The world of top shelf bourbon has exploded over the past decade or so, and odds are if you joined the burgeoning ranks of bourbonphiles in that period, you've come across one of the first premium bourbon megabrands: Maker's Mark (and if you haven't, here's some good info). Maker's is soft and smooth, if a bit simple, and has rightfully earned its status through years of consumer education and marketing. It's a competent whiskey, but more importantly, it brought in people who were afraid or unsure of that wild, untamed spirit. But now that everyone and their mom drinks bourbon, it's time to expand our horizons.
Cue today's tipple: Larceny Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey from Heaven Hill Distilleries. Heaven Hill is the country's largest independent spirits producer, and has long been cranking out celebrated bar necessities such as Evan Williams, Rittenhouse Straight Rye, the Elijah Craig line, and Parker's Heritage limited releases (pretty much the most sought after and highly rated annual releases of American whiskeys).
I see Larceny as their direct challenge to Maker's—both products are wheated bourbons, where wheat is used instead of rye in the mashbill, resulting in a smoother, rounder flavor rather than the spice and fruitiness you get from rye. And unlike other premium wheated bourbons (I'm looking at you, Van Winkle), Larceny will be widely available in high distribution volumes. There's a pretty colorful story behind the name involving a treasury agent who snuck samples from the warehouse and years of creative historical revision, but I always believe that boozing trumps branding—it's what's in the bottle that counts. And this one's a winner.
A small batch bourbon, each run is produced from dumps of 100 or fewer barrels of 6 to 12 year old whiskey, and bottled at 92 proof. The bourbon is a textbook example of a smooth sipper—if you're looking for a ragged whiskey knock-out you may be disappointed (and in that case, stick with Wild Turkey or Old Crow for your fix). But if you stick around, Larceny seriously delivers the flavor. The nose is a familiar bourbon experience, with vanilla, oak, a nice grain kick, dark cherries, and surprisingly *loads* of cinnamon.
But once you take a swig, the juice really shines. Deep and complex, there's caramel, toasted whole wheat bread, nougat, barrel spices, maple syrup, and roasted peanuts. It's the first time I've ever tasted peanuts in a bourbon, and I wish it would happen more often! I'm also a sucker for PB&MS's—yes, peanut butter and maple syrup on toast may be the best desert-pretending-to-be-a-sandwich ever, so finding that flavor combination in a whiskey has me freaking out. The finish is medium long, warming, and ends so balanced that you forget it's 92 proof.
An exceptional entry from Heaven Hill with a price tag that's even sweeter—this is premium grade bourbon at a palatable $25 per 750ml bottle. It will be available in select markets in September, and will roll out to wide release later this year. For my money, this beats Maker's Mark any day for your wheat fix. Quite simply, Larceny is a steal (sorry!).
Sample provided for review consideration.
About the author: Andrew Strenio is a lover of all things potable. Since sneaking his grandmother's bourbon balls, he's moved on to touring distilleries and sipping snifters. He works by day making documentary television and films for an independent production company in Brooklyn.