Apologies in advance, as this review is more of a case study than an actual useful review. I’ve reviewed Henry McKenna bourbon before and even a prior 10 year-old Single Barrel bottled for K&L. This is a single barrel that you’re not likely to see on shelves, not because it’s rare or desirable but just because it’s been sitting on my shelf since 2019. Don’t worry – you’re not missing anything.
This barrel is from a batch of Henry McKenna’s Bottled in Bond line, which is usually a good sign in a bourbon these days. The 50% ABV required for BIB is (in my opinion) a great drinking strength, and the BIB
hoops requirements tend to lead to more of a quality mindset than a “big batch mass production” mindset in the producer. In case you didn’t bother to click on the links above, the short version is that the brand is Heaven Hill bourbon using the same mashbill as Elijah Craig and Evan Williams (75% corn, 13% rye, 12% barley). It’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon, made at Heaven Hill’s DSP-KY-1 facility and warehoused (I think) at DSP-KY-31.
This single barrel release (Barrel 8141) was filled on 12/31/2009 and was bottled at 10 years of age and the requisite 50% ABV. I picked it up a few years ago for $45 at K&L in Redwood City.
Nose: Very sweet, with both corn syrup and honey dominating the aroma. Amazingly light nose tickle considering the proof. Deeper in the glass there are fudge brownies, molasses, and deep dark roasted oak.
Palate: Thin body. A moderate tongue burn is followed by heavy dark notes of dark-roast coffee beans, resiny oak, bittersweet chocolate fudge, and toasted (even charred) nuts. Quite dry.
Finish: Medium-short in length. Some of the roasted notes continue through the finish, but there is barely any bitterness and not much sweetness, leaving a very light, dry finish that is at odds with the intensity of the palate.
With Water: Several drops of water initially mute the aroma, requiring a rest in the glass. The water brings out a little welcome sweetness on the palate in the form of milk chocolate, which continues through the finish. Water isn’t a bad idea here, especially if you feel the whiskey is too dry like I did.
Overall: A conundrum. One expects 10 year-old BIB bourbon to be bursting with flavor. This one is, but the flavors are very heavily weighted towards the “heavy dark oak” side, and both sides seem to evaporate on the finish. It’s not over-oaked, per se, but it does seem to lack a lot of the complexity that usually comes with long aging in Kentucky. I expect more from a $45 bourbon, especially in light of what competitor Dickel is accomplishing in the Bottled-in-Bond arena.
And now we come to the case study: I wanted to post this review to show that just because a label from a reliable brand has all the right words on it, doesn’t mean it’s going to meet your expectations in the glass. Prior to cracking the seal on this bottle, I had experienced Henry McKenna bourbon (as well as plenty of Heaven Hill liquid) and was expecting a solid, well-balanced bourbon with relatively good quality for the money. Instead, I got a glass of oddball juice with a heavy resinous oak slant, a disastrous want of balancing sweetness, and a vaporous finish. I’m not going to say I’m disappointed, since in my house there’s always a need for Old Fashioned fodder, but it’s not the bourbon I expected from the label. This is, of course, analogous to single barrel releases of Single Malt Scotch, which can also be wildly variable in both quality and flavor profile.