It’s an odd feeling when you come to realize that a certain distillery’s specific mash bill seems to read differently to your taste buds than it does to most other people. For me, that’s the wheated bourbon mash bill at Heaven Hill—the combination of 68% corn, 20% wheat and 12% malted barley that makes up everything under the Larceny and Old Fitzgerald brand names. It’s just one of those cases where other people seem to taste them one way, and I taste them another.
This isn’t to say that I dislike this specific mash bill, or the brands made with it. There have been several Old Fitzgerald batches, including this year’s Spring 2021 edition, that I thought were absolutely delicious. The Larceny Barrel Proof series … well, I still haven’t been able to make up my mind on that one, but I’m hardly along there. But the thing that stands out in my mind is how different my descriptive language tends to be in terms of what I’m tasting from others who taste the same bourbons.
Other tasters, in my experience, tend to read bourbons from this particular mash bill as more decadent and desserty, awash in caramelized sugars, vanilla, fruity notes and flavors more clearly derived from wheat. To my palate, however, they often read as unexpectedly spicy, with a combination of baking spices/spicy oak that you don’t really expect, particularly in a bourbon where the stereotypically spicier rye content has been subbed out for wheat. I must note that not all wheated bourbons stand out in this way to me, but the Heaven Hill ones tend to. Granted, no one note is universal across every single release, and the rye-containing, classic Heaven Hill bourbon mashbill is evidence enough of this. But I do sometimes wonder if there’s something specific about this one that makes me an atypical taster of Larceny and Old Fitzgerald in particular.
I found myself wondering about all of these things once again while sampling this newest Old Fitzgerald release, which is the bottle for Fall 2021. This release is a bit older than the spring’s 8-year-old bourbon, having been distilled in the spring of 2010 and ultimately aged 11 years in Heaven Hill Rickhouse EE. Like all other entries in this series, it’s bottled at 50% ABV (100 proof), with a sliding MSRP pegged to the age statement that puts this one at $110. Old Fitz releases in recent years have ranged from as young as 8 to as old as 16 years, offering a great degree of variation, and I haven’t yet found a specific age range that stands out as “better” than the other. In fact, my two favorite offerings were almost diametrically opposed, with one being 8 years old and the other being 15. So it’s safe to say these must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
With that said, let’s get to tasting Old Fitzgerald’s Fall 2021 bourbon.
On the nose, this one initially reads upfront with lots and lots of enticing caramels, along with vanilla bean and tart candied apple or apple crisp. There’s moderate oak presence on the nose as well, as well as a moderate spice charge of cinnamon and clove. Over time, I’m getting more suggestion of freshly baked brown sugar cookies, but the oak also seems to intensify somewhat, with the wood contributing a somewhat tart impression. Overall, it smells pretty rich, but there’s an undercurrent of assertive oakiness as the same time.
On the palate, this one leads off on the front end with those more decadent caramel/candy apple notes, but it makes a pretty fast transition into spicier and oakier elements. The brown sugar notes combine with stem ginger to evoke gingersnaps, but there’s also anise, clove and hot cinnamon. The oak flavors likewise strike me as a bit “green” this time around, and they’ve contributed something of a tartness that eventually becomes distractingly sour. This bourbon finishes fairly dry, with a lasting charge of baking spice and spicy oak prickling on the tongue—it seems a touch hotter than usual for the 100 proof.
All in all, it’s hard for me to say if it’s simply my eccentric palate that finds this bourbon to ultimately end up unbalanced in favor of that oaky tartness, or if this is objective truth. I can say, however, that in retrospect I now appreciate the flavors of the Spring 2020 Old Fitzgerald even more.
Distillery: Heaven Hill
City: Bardstown, KY
Style: Wheated straight bourbon
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $110 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.