Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Distillery Reviews: Heaven Hill and Jim Beam

This is the last in the series of reviews.  We hit up these two on the way out of Kentucky.

Heaven Hill, Bardstown, KY

On our last night of camping, I took a walk through the golf course that was adjacent to our campsite.  In the distance, through the twilight, I saw what appeared to be rickhouses to my newly trained eye.  I had to get closer even though I didn't have a way to let Nicole know that would mean I'd be returning to our site a bit after dark.  As I walked towards the cluster of buildings I saw a sign that read "Free tours and tastings," but at this point I wasn't sure if this cluster of buildings was a distillery or a winery.  Then I saw the sign for Heaven Hill's corporate offices.  I was shocked that the whole time we had been camping with a major bourbon producer right in our backyard.  I kept walking so I could get a peek into the visitor's center, and along the way I swear I could smell some angel's share from the rickhouses, which were resting across the street in beautiful cornfields.  I saw some workers from the evening shift in the bottling house taking lunch, and then I had to head back to camp.  We had been planning on skipping Heaven Hill, but now it seemed un-neighborly to do so.  Especially since said neighbor makes one of your favorite bourbons, Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage.  This evening walk was the most peaceful part of my trip, the best part being that it was completely unplanned.  It was perfect. 

With some playing with the schedule we figured out how to squeeze Heaven Hill in after Maker's Mark.  After doing the tour I almost wished I'd have left the previous night's perfection be, as the tour was short and a bit corny, consisting of a video, walk through a rickhouse, and a tasting.  You see, the distillery on site burned down over a decade ago, and the distilling is now done at a plant down the road.  It was neat to hear that when the fire happened, their competitors offered them space to continue making their products.  Heaven Hill didn't take them up on it, instead purchasing a mothballed distillery and quickly outfitting it to continue production.  Our tour guide speculated that they may eventually build a small distillery on site to honor the heritage of the brand.  The guide was the best part of the tour, by far.  She was a wrinkly old woman who has had more than a sip or two of bourbon in her day.  She spoke with a weird cadence, to the point where it seemed she was yelling, "I believe the bourbon we provide you in the tasting will be some of the best bourbon....you've....EVER.....TASTED!"  She also pushed me out of the way at one point.  A tough lady, for sure.   

The tasting was very cool, done in a barrel shaped room.

Evan Williams Single Barrel and Elijah Craig 18 were the bourbons provided, possibly the best combo we'd been offered at any tasting on the whole trail.  Our guide explained how to use a nosing glass, and sniff lavender oil to awake the senses.  She warned us against allowing our friends to pour their own glasses at a bourbon party we may host now that we are experts, "They will fill it up to the top and it will be warm by the time they finish it.  Then they'll dump it and waste it."  And then she firmly clinked glasses with every member of the group, about 20 of us, and drank with us.

All of the distilleries have their hook, but also their way of saying they are the oldest.  Oldest continuously operating, oldest on one site, oldest family owned, etc.  Heaven Hill is a relatively young company, but their point of pride is that they are still family owned, not connected to a drinks conglomerate (if you look at their website, though, they appear to be a conglomerate of their own, as they own many other product lines besides bourbon).  In lieu of a more complete tour, they also have the "Bourbon Heritage Center," basically a museum and gift shop surrounding that barrel shaped tasting room.  Museum exhibits include this odd entry, where pressing a button allows you to smell what must be artificial bourbon at different stages of aging:

I will look back fondly on Heaven Hill, but must say several tours have them beat in every area but the tasting.  We did the mid level free tour.  I can't imagine how they make it any shorter for the "mini" tour, and there didn't seem to be much they were hiding that they could show in the longer tour, which costs 25 bucks.  You might as well take your $25 and get a bottle of E.Williams Single Barrel.

Jim Beam, Clermont, KY

We didn't do the tour here, which consists of a short video in the old master distiller's quarters and nothing more.  Instead, we just joined in the previous tour group's tasting, which consisted of Booker's (fantastic) and Red Stag, a cherry infused bourbon liqueur (yuck).  What a weak offering from the world's biggest bourbon producer: a non-tour with a tasting featuring non-bourbon.  At least Wild Turkey was proud of their industrial appearance.  Jim Beam was literally just a factory with a gift shop. 

Here's Booker:


  1. these tour reviews are great, I feel like I've been there. you are correct about the red stag, it is disgusting, when I tried it at the beer, bourbon, bbq fest I spit it straight into a trashcan.

  2. I just asked a clerk in the Canals on the Black Horse Pike if they had George T. Stagg. He's like, we have Red Stag, is that it? No No, not the same, sir.