Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Bernheim Wheat Whiskey vs. Parker's Heritage Collection Wheat Whiskey

Bernheim; Kentucky straight wheat whiskey, 7 years, 45%, $28
Parker’s Heritage Collection; Kentucky straight wheat whiskey, 13 years, 63.4%, $90

Unexpected circumstances will occasionally prompt me to open a special bottle of whiskey without much forethought. I was in a mood to open something interesting on New Years Eve, but a grueling 10 hour shift at work followed by a few last-call drinks at the local pub resulted in me being down for the count as soon as I hit the couch that night.

When I read about the recent passing of Parker Beam about two weeks ago, I knew it was time to open my bottle of Parker’s Heritage Collection 13 year old Wheat Whiskey. The bottle of Bernheim Wheat Whiskey I wanted to compare it to would also tie in nicely with my last post (more on that later).

The Beam family is as massive as their participation in the Bourbon industry is pervasive. Several branches of the family tree through many generations have been involved with the operation of countless distilleries. I’ll try to simplify the lineage as much as I can for the purpose of this post.

It starts with Johannes Jacob Boehm, a miller and distiller of German descent who had changed his name to Jake Beam. He moved from Pennsylvania to Maryland to Kentucky and was distilling there, alongside his son David (one of 12 children) by 1795. Three of David’s sons (out of 11 children) went into distilling; Jack, Joseph B. and David M. Beam. The latter two brothers each had two prominent distiller sons, all four of whom gave birth to more sons who would go on to work in the industry.

David M. Beam’s two sons were Jim, who the famous brand that we all know today is named for, and Park. After Prohibition, they established the Clermont, KY distillery that still makes Jim Beam Bourbon today, although the company was bought out by one of its original investors after World War II. Park’s two sons, Earl and Carl “Shucks” Beam were distillers at that plant.

Joseph L. Beam, one of Joseph B. Beam’s sons started the Heaven Hill Spring distillery after Prohibition, but he had to sell out early on for financial reasons. He still played an important part in Heaven Hill’s first decade and his son, Harry Beam, was the original master distiller there. When Harry left the company in 1946, he was replaced by Earl Beam (his 3rd cousin, David Beam was the grandfather of both).

Earl’s son, Parker, started working at the distillery in 1960 and took over the master distiller position in 1975. Craig Beam, Parker’s son, started working at Heaven Hill in 1982 and worked his way up through the company, becoming the assistant distiller by the early 2000’s and joining his father as co-master distiller by 2006. Parker Beam still had the title of master distiller emeritus at the time of his passing.

Parker’s most notable achievements were the development of Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon in 1986, Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon in 1994 and the Parker’s Heritage Collection, a limited annual release of unique, one-off bottlings which began in 2007. Parker was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 2010. When he went public with the illness in 2013, he decided to use the Heritage Collection to raise awareness and funds for the cause. The 2013 release was named the Promise of Hope and $20 from each bottle sold was donated to ALS research. Subsequent Parker Heritage Collection releases have donated $5 from each bottle to the Promise of Hope fund.

Jumping back to January of 2000, Parker Beam began distilling a wheat whiskey at Heaven Hill. This was America’s first commercially produced wheat whiskey, which would be introduced as a 90 proof straight whiskey in September of 2005. It bore no age statement, but was obviously about five and a half years old. The mash bill is not often mentioned, but reliable sources state that it is 51% wheat, 37% corn and 12% malted barley.

Wheat whiskey is clearly defined in the Code of Federal Regulations (Title 27, Part 5.22), but it took some digging to figure out when this definition came into being. The Bottled in Bond Act of 1897 defined a new class of whiskey, giving consumers an assurance of quality if it was so labeled. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 brought more rules and regulated what could be called Bourbon. Further clarification was provided by President Taft’s “Decision on Whiskey” in 1909, which specified that Bourbon must be made from a majority of corn. I couldn’t find a copy of that document, but as far as I could tell it did not define wheat whiskey. In 1935 the Federal Government created the Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits. In addition to a more detailed definition of Bourbon, the SIDS also defined several other styles of whiskey; rye whiskey, wheat whiskey, malt whiskey, rye malt whiskey and corn whiskey.

At that time the definition required wheat whiskey to be distilled to no more than 160 proof, bottled and no less than 80 proof and made from a mash of at least 51% wheat. The requirement for aging in new, charred oak (and possibly the requirement for a barrel entry of no more than 125 proof as well) was added in 1938.

But American whiskey distillers, by tradition, had primarily been making Bourbon and Rye for a very long time. Even with this newly defined style officially spelled out, it would be 65 years before anyone made a wheat whiskey. Heaven Hill’s Bernheim Wheat Whiskey was an interesting new product and got some attention, but never really caught on in a big way. I picked up a bottle of it early on, probably in 2006. I polished that bottle off long ago, so clearly I didn’t dislike it, but it doesn’t stand out in my mind as being overly remarkable.

Then some interesting things happened in 2014. The Parker Heritage Collection bottling that year was a 13 year old, cask strength wheat whiskey, which came from the original batch that was distilled early in 2000. By the end of the year, the packaging for Bernheim Wheat Whiskey had been redesigned and the new label had picked up a seven year age statement. In the midst of whiskey shortages (for certain brands at least), price spikes and age statements dropping like flies, this was quite unusual.

As I said above, this is a product that never really caught on in a big way. If they were consistently selling 20% less than the volume of sales they had projected for, the whiskey would gain two years of age over the course of 10 years. It’s probably been slowly creeping up in age and was likely a six and a half year old by 2009.

I mentioned up top that this post would tie into my previous post, where I discussed the dropping price of the Hudson brand of whiskeys. When I first saw the seven year age-stated Bernheim Wheat Whiskey in a store it was at $28, much less than I had ever seen the NAS bottling for. But a little research showed prices ranging from the mid-$20’s to the lower-$40’s through the past five or six years. When Bernheim debuted in 2005 the suggested retail price was $40. I finally found evidence of an official price drop for this product starting around mid 2010, but apparently it sells so slowly in some markets that there has been a huge disparity in its retail pricing for many years.

Unlike the Hudson Whiskeys, Bernheim Wheat Whiskey was made at a reasonable cost from day one. Its price drop was simply a function of its sales volume failing to live up to expectations for the first five years it was available. The increased age is pretty solid evidence of that fact.

Here in Vermont, a liquor control state where the prices usually reflect what the producer would like the product to sell for, Bernheim is still $42. Of course, we still have the NAS bottling; sometimes it takes forever to move through old stock around here. Hopefully we’ll get the lower priced, age-stated bottles before too long.

Anyway, on to the whiskey; I’m excited to try these. It’s been a long time since I’ve tasted the standard bottling and I’ve been sitting on the PHC bottle for a few years now.

The nose is fairly aromatic, with a dense richness. Some sweetness comes through and there’s plenty of clay-like earthiness. Vanilla-forward oak notes show too. Spice notes are the obvious no-show (as one might expect with no rye in the mix).
The dry earthiness wins out over the sweetness up front. It’s approachable while maintaining some backbone, though a little one-dimensional up front. It does evolve as it progresses, with flavors subtly reminiscent of Jim Beam’s funk and George Dickel’s Flintstone’s vitamins note.
The finish has a slightly warm burn, but it seems to be strictly from the alcohol, rather than that along with a contribution of spice notes.
I like it, but I don’t love it. I can kind of see this as being a good backdrop for a respectable cocktail.

PHC Wheat
The nose shows more depth and a shift in the profile of its aromas compared to the 7 year old, but it’s less volatile than one would expect for the given proof. The clay-like aromas are toned down significantly and the oak is more obvious and mature, with notes of old books and a hint of maple syrup.
It’s quite full bodied and a bit rambunctious on the palate. The sweetness that briefly fights its way to the fore up front quickly gives way to an intense dryness. Warming spice notes take over as it moves through the mid-palate, but in this expression they are primarily oak-driven. More time in cask seems to have effectively diminished the funk-and-Flintstone's notes.
The finish provides a wild ride of fiery spice notes which are exceptionally dry, but there’s enough underlying mature oak character to keep things interesting.
A doubling of the age and a big jump in proof has proven quite transformative for this whiskey. It took me a little while to wrap my head around this one and really get into it; well worth the effort though.

From all accounts Parker Beam was much loved and highly respected throughout the Bourbon industry. I’m grateful to have a glass of some of his finest work with which to acknowledge his passing.

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