Classification: Straight Rye
Company: Heaven Hill
Distillery: Heaven Hill
Release Date: September 2019
Age: 8 Years
Mashbill: 51% Rye, 35% Corn, 14% Malted Barley
Color: Burnt Copper
Price: $150 (2019)
This release represents the 13th edition of the Parker’s Heritage Collection, which is released annually in September each year. This is the first rye to be released in the series, and utilizes Heaven Hill’s standard rye whiskey mashbill.
However, unlike the customary Level 3 charred barrels used for aging Heaven Hill ryes, this whiskey was aged in Level 5 char barrels for 8 years and 9 months on the 7th floor of Rickhouse Y. Level 5 charred barrels are charred for a total of 90 seconds, which is 50 seconds longer than the Level 3 charred barrels. Distillers char barrels from Level 1 to Level 7, and typically uses Level 3 (you can learn more about the process here). The additional char is said to allow the whiskey to extract deeper notes of spice and wood in the resulting flavor. The end result is a 75 barrel release that is bottled without chill filtration at 105 proof. While the actual total bottle yield is unknown, making some assumptions about evaporation loss and proof out of the barrels suggests a total yield of around 15,000 - 20,000 bottles.
The series is named after the late Heaven Hill Master Distiller Parker Beam who passed away as a result of ALS (otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). Like each Parker’s Heritage Collection release since 2013’s “Promise of Hope,” a portion of the proceeds for each bottle sold will be donated to the ALS Association in his honor. To learn more about the background of this year’s edition, be sure to check out the company Press Release.
Rye spice and barrel char best characterize the nose, however they have to fight through a wall of ethanol heat to make their presence known. A trace amount of caramel peeks through as well, adding a sweet element to the mix. The heat overshadows the other scents making for a meek showing and overall aroma that's subpar and uninviting.
Heat up front gives way to dark fruits and leather followed by a crescendo of spice. It’s nearly one dimensional, with heat and spice taking the forefront against the other flavors present. Because of this, it tastes hotter than its 105 proof and not in an enjoyable way. While it isn’t downright bad, the impression I’m left with is a slightly negative one.
Flavors open up in the finish, with caramel, baking spices, seasoned oak, and clove coming forward with ferocity. Rye spice slowly comes back into play without the accompanying heat present before, making for a nicely balanced sweet-spice combination that lingers for some time. It’s the most complex part of the sip, and while it doesn’t necessarily provide enough oomph to make up for the other shortcomings, it does end the sip on a positive note.
Heaven Hill produces what would appear to be a very similar whiskey, Pikesville Rye. It shares the same mashbill and is only 5 proof points higher at 110, however it’s a little younger at 6 years old and is aged in Heaven Hill’s more standard Level 3 charred barrels. It retails for around $55 and is considered a premium quality rye at its price point.
Exploring other distilleries reveals the typical char level used is between char levels 3 and 4. While the exact burn time might vary a bit by distillery or barrel cooper, the range is relatively small and could rightly be described as the “sweet spot.” Higher char levels have certainly been used in experimentation, and likely are being used on a smaller scale on a more regular basis. One example that comes to mind is a Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection, “#7 Heavy Char Barrel,” in which 7 barrels were charred for 3.5 minutes and then bourbon Mash #2 was aged in the barrels for over 15 years. Notably, Buffalo Trace has not switched to #7 charred barrels as a result of that experiment.
The resulting flavor profile of the Parker’s Heavy Char Barrels Rye is unremarkable. It drinks hotter than 105 proof, and taking Parker’s Rye 5 proof points down from Pikesville Rye suggests it was too hot at a higher proof. I assume Heaven Hill would have known many would compare it side by side with Pikesville Rye looking for notable attributes that would suggest a higher value, such as a higher proof point, decreasing the proof as a necessity to keep the heat in check.
As noted, this release shares a number of similarities with Heaven Hill’s Pikesville Rye, a regularly available premium whiskey offered at $55. Parker’s contrasts Pikeville by adding two years and Level 5 charred barrels, however that difference from a value perspective is nominal. For nearly triple the cost, I would expect the flavor profile to carry the majority of the weight from a value perspective.
I approached this open-minded believing it was possible. Eight years old for a rye can be a sweet spot, as can around 100 proof. I thought of the 2013 release as a comparison: Parker’s Heritage Promise of Hope, which was essentially Henry McKenna offered at 4 proof points lower and for nearly triple the price at the time. It too seemed a bit over-the-top at first...until I tried it. Immediately I knew it was something special despite its relatively unimpressive stats.
Comparing further, it’s worth noting 2018 Parker’s Heritage Collection - Bourbon Finished in Orange Curacao Barrels, was offered at a $90 MSRP. 2011 Parker’s Heritage - 11 Year Single Barrel (122 proof), was offered at $130 MSRP. This pricing would suggest something close to $90-$100 for 2019’s release might be appropriate and on par with Heaven Hill’s historical pricing structure for this series. Given the change in the market and corresponding $150 MSRP, I assumed this year’s release might have the same magic as Promise of Hope, and tripling the price of its closest counterpart (Pikesville Rye) was certainly pushing it, but not necessarily unreasonable.
Unfortunately the taste isn’t anywhere near what I would expect for a special limited release whiskey with a $150 MSRP, a massive let-down given my expectations. Taking this into account, my opinion on value is much more clear. $150 is overpriced by a long-shot. I can’t fault Heaven Hill for wanting to elevate their brand portfolio into more premium pricing territory as we are starting to see. But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. The logic that can be applied to one bottle in a portfolio cannot necessarily be applied to another.
I do appreciate the fact that some of the proceeds are being donated to the ALS Association. In the past this has ranged from $10-$20 per bottle depending on the edition starting with 2013’s Promise of Hope release. However the amount per bottle donated with this edition is unknown, and likely not enough to warrant such an increase in price over expectation given what’s inside the bottle.
While it’s satisfying to finally experience a rye released as part of the Parker’s Heritage Collection, this year’s edition is not the rye we’ve been waiting for, falling short of expectations in nearly every aspect.
The Parker’s Heritage Collection explores unique areas of American Whiskey with remarkable success, and as a result is one of the limited releases I look forward to most each year. While offering such variety is a notable attribute of the series, it also presents a large risk as consumers are not always appreciative of the experimental nature of such variety contained within an ongoing limited series. While some may not be for everyone, I would argue they have generally been exemplary results of their stated attributes. Moreover, Heaven Hill has varied the pricing each year generally aligning it fairly with what was inside the bottle.
2019’s edition is not an exemplary release and unlike some of the more polarizing previous releases I feel few will find something to like with it. I had hoped that while the age was not impressive, the Level 5 char and ultimately the barrels selected for the batch could be something great - much like 2013’s Promise of Hope release which was also very unimpressive on paper, but goes down as one of my favorite bourbons of all time. Unfortunately, 2019’s edition is seriously disappointing when taking everything into account. While the best course of action would have been to release this under something other than the Parker’s Heritage Collection, some saving grace could have been had by keeping the price somewhere under $100. Instead, an inflated $150 price tag and subpar sip masked with heat makes this a limited release to pass on. Heaven Hill has made their name producing many fantastic products for a fair price, releasing some of their absolute best within the Parker’s Heritage Collection. I hold out hope that this is simply an anomaly for a brand, and not the beginning of a trend for future editions.
The sample used for this review was provided at no cost courtesy of Heaven Hill. We thank them for the sample and for allowing us to review it with no strings attached.