Hirsch is yet another legendary brand that has been resurrected within the bourbon scene. Some new producers elect to go with an original name while others decide to revive well-known labels that fell by the wayside during the 20th century bourbon glut. I can’t blame them for doing this as the name “Hirsch” has excited collectors and enthusiasts alike for many decades.
In mid-2020, Hirsch launched a batched product that was around 92 proof and consisted of 5 year old MGP bourbon. For the price point ($35), it was a versatile enough bottle for most people to put on their shelves. But in late 2021, news came out that Hirsch was releasing 6-year-old single barrels of bourbon. At first, I thought it was going to be more sourced MGP barrels, but upon closer inspection it was revealed that these were sourced from Kentucky. On top of that, the barrel proofs were amazingly high ranging anywhere from 124 proof on the lower end all the way up to 138 proof on the high end. Then it was said that the “6 years old” on the label was just a minimum age that these barrels would be with the true age being closer to seven and a half years old.
The biggest shock for enthusiasts was the mash bill that was listed on the back label (72% corn, 13% rye and 15% malted barley) seemed to hint to an unlikely source. Only one of the main Kentucky distilleries uses that much malted barley in their rye’d bourbon mash bill: Willett. Sure enough, a quick glance at the Willett website confirmed that this was, in fact, Willett’s own recipe and distillate.
I think the most stupefying thing for most enthusiasts to comprehend was that Willett had actually contract distilled barrels of whiskey. Filling their barrels was akin to printing their own money, so why let somebody else sell them? We first saw this in 2019 when a brand called “Old Kirk” began to release single barrels of rye whiskey that they claimed had been distilled at Willett 6 years ago. Old Kirk developed a cult following but since so few bottles were released, very little people got a chance to have a taste. Plus, the secondary value of Old Kirk was essentially the same as a comparable bottle of Willett Family Estate Single Barrel Rye Whiskey so people weren’t exactly in a rush to buy them on the secondary market.
Affordable Willett Bourbon?
But lo and behold, Willett was the confirmed source of these barrels of bourbon. Apparently, they needed to make some money very quickly early on when they started distilling again in 2012. Now Hirsch was selling these single barrels for the bargain-basement price of around $100. This all seemed to be too good to be true until Fred Minnick weighed in with his opinion in late November 2021. During his podcast, he told his audience that he was thoroughly unimpressed by his bottle of Hirsch. He complained of earthy notes dominating (I believe he even used the word “dirt” to describe it). Surprisingly, this seemed to dump a bucket of cold water onto potential secondary prices. In fact, most bottles haven’t been able to go for more than $200 at the time of this writing. You may think “doubling your money isn’t too bad” but you need to put into perspective that a comparable 7-year-old “Purple Top” Willett Family Estate bourbon for the same age and proof would fetch nearly $400 these days.
So what’s the issue? Did Hirsch buy a lot of bad barrels? Or did Fred Minnick over exaggerate his notes? I’m ready to take a look to see for myself with a bottle that was maybe one more summer away from having to wear a HAZMAT sticker (136.8 proof). Hopefully I have tastebuds left by the end of this review. I sampled this neat in a glencairn.
Nose: The nose starts off with a whiff of barrel char coupled with sweet oak. The wood scent is even a bit more fragrant than just “oak,” in fact it’s a little bit like cedar chips too. There are some sweet notes to go with it like cinnamon rolls, vanilla cake mix and “Bit O’ Honey” candies. I even find a small amount of leather and sweet mint too.
Palate: Prickly cinnamon spice and spicy chili oil greets my tongue. Whew! This is pretty hot… not as hot as I expected, but I expected not to be able to taste anything for a couple days. There are sweeter notes of crystalized honey but then the rest of the palate turns somewhat more herbal and fruit forward. Notes of herbal cough drops, tamarind, orange & lemon rinds and even breakfast tea are a nice distraction from the young, somewhat grainy (malted hot cereal) notes. I start to taste wet cardboard, earth and coffee grounds as the session goes on. This reminds me almost of a craft bourbon. The label says it was aged for 7 years and 7 months but honestly it tastes a bit closer to 5.
Finish: The finish cools down a decent amount from the heat I felt on the palate. Chocolate/espresso bean flavors linger after the sip was complete. The finish still comes off as pretty young with some drying oak and sharp cinnamon. The tiny bit of sweetness seems to be more honey-forward than anything else. I wish there was more at the end as the finish is currently my least favorite part of the dram.
While amazingly powerful and full of flavor, this single barrel of Willett just didn’t come together like I expected. Rather than layers of complexity, everything is kind of jumbled together. The one bad part was that the dram exhibited more youthful traits as the session went on. I sometimes find Willett bourbon to have a thin mouthfeel too (especially ones that enter the barrel at 125 proof like this one). But to my surprise, this bottle’s mouthfeel seemed to be just right. I wouldn’t describe it as “rich” but at least it wasn’t lacking.
In the end, I think the price was about right on these bottles. I found a vast spectrum of flavors that kept me interested the whole time. I do think it needs a bit more time in the barrel to become something truly special, so hopefully Hirsch didn’t use up all of their barrels for this one release.
Lots of people fail to draw the distinction between the Willett of the past versus the Willett of present day. They assign crazy secondary valuations regardless of the quality of the liquid inside. This foolishness has made its way over into the world of Non-Distiller Producers like Hirsch, Blackened, Old Kirk and Wolves. Whenever the public sees a new company pop up with Willett products, they go nuts and are willing to pay high prices to obtain a bottle even on the secondary market. I think that is starting to cool down, but encourage you to hold back before deciding to drop big money on a bottle with that lineage.
For all the more attractive the Willett name is, it’s rarely worth it. As I drank this admittedly good (but not great) bourbon, I could not help but think how it’s hardly worth the money that is being asked for it at retail, let alone secondary. But I’m just one man whose opinion will likely not travel that far while bottles like this will continually sell out. So if you’re on the fence about seeking a bottle of this Willett-sourced Hirsch down, let me ease your FOMO and let you know that you’re not missing out on much.
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