Tag Archives: Bardstown – KY

Whiskey Tasting Notes: Parker’s Heritage Collection

I haven’t done one of these in a while, as I needed to take a break from whiskey after going non-stop on them for nearly two months straight. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the recent trips abroad and at home, but too much of a good thing will quickly become a bad thing. Thus, the break. Meanwhile, I’m still putting in about 1000 words a day for the book, and will soon start the final editing process before handing off to my agent and publisher. But I’ll talk about the book later.

I got to taste this whiskey first hand at a visit to Heaven Hill, where Lynne and Dan led Krysta and myself in our own tasting event. Out of the several bourbons tasted, this is the one I migrated to, even though it was at cask strength.

What I’m about to say will likely tick a few whiskey folks off, but meh, I don’t think I’ve ever been too concerned about that. Cask strength whiskey is essentially a whiskey that has not had water added to it after aging. As a whiskey ages, a fair amount of evaporation occurs (to the tune of 2% a year), most of that water. So the whiskey will be stronger coming out of cask than it was going in.

This has become, what’s known in the marketing biz, a “thing”. Something to which they can upsell and mark-up the price of the whiskey by a few dollars and get even more profit from the customer.

The problem lies in the fact that, depending upon a consumers taste buds, alcohol is an anesthetic. Too high of a proof, and the taste buds, and nasal receptors literally become numb. And when these become numb, tasting…true tasting…becomes nigh impossible. The only way to rectify this is to add water to the whiskey, and bring it down to a point where the alcohol doesn’t numb the senses.

However, there are a few knuckleheads out there who don’t understand the above issue. So when water is added to a whiskey, they look at you as if you just spat upon a holy book. To them, let me say this clearly…if you want to taste a cask strength whiskey, you almost always have to add water. (As a side note, I’ve talked and drank with dozens of whiskey professionals, from master distillers to professional tasters to whiskey shop owners. Every single one of them added some water to their drinks. Not a one of them ever drank it straight. Of course the amount of water differed, but water was always added. Take that, you “purists”.)

So what is the big deal surrounding cask strength whiskeys? From my experience, once you deal with the excess alcohol, what is there is a whiskey that is far more complex in flavors than what one typically finds on the shelf of your liquor store. This is why I think that “Cask Strength” whiskeys deserve attention, not because they are a higher proof.

Parker’s Heritage Collection Bourbon was the whiskey that caught my attention while at Heaven Hill, and I had no problem in shelling out the $120 dollars for a bottle. I find that some bourbons push their oak-y flavors too far, and in fact, many distilleries strive to keep their spirits out of the barrels due to this same fear. This bottle pushes that time limit as far as it could go, without becoming excessively woody in it’s flavor. Oak flavors are there, at least a little, but with them was a nice cola undercurrent, with a little raisin and of course the ever present dark sweetness that bourbons are known for. It wasn’t overly sweet, nor dry, and struck a real nice balance upon my palate.

Out of the several bourbons we had whilst in Kentucky, this was the one of three that stood out. I’ll get to the second and third in different posts.

If you have the money, and don’t mind working with Cask Strength Whiskeys, I recommend Parker’s Heritage Collection.

The Bourbon Festival and the Missing Suits

There are some things you need to know when you talk about the current bourbon industry. Jim Beam is owned by Fortune Brands. Wild Turkey is owned by Pernod Ricard. Bulleit Bourbon is owned by Diageo. There’s a lot of money at stake in the bourbon industry, and multi-national corporations are more than happy to have a proven brand in their repertoire.

But if you’re a tourist exploring the whiskey trail in America, it’s unlikely that you will see many references to these corporations. Instead, you’ll be introduced to people like Fred Noe (pictured left), great grandson of Jim Beam. You’ll be encouraged to take the distillery tours and spend money at the giftshops strategically located at the end of each of these tours. You’ll be told about heritage and tradition, and made to feel as if you are “down home”. But somewhere in the back of your head, there will be this nagging suspicion that there’s something more here.

Perhaps it will hit you when you see the bottling lines fill up flasks of Canadian Club. Maybe something will ring when it is mentioned that bourbon sales are close to two billion dollars, and you think that that amount of money has to go somewhere. Because as charming of a town as Bardstown and the surrounding region is, it doesn’t look as if it’s the headquarters of a multi-billion dollar industry. Of course, I may be prejudicial, coming from the Seattle, home to Microsoft and Starbucks, and having seen just how much these companies have re-invested in their hometowns.

This is not to say that the people I talked to at the Bourbon Festival were not authentic. Quite the opposite was true. There is a huge community in Kentucky dedicated to bourbon, and who nearly worship the history of this whiskey. In fact, it’s this authenticity that I believe that the tourists to the area and fans of whiskey latch on to. The corporations behind these brands would be fools to put their faces out front, when the Fred Noes and the Samuel’s family (of Maker’s Mark) do a much more efficient job of selling their product.

As a side note, the Beam family does seem to be everywhere in Bardstown, even in other distilleries.

What caught my attention more than anything is just how “authentic” every one was. Whether it was a tour guide recommending mixing bourbon with Ginger ale, to Maker’s Mark pointing out on their tour that they hand dip their bottles, there was a concerted effort to make a connection to the people on the tours. It’s not a coincidence that nearly every bourbon distiller had barbeque sauce and scented candles for sale. The message being sent was clear: bourbon is for the average American family.

This approach to selling isn’t a bad thing. It is a business after all, and money must be made. But the underlying message I got from the bourbon festival (outside of the fact that there are really great bourbons being made), is that the industry is very aware of itself. What I mean by that is that the corporate suits who were very much behind the scenes at this festival must know that they can’t pull off authentic Kentucky Charm. But the folks down in Kentucky sure can.

What else did I learn?

  • Corn whiskey, right out of the still, smells remarkably like corn syrup. It does not, however, taste like corn syrup, but it’s still pleasant, albeit a tad rough around the edges.
  • I also learned that the fact that Jack Daniels is the best selling American whiskey is a bit of a sore point with the bourbon producers.
  • Bourbon and bread pudding were made for each other.
  • Ditto for sausage gravy.
  • It was noted by several people that Bardstown (where the festival was held) is unique for a small town in Kentuckky, due to the fact that it’s one of only a few remaining small towns that still have a “downtown”. Thanks Wal-Mart!

No one wanted to talk about rye. From what I could gather, several of these companies were caught by surprise by the recent rye revival. The question becomes, does a company invest in rye now, when in three to five years, rye’s popularity might be less than it it now? Watching a distillery make a change due to market demand is akin to watching a cruise ship make a left turn…i.e. it happens very slowly.

Quick note on the picture below. This is one of several buildings where they store the barrels of whiskey. The dark coloring on the bottom third of the building is mold.

Finally, I’ve found myself drawn to distillery tours for some reason. They are a tad hot, really noisy, but with the right tour guide, they are incredibly informative.

I’m planning on heading back next April, with the hope that I can see some smaller production lines and companies. What I think will be interesting is comparing these tours to the ones in Ireland and Scotland.