Iconic American whiskey distilleries have a tendency not to mess with success—once they find a formula that works, they dig in and defend that territory. They may riff on the central theme or aesthetic of their core brands, but they rarely go back to the drawing board to start with something entirely new—you have to keep in mind that doing something like that starts a timer, which only pays off after years of aging and tasting. Creating a new mash bill, for instance, might be the start of a project that takes four years or more.
At Heaven Hill’s Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in Louisville, KY, that process took eight years. From the time the tourist destination opened up in downtown Louisville, until today, the site hadn’t released a commercially produced whiskey of its own. But that has now changed, thanks to the arrival of a new brand called Square 6. And with it comes something new for Heaven Hill, which is a brand-new high-rye mash bill.
Bourbon geeks will know already that there are pretty much three primary mash bills at Heaven Hill that cover the vast majority of the distillery’s product. There’s the classic bourbon mash bill, which is merely 10% rye, and can be tasted in Evan Williams, Elijah Craig and other bourbon brands. There’s also the wheated bourbon mash bill found in Larceny and Old Fitzgerald, along with the company’s rye whiskey mash bill, which is 51% rye like most Kentucky ryes.
What Heaven Hill has done here is essentially split the difference, debuting a new mashbill that still qualifies as bourbon, but a more rye-forward one. Square 6’s new mashbill is 52% corn, 35% rye and 13% malted barley. The new recipe was conceived and shepherded by Artisanal Master Distiller Jodie Filiatreau, who has been distilling on the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience’s small copper pot still for years at this point, producing just a single barrel per day. That whiskey has been laid down over time, and makes its first appearance in the form of Square 6, which is non-age-stated but apparently roughly five years old, and bottled at 47.5% ABV (95 proof).
This is pretty significant for a few reasons. For one, pot stills aren’t solely used very often in bourbon distillation—they may be used in conjunction with column stills, but a “pot still only” bourbon is uncommon. It essentially hits at the goal of Square 6, which is presumably to be a more “artisanal” and limited run take on the profile of Evan Williams, the mass market brand of Heaven Hill. The MSRP certainly reflects this, as the company has priced it at an eyebrow-raising $90. This is a Kentucky-only limited release.
To be frank, on paper this seems like a pretty tough challenge for the brand to live up to. A 5-year-old bourbon at under 100 proof, for $90, is going to be a hard sell to just about any bourbon geek, even those who are curious about the distillation method and new recipe. Given that Heaven Hill produces so many bourbons that are great values, none moreso than 12-year-old Elijah Craig Barrel Proof in the neighborhood of $70-80, it means that Square 6 really has to deliver.
So let’s get to tasting, and see what we see.
On the nose, Square 6 immediately strikes me as corny and quite malty/doughy/bready, which isn’t exactly what I was expecting. The youth has contributed to this I believe, lending the rye character here more of a breadiness that I would associate with malted rather than unmalted rye. I’m getting black tea-like maltiness, along with charred corn, caramel corn, some floral notes and hints of ginger on the nose. I’m afraid it does smell rather youthful to me.
On the palate, things improve some. There’s significantly more spice here, with lots of pepper that then transitions into cinnamon sticks slathered in dark honey. It’s still quite malty and “doughy” on the palate, though, and it still gives a significant impression of youth. On repeated sips, I’m getting some more gingerbread, although it remains on the dry side, along with flashes of slightly tart oak. There’s an appreciable earthiness that likely comes from the rye, but I feel like most of the rye character is coming through via spiciness. The proof is fairly apparent and a little rowdy on the tongue, eventually melding into trailing spice notes. Overall, fairly dry and spicy, with occasional oak accents. I imagine it would work just fine in a Manhattan.
Assessed completely on its own merits, this is a pretty decent younger bourbon that indisputably has a more complex flavor profile than say, your standby bottle of Evan Williams White Label. However, that $90 price point is just something that can’t be justified on this one, as it lacks the maturity, complexity and composure you’d typically expect to get when spending that much on a bottle of bourbon. There’s no way that I would be able to rationalize buying this over so many other bourbons from the Heaven Hill portfolio, even with the things that make it unique.
Perhaps in the future, this high-rye mashbill will turn into something incredible when it has some more age on it. For now, it just can’t justify the “super premium” style price point.
Distillery: Evan Williams Bourbon Experience (Heaven Hill)
City: Louisville, KY
Style: Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 47.5% (95 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $90 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.