Posted on | October 22, 2015
Written by | Kristen Wolfe Bieler
Heaven Hill Releases Super-Rare John E. Fitzgerald Very Special Reserve
The heritage of American whiskey is often captured in a name. The distilling traditions and history of this unique spirit were shaped by the likes of Evan Williams and Basil Hayden and Elijah Craig. Perhaps no name in the current bourbon resurgence is more notable than Pappy Van Winkle. It was his Old Fitzgerald brand which he inherited from S.C. Herbst that set the gold standard for quality.
By the time Heaven Hill acquired “Old Fitz” in the 1990s, it had long been regarded as one of the greatest wheated bourbons in the world, thanks to whiskey legend Van Winkle, and his iconic Stitzel-Weller distillery where Old Fitzgerald built its legendary status.
As part of the acquisition, large stocks of wheated bourbon were transferred to Heaven Hill’s Bardstown warehouses to support the ongoing sale of the brand. Twelve of these barrels were placed on the first floor of warehouse, to slow the impact of aging. After 20 years of aging—with time spent at both Stitzel-Weller and Heaven Hill—they were taken out of the barrel in 2013 and put into neutral tanks to arrest the evolution.
“We didn’t know what we wanted to do with it at that time—12 barrels is hardly enough for a big release—but we didn’t want the oak influence to take over the taste of the bourbon,” explains Heaven Hill Co-Master Distiller Denny Potter. Even more important: that choice cache of barrels held liquid history. “These 12 barrels represent a golden age in bourbon, but they also tie this limited edition bottling and its vaunted history to Larceny and Old Fitzgerald. The bourbon is the renowned wheated mashbill that Pappy Van Winkle developed for Old Fitz at Stitzel-Weller,” he says.
Since then, the company has in fact decided what to do with it: witness the micro-release of 20-year-old John E. Fitzgerald Very Special Reserve Bourbon. “There is such a great story behind this bourbon, it will appeal to people who are interested in more than just the liquid inside the bottle—it’s a glimpse at the DNA of bourbon lore,” says Potter. “But it’s the liquid in the bottle that will win them over.”
Bottled at 90 proof, the 20-year-old whiskey is non-chill filtered, which translates to greater flavor complexity and a richer texture. Wheated bourbons are characterized by a delicacy and smoothness; they are subtler than corn or rye-based whiskies which can have bolder, spicier taste profiles. What comes across most pronounced is the “vanilla, caramel and smooth cocoa notes,” he describes, “with a very soft, balanced finish.”
Given the limited quantity—just 3,000 bottles (375ml) produced—coupled with the liquid’s pedigree, Potter doesn’t see it sitting around on shelves long, “if it makes it to shelves at all,” he says. But these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities represent one of the best parts about being a distiller, he says: “We have to have so much patience. Much of what I’m putting in barrel today we won’t be drinking for another 12 years. Being able to release a bourbon like this is one of the rewards.”