: Copper with thick clingy legs.

Nose: Alcohol, whole wheat bread, raisins.

On the palate: Medium-bodied, dry and subtle. Raisin toast, buttermilk biscuits, shortcake.

Finish: Slightly fruity, a little cinnamon, then fades softly.

Parting words: Bernheim Original came into being when Heaven Hill took over the Old Fitzgerald brand of wheated bourbons. For the first time in history, Heaven Hill was working with wheat, so why not try something different? They decided to name it Bernheim to honor the founder of their new distillery (or at least its immediate predecessor) in Louisville. If you’re ever in Nelson County, Kentucky, you can see I.W. and Mrs. Bernheim’s graves in the Bernheim Forest, a beautiful arboretum on land donated by the man himself.

My tasting notes are simple tasting notes because this is a simple whiskey. This is not a bad thing, but before you drink this keep that in mind. Rye whiskey has loads of flavor and character because of all the flavor rye brings to the party. Wheat and Corn have less flavor so Corn and Wheat whiskeys have less flavor. Bernheim Original is the only straight wheat whiskey being made by a major distiller, so there’s not much to compare it to. The whiskey to compare it with, in my opinion, is one of Heaven Hill’s aged corn whiskeys like Mellow Corn or Dixie Dew, rather than a wheated bourbon. The subtle, simple flavors of an aged corn are similar to the simplicity of wheat whiskey.

Bernheim Original works in Old Fashioneds and Manhattans, but some of its more delicate flavors can get lost. It works best as a refreshing summer afternoon sipper. And it’s at a reasonable price. Bernheim Original is recommended.

Parker’s Heritage Collection: Wheated Mashbill (2010 release)

Maker: Heaven Hill, Bardstown, Kentucky, USA

Style: Wheated Bourbon

Age: 10 y/o

Proof: 124.2 (62.1% ABV)

Appearance: Deep auburn.

Nose: Alcohol, vanilla butter cream frosting, oak, blondies, white pepper.

On the palate: Full-bodied, sweet, vanilla frosting, then it evaporates off the tongue. With a little water, the oak comes close to taking over. There is still a good amount of sweetness, and vanilla though and a bit of allspice and ginger to boot.

Finish: Big oak, then hot, hot hot and a long, lingering burn. With water, still some burn, but a little white chocolate, oak, turbinado sugar.

Parting words: When United Distillers Corporation was merged out of existence, Old Fitzgerald, the wheated bourbon flagship of the closed Stitzel-Weller distillery, went to Heaven Hill. The quality of Old Fitz had already been declining and the sale didn’t make it any better. Its reputation tanked, and not without justification. The conventional wisdom was that the folks at Heaven Hill just didn’t care about wheaters.

The previous entries in the Parker’s Heritage Collection (named for Master Distiller Parker Beam) were both from the rye bourbon mashbill. When this wheated bourbon edition was released back in 2010, it was something of a revelation. It has the sweet vanilla flavors one expects but it has power that few wheated bourbons have. Let’s hope it’s a sign of good things to come.

Parker’s Heritage Collection: Wheated Mashbill was an instant classic, and is pretty hard to find on shelves, but there are still some out there. It’s not cheap, either, but it’s worth every penny. Highly recommended.

Very Special Old Fitzgerald

Maker: Heaven Hill, Louisville, Kentucky, USA

Style: Wheated Bourbon

Age: 12 y/o

Proof: 90 (45% ABV)

Appearance: Dark auburn with quick legs.

Nose: Burn, sweet taffy, caramel, pecans. With a splash of water, cola notes pop out.

On the palate: Medium bodied. Cherry pie, pecan pie, and mincemeat pie (in that order). The nutty notes get stronger and stronger as it sits in the glass, until they begin to taste more grapey, like in a brandy. Water doesn’t change any of this too much, except to bring the nutty notes forward more quickly.

Finish: surprisingly dry. Burn, then some bitter walnut flavors and a reserved sweetness.

Parting words: Very Special Old Fitzgerald (VSOF) doesn’t get much respect in bourbon circles these days. It never really has. It was originally a part of the Bourbon Heritage Collection in which it played second fiddle to the revered wheater Weller Centennial. Centennial was 10 y/o and 100 proof, whereas VSOF was and is 12 y/o and 90 proof. I’ve had VSOF from that era and they are mild to the point of being dull. VSOF wasn’t helped by the fact that it was preceded by Very Old Fitzgerald and Very Very Old Fitzgerald which are regarded by wheater enthusiasts as two of the greatest bourbons ever made. Bottles of VOF and VVOF routinely go for hundreds of dollars on Ebay.

Compared to its current rival from the Buffalo Trace, Weller 12 y/o (also 90 proof), it seems a bit sluggish and muddled. Weller 12 has a bright acidic note that cuts through the rich brandy flavors and brings the fruit to the fore. If VSOF is mincemeat pie, Weller 12 is apple pie. Both are good, but unfortunately for the folks at Heaven Hill, Weller 12 is usually at least $5 cheaper than VSOF. Nevertheless, if the price is right (≤$35) VSOF is recommended.

Review: Rittenhouse Rye Bottled-in-Bond

Maker: Heaven Hill (distilled at Early Times Distillery, Shively, Kentucky)

Age: NAS (by law BiBs must be at least 4 y/o)

Proof: 100 (50% ABV)

Color: dark copper

Nose: Creamy caramel with a hint of dry wood and potpourri

On the palate: dry by tempered with some sweetness. A nice hit of cedar on the back end.

Finish: Dry, but lacking much in the way of woody notes. Just a pure, dry rye spice with some friendly heat lingering for a long, long time.

Parting Words: Rittenhouse BiB is my benchmark rye. It is everything a standard Kentucky-distilled rye should be. It’s firmly in the “barely legal” category, with a lot of corn character balanced with the spicey, fruity rye influence. It’s good for sipping, and cocktails and even works mixed with coke or ginger ale. But that’s what Beam Rye is for.