The landscape of limited release bourbon and American whiskey is really feeling stuffed to the gills these days, but if there’s one thing in particular there will always be more room for, it’s a big ‘ole age statement, presented at an advanced proof point. Truly, that combination will never go out of style, and it forms the basis for the Heaven Hill Heritage Collection series … though the distillery has also come up with a few ways to offer a bit more novelty at the same time.
The first release of the Heritage Collection series was last year’s 17-Year-Old Barrel Proof Bourbon, an absolutely classic Heaven Hill bourbon dram that ultimately went on to make our list of the best whiskeys of 2022. For this second release in the series—it starts shipping on March 1, 2023—the company has focused on a slightly different, though significantly more rare mash bill.
On the surface, the initial difference looks to be so small as to be almost insignificant. After all, the classic Heaven Hill bourbon mash bill is 78% corn, 10% rye and 12% malted barley. How different is a “corn whiskey” mash bill of 80% corn, 8% rye and 12% malted barley really going to be? Does subtracting 2% of the rye really constitute a different product? Is the Mellow Corn on your package store shelf, priced at $15 or $20, essentially just Heaven Hill bourbon on the cheap?
The big, transformative difference is in how these whiskeys are aged, because the federal definition of “corn whiskey” specifies that it is to be aged not in newly charred American oak, but reused casks. Thus, the product wouldn’t qualify for the label of “bourbon” in the case of Mellow Corn—but what happens when you leave that corn whiskey in the cask for two decades? Heaven Hill’s Heritage Collection No. 2 is the answer.
This is 20-year-old corn whiskey, aged in once-used bourbon barrels. It doesn’t quite seem to be at barrel proof, though it’s still a plenty advanced strength overall at 57.5% ABV (115 proof). It’s the first time that Heaven Hill has bottled this mash bill at such an advanced proof point, effectively making this a flavor profile that has never really existed under the brand before. That’s an exciting proposition, though it sort of blurs the line between the tradition of the Heritage Collection and the more experimental focus of the Parker’s Heritage series, which annually releases each fall. Regardless, there should be plenty of whiskey geek curiosity about this one, even with a painfully high MSRP of $290. I’m afraid 20-year age statements still command a big premium.
So with that said, let’s get to tasting.
On the nose, 20 years in even a re-use barrel has given this whiskey quite a panoply of oak and spice notes that are the first thing I’m noticing up front—gingerbread, ginger ale and spicy, somewhat musty oak. There are deeply caramelized sugars, suggestions of molasses and caramel, along with corny sweetness. Dark fruit suggests plum and dried fruit, along with perhaps a touch of fudge.
On the palate, this is another oak and spice showcase, with deep toasted oak notes, and plenty of cinnamon, both sweet and hot/spicy. I’m getting molasses again, but also more herbal notes of mint and tobacco, and possibly some leather. Sweetness is moderate, but there’s also some significant tannin that keeps this from seeming all that overtly sweet. The finish dries out a bit, and the heat remains pretty sturdy even if it’s not exactly at barrel proof. Overall, the effect isn’t quite as sweet as I probably would have expected from corn whiskey at this proof, but two full decades in a barrel has unsurprisingly contributed a lot of wood impressions and some tannin, even if those barrels are being reused.
All in all, it’s not quite the obvious, immediate hit that last year’s 17-year-old bourbon was, but I am quite enjoying the novelty of tasting an ultra-mature version of one of the company’s most humble offerings. It makes sense a second entry in this Heritage Collection, as the limited release series branches off in exploring new pathways of the company’s classic mash bills. Perhaps we’ll see some well-aged wheated bourbon or wheat whiskey next? It will be exciting to find out.
Distillery: Heaven Hill
City: Bardstown, KY
Style: Straight Corn whiskey
ABV: 57.5% (115 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $290 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.