One of the aspects of whiskey maturation that tends to be taken for granted is the fact that the vast majority of bourbon is matured within barrels that have been charred within a relatively narrow field of “roastiness.” All barrels must be newly charred for the whiskey maturing in them to federally qualify as bourbon, but the degree of that char is left up to the cooperages and distilleries, which theoretically means that much variation is possible. Despite that freedom, though, pretty much every major bourbon distiller uses what is referred to as a ”#3” or ”#4” char in their barrels, with limited exceptions, because these levels are widely thought to provide the most classic bourbon experience and best balance of flavors.
This leaves types of chars that are rarely used. The ”#1” char, for instance, is the result of exposing the inside of the barrel to flame for a mere 15 seconds, and has some similarity with “toasted’ (rather than charred) barrels in that it can contribute a different, spicy aromatic wood profile. This wood profile is thought to contribute too much undesirable tannin to mature bourbon in it long term (for years at a time), so #1 char barrels are only really used as finishing barrels in experimental expressions. The same is largely true of the #2 char, which results from 30 seconds of flame.
The #3 char is where you start seeing a lot of commercial usage, as it is the standard char level for distilleries such as Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, Michter’s and certain Brown-Forman brands. This char results from 40 seconds under the flame, and provides a balanced bourbon profile. The commonly used #4 “alligator” char takes things one step further, as the wood begins to peel away, resembling a bumpy alligator hide after 50-60 seconds of exposure to the flame. The #4 char is the standard house char for other distilleries such as Wild Turkey and Buffalo Trace, while still other companies like Barton 1792 use a ”#3.5” char that is obviously in the middle.
What happens when you push things even further, though, past the point that is usually commercially available? That’s what the newest Parker’s Heritage Collection limited release from Heaven Hill is all about—exploring the effects of an even heavier, #5 char level (90 seconds) on the standard Heaven Hill bourbon mashbill of 78% corn, 12% malted barley and 10% rye. It’s a direct follow-up to last year’s limited Parker’s Heritage Collection release, which explored the same #5 “heavy char” barrels on a rye whiskey.
The Parker’s Heritage Collection series is one of Heaven Hill’s rarest and most sought-after, a once-yearly expression named for late Heaven Hill Master Distiller Parker Beam, who sadly passed away from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 2017. Currently in its 14th edition, each Parker’s Heritage release is completely distinct, often exploring experimental or novel processes or finishing techniques, and for the past seven years the series has raised more than $1 million for ALS research and patient care via contributions from Heaven Hill for each bottle purchased.
This year’s Parker’s Heritage Collection #14 begins as a fairly classic Heaven Hill bourbon, aside from the fact that it was matured in a #5 rather than #3 char barrel. It weighs in at a robust 120 proof and carries a 10-year age statement. More specifically, this batch consists of 102 barrels aged on the sixth floor of Heaven Hill rickhouse Y for 10 years, and the distillery says “the heavy char brings forth a caramel and maple sweetness, as well as slight smokiness developed after 40 Kentucky seasons in the barrel.” It carries an MSRP of $120, although retailers will likely gouge you for far more than that. Bottles should be hitting store shelves as we speak.
So let’s get to tasting, and see how these #5 char barrels speak for themselves. This is a bottle I was excited to try, as the combination of age and proof point would seem to place this bourbon neatly between 10-year-old Henry McKenna Bottled-in-Bond and 12-year-old (and slightly stronger) bottles of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof.
On the nose, my immediate impressions are of dark chocolate and some of the trademark Heaven Hill nuttiness, which is slightly musty-funky, reading with notes of peanuts and perhaps pecan. Salted caramel is another major note, as is a certain herbaceousness that I wasn’t expecting. I’m not getting a lot of overt roastiness, or something that makes me think “smoke” specifically, as one might expect with the heavy char experiment, but it does suggest no shortage of richness.
On the palate, this Parker’s Heritage release hits pretty hard and immediate, with a rush of brown sugar and salted caramel, into heat and spice. The dark chocolate note reoccurs, and there are flashes of rye spice, but it moves into more of a baking spice dimension that flirts with ginger and allspice. More savory notes then emerge, with tobacco and more herbaceousness, while heat is considerable but still not all that aggressive in comparison with some of the more recent Elijah Craig Barrel Proof releases such as A120.
Once again, though, you may have expected to see descriptors like “smoke” or “roasty” there, and this heavy char release may surprise some for not featuring them more strongly—at least until the finish. It’s on the back end that some of those trailing roast and French roast coffee-type notes finally come out, making for an elegant finish that I came to find myself quite enjoying.
All in all, this is a pretty nicely balanced release from Heaven Hill. It’s certainly not the most out there of the Parker’s Heritage batches, but has a good mix of elements—caramelized sugars, nuttiness, spice, heat, cocoa, savoriness and that subtle roast. Overall, I’d still lean more toward the decadence of this year’s Elijah Craig Barrel Proof B520 release, but this one represents a worthy experiment that I look forward to returning to in the future.
Distillery: Heaven Hill
City: Bardstown, KY
Style: Straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 60% (120 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $120 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.