Our friend, Julia, sampling the goods

A Chambers Street First: We Bought a Full Barrel of Bourbon!

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The Bourbon industry is exploding, and stocks of aged whiskey are being depleted by customers around the world eager to try America’s most celebrated spirit. This is great for business, but one of the issues with an aged spirit is that it takes time – a whole 12 years for Heaven Hill’s delicious Elijah Craig label. The industry has taken notice, and production has ramped up to a degree that puts the nation’s barrel supplies in jeopardy (one requirement for a whiskey to be “Bourbon” is that it must be aged in unused, charred, white oak casks, so a new barrel is required for every batch. After being used in the States the barrels are used by almost every other producer of aged spirit such as Scotch, rum, tequila, etc.) In order to support the increasing demand, there are now almost 5 million barrels of Bourbon resting in Kentucky – more than the state’s population!

I wanted to get a closer look at the Bourbon industry, and I thought that with all of these barrels it would be fun to lay claim to one for the store, so in April I visited Kentucky and the facilities of six of the biggest producers. Most Bourbon is made in the gentle, rolling hills between Lexington and Louisville – beautiful farm country of corn fields and roaming horses. Visiting most distilleries is more akin to visiting a factory or mill than the family-run wine domains that we work with. A medium sized distillery, such as Maker’s Mark, produces 1.4 million cases of Bourbon annually, and Jim Beam, the biggest producer of Bourbon, shipped 15 million cases last year. These numbers are jarring for us, since we’re used to extolling` the exclusive/craft qualities of what we sell, but the reality is that many delicious single-barrel Bourbons are the result of having a broad selection of barrels to blend from. Kentucky’s biggest producers stock “rickhouses” 7 or 8 stories high which can hold 10,000 barrels.

Not all barrels are created equally, and the same can be said about locations in the warehouse. The best spots create “Honey barrels,” delicious casks whose quality stands alone without the mingling of other barrels. I was told that factors ranging from the building’s orientation or its construction materials may influence where the sweet spots are found.  Bourbons aged on higher floors are generally considered very desirable – the idea is that more temperature fluctuation will occur, and therefore the aging whiskey will expand and contract in and out of the toasted oak more frequently and pick up more oak and vanilla flavors from the wood. These are the whiskies that I wanted to try, so when given the chance to taste a barrel from the 7th story of one of the legendary Heaven Hill distillery’s warehouse, I jumped! We tasted this cask next to some examples from lower floors which were quite good, but this barrel stood out as a clearly superior example and showed amazing concentration of sweet caramel flavors, zesty pepper, and a long, rich, vanilla finish. It’s taken us a while to have the barrel delivered to us, and because of strict New York liquor law it will be labeled another Heaven Hill brand called Henry Mckenna, but we couldn’t be happier with the resulting product. Unfortunately, it’s a bittersweet victory, as Heaven Hill has discontinued the program in New York because of lack of stock to fill the state’s demand, and thus this will be a onetime offering… Although I selected a delicious wheat whiskey barrel that day as well – stay tuned! John Rankin

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Henry McKenna Kentucky Bourbon 10 Year Single Barrel Bonded

Our first barrel selection! This cask spent almost 11 years on the top floor of a Heaven Hill Warehouse. There the whiskey concentrated to almost 70% alcohol (the climate of Kentucky causes water to evaporate before alcohol, so the barrel’s volume had shrunk to very little, and the juice left was extremely concentrated.) Our guide encouraged us to slap the mostly-empty barrel to hear a resonating echo through the hollow cask. The Bourbon was then diluted to 50% alcohol for easier drinking, but be forewarned: this is a full-bodied whiskey with layers of sweet corn, spicy oak, and a long, rye-influenced, spicy finish. The barrel yielded only 21 half cases, so act fast! John Rankin

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