I embarked upon a journey through sampling assorted whiskeys over the past couple of years. From the classic Scotch Whiskys to Bourbons, from Irish Whiskeys to the recent Rye boom, and anything that looked interesting to try, I chose not to limit any categories until I understood more about what I liked and did not like. I do not proclaim to be more than an enthusiast, and still do not really know that much about whiskey in general to be completely transparent, but this has been an interesting enough experiment and journey that it warrants finally sharing some of the things I’ve learned. We’ll start with a bourbon that I am currently enjoying: the Henry McKenna Single-Barrel offering, barreled in 2009.
Before delving into this particular bourbon, a little backstory about my experiment is probably in order to better understand the probable gaps in knowledge that will be evident. My first experience with whiskey was subpar, to say the least. It seemed to be nothing more than a liquid designed to burn anything and everything it came into contact with, leaving the drinker wanting to chase it with a gallon of something smooth and flavorful to counteract the destruction. Knowing that my first foray into drinking beer was similar, and that the truth was simply that my first beer was just a bad beer for my taste preferences and likes, I expected that the millions of people who enjoy whiskey surely are not simply drinking it to simulate guzzling bleach. Naturally, this meant that I would just turn back to rum and vodka for decades before making the decision to figure out this whole whiskey thing.
Interestingly enough, a trip to the Jack Daniels Distillery rekindled my interest in exploring what it was that makes whiskey such an appealing drink to so many people, mostly because the production process was so intriguing. I decided to start with, rather obviously, a Tennessee whiskey, a scotch whisky (specifically Glenfiddich), and a bourbon whiskey (Maker’s Mark). Since then I have tried many, many different whiskeys from many different distilleries (large and small), and have generally discovered that I enjoy whiskeys that fall into one of two general categories of flavor profiles: smooth (such influences on flavor as vanilla, caramel, toffee, etc.) with a spice note, or lightly smoked/peated and smooth. As always, there are occasional exceptions that I find that do not fit in those broad categories, but that should provide a general baseline for understanding what types of whiskeys I may choose to write about.
Back to this post’s whiskey of choice: Henry McKenna SIngle-Barrel.
From the Heaven Hill Distillery’s website, this bourbon is named for “Henry McKenna, the Irish immigrant who adapted his family's whiskey recipe to work the grains he found in Kentucky. Henry McKenna is the longest aged Bottled-in-Bond available today, resting in the barrel through 40 Kentucky seasons.” I’ll copy their tasting notes at the end of this post as well, for those who just want a simple summary.
Generally speaking, I tend to prefer my whiskey chilled somewhat (as in served over a single, massive block of ice or with whiskey stones). When trying something new I also make certain I try it neat to see which way works best for me. The Henry McKenna is one I prefer chilled, which I expect to be a result of the extra little bite from being 100 proof, though it was definitely smoother than I expected when sampled neat.
As with every whiskey I have ever tried, my first sip reminded me of napalm and bleach, and had me unable to keep from grimacing slightly (on the inside). With the first sip out of the way, I was ready to see what this bourbon had to offer. Bringing the glass to my nose I paused, the subtle hints of vanilla and oak were easily detected; in fact, so delightful was the smell of this bourbon that I paused a bit longer and simply enjoyed its aromatic profile for a moment. With my next sip I was met with the warmth of honey and oak, dancing with my tastebuds like two teenagers on a hormonal high at a rave; there was a definite underlying smoothness that I knew would continue to be brought out as the liquid chilled a bit more, and a subdued bite that was almost apologetic in the way it presented itself and then disappeared.
To say this is a good bourbon is quite an understatement, though what else would you call a bourbon that hits all the marks of what you expect and want it to be? I could call this a really good bourbon, I suppose, and maybe even borderline great, but for me a great bourbon is one that makes me want to keep a stockpile of it on hand. While good, and one I would absolutely purchase again, it is not one that makes me want to find a consistent source for it. I should note that while price influences this judgement as well, and the Henry McKenna is currently very inexpensive, thereby making it a much better buy than my preferred “greats,” there is a lack of something in its flavor profile for my personal preference. As a result, although I would rank this somewhere in the range of 4.6 / 5.0, it still does not quite hit my arbitrary and subjective category of “great bourbons.”
Continuing with my dram, I enjoyed the consistently smoother profile as the ice began to melt just a little, and the liquid reached a slightly chilled state, which would therefore be my recommended method of serving/consumption. For those interested, the Peak four cube ice tray (link) is my preferred size for my single cube.
Color: Warm golden amber
Aroma: Vanilla, caramel, oak, and a light herbaceous note
Taste: Smooth oak, sharp spices, honey and sweetness
Finish: Long, sweet and spicy