Classification: Straight Wheat Whiskey
Company: Bernheim Distillery (Heaven Hill)
Distillery: Bernheim Distillery (Heaven Hill)
Release Date: February 2023
Age: 7-9 Years
Mashbill: 51% Wheat, 37% Corn, 12% Malted Barley
Price: $65 (2023)
Bernheim Original Wheat Whiskey is named in honor of the Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky. Bernheim Distillery was founded in 1992 by United Distillers (who became Diageo in 1997), and then sold to Heaven Hill and renamed Heaven Hill Bernheim Distillery in 1999. It would later become Heaven Hill’s primary distillery after the 1996 distillery fire destroyed Heaven Hill’s Bardstown Distillery along with 90,000 barrels of whiskey.
By definition, wheat whiskey is similar to the definition of bourbon whiskey, except that it swaps bourbon’s minimum 51% corn requirement for a minimum 51% wheat requirement. Unlike bourbon, wheat whiskey does not need to be a product of the United States. Like bourbon, to be labeled “straight” wheat whiskey must be aged in new charred oak containers for at least two years and the product of a single state.
Bernheim Original Barrel Proof Wheat Whiskey joins Heaven Hill’s Elijah Craig Barrel Proof and Larceny Barrel Proof as a barrel proof whiskey that will be released throughout the year in uniquely numbered batches. Unlike those two whiskeys however, Bernheim Original Barrel Proof Wheat Whiskey will only be released twice per year versus three times per year. Batch A223 marks the first ever Bernheim Barrel Proof Wheat Whiskey release, with “A” meaning the first batch of the year, “2” meaning during the month of February, and “23” meaning the year 2023. According to the company’s press release, it is expected to hit stores by the end of February.
A soiree of pretzel roll, baking bread, and seasoned oak lead the introduction. This initial mix is punctuated by a dose of complementary cinnamon spice. Faint traces of honey and stone fruit are also present. Notably sweet, the aroma is somewhat punchy which could be attributed in part to its proof, but also a slight sharpness emanating from the combination of scents. It’s nice, but not perfect.
Flavors rush forward on the palate, with honey, fresh baked bread, and cinnamon roll laying a rich, sweet base. Allspice and clove layer in complementary spice notes, which are joined by light accents of apricot, toffee, a touch of maple sugar candy. It’s a deliciously rich and flavorful palate that leans heavily into the sweet side, and not being a bourbon (and thus not relying on the typical bourbon flavors) makes for a more unique palate.
Sweet flavors persist into the finish, with baking bread and cinnamon roll subsiding in favor of brown sugar and apricot. Cinnamon makes another appearance alongside allspice, which transition from sweet and spicy to slightly astringent. The dry oak astringency is manageable, but prevents the whiskey from maintaining the height it reaches on the palate. Despite this, the whiskey still ends on a somewhat satisfying note.
The biggest question on most people’s minds is likely how this compares to the standard Bernheim Original Wheat Whiskey. With the standard version coming in at 7 years old (compared to Barrel Proof’s 7-9 years old) and 90 proof (compared to Barrel Proof’s 118.8 proof for this batch), the expectation is that Barrel Proof would offer a similar flavor profile that is simply more potent and flavorful.
For better or worse, that’s precisely what this first batch of Bernheim Original Barrel Proof is. A consistent array of sweet underlying flavors is present throughout, and they’re greatly intensified by the higher proof. If you enjoy a higher proof, this is a dramatic improvement over the standard 90 proof version. At the same time, the whiskey’s tendency to turn slightly astringent is still present, though it’s not amplified by the higher proof.
This isn’t Heaven Hill’s first foray into barrel proof wheat whiskeys. They released limited edition wheat whiskeys as part of their Parker’s Heritage Collection in 2014 and then later in 2021, both of which I really enjoyed. But those are nearly un-buyable today along with a growing list of limited edition wheat whiskeys that have been released over the years. And other more readily-available wheat whiskeys don’t come near the proof, so there are few direct comparisons.
Wheat whiskey’s reliance on the 51% wheat in the mashbill allows the whiskey to really lean into the flavors typically produced by the wheat grain as compared to a wheated bourbon, which still must be at least 51% corn by definition so wheat is a minority grain by default. While it isn’t technically a wheat whiskey, Old Elk Master’s Blend Series: Double Wheat is a close comparison and actually has more wheat in its mashbill than Bernheim Barrel Proof. A blend of wheat whiskey and wheated bourbon, Old Elk Double Wheat is 6-8 years old, 107.1 proof, and has a blended mashbill that translates to 71.5% wheat. The two whiskeys offer a fairly similar experience highlighting bakery-inspired sweet notes, however Double Wheat is more balanced and doesn’t venture into the astringent, sometimes punchy territory that Bernheim Barrel Proof enters. The intensity offered by Bernheim’s higher proof may account for some of its punchiness, but at the same time it still provides a flavor profile that’s somewhat unique against the backdrop of bourbon, rye, or the growing category of malt-heavy American whiskeys.
Like the standard Bernheim Original Wheat Whiskey that comes in at $30, Bernheim Original Barrel Proof Wheat Whiskey is also a solid deal. Being a rarity in the very limited barrel proof wheat whiskey category, Bernheim Barrel Proof’s $65 price point is affordable, which is further accentuated by Old Elk Double Wheat’s $100 price point (though Old Elk is a slightly better whiskey). Given Heaven Hill’s plans to release Bernheim Barrel Proof on an ongoing basis, it will likely be equally as accessible as Elijah Craig Barrel Proof and Larceny Barrel Proof are. Of course the fact that each batch will be different will yield some batches that are better than others, but given the history of Elijah Craig and Larceny Barrel Proof’s quality, Bernheim Barrel Proof will likely be a safe bet if you enjoy its baseline flavor profile.
Coming in nearly 30 proof points higher than the standard version, Bernheim Original Barrel Proof Wheat Whiskey is a bigger, bolder version that improves upon the base version in nearly every way, but isn’t without flaws.
The introduction of barrel proof versions of popular lower proof brands is one many whiskey drinkers can get behind. Heaven Hill’s strategy has been to maintain a strong correlation to the standard version with respect to flavor profile, an affordable price point, and production that (while it doesn’t seem to fully meet demand with every batch) generally seems to come close. A barrel proof version of Bernheim Original Wheat Whiskey feels like as much of a surprise as it feels like it was inevitable. It’s an addition to Heaven Hill’s lineup that will likely be met with lukewarm reception, as the wheat whiskey category has yet to make a name for itself and the standard version is rarely talked about. With that being said, putting more behind this brand can only help the category, and will certainly generate more buzz as a result.
This inaugural batch of Bernheim Original Barrel Proof Wheat Whiskey Barrel Proof is a welcome addition to Heaven Hill’s lineup, but still leaves a lot of room for the brand to grow. It’s an improvement over the standard version in nearly every way, delivering a richer flavor profile from start to finish, but still doesn’t quite eschew the astringency wheat whiskey is prone to. At $65 it’s definitely worth grabbing a bottle if you see one so long as you enjoy the sweeter territory wheat whiskeys tend to venture into. Like Elijah Craig Barrel Proof and Larceny Barrel Proof, I’m confident we’ll see batches of Bernheim Barrel Proof that hit it out of the park from time to time.