There are many reasons that distilleries or bottlers use storage vats these days. Most of the time it’s because the whiskey has matured to the maximum extent that it can achieve. To leave it in a barrel any longer will either not achieve any more flavor compounds from developing or it will ruin the whiskey by becoming over-oaked. This is why special stainless steel vats are built at most distilleries in the hopes that the special whiskey inside can be preserved “as is” while the owners decided what to do with it.
The reason I am telling you about vatting is because the whiskey I’m reviewing today is the result of a very old bourbon being vatted. This bourbon has a unique story behind it that continues to be told to this day. Sometime in 1994 it was distilled in Kentucky at DSP-KY-31 in Bardstown. Unfamiliar with this DSP? It’s because it was the famous Heaven Hill distillery that burned down in 1997. Not only did the distillery burn down but so did seven warehouses full of aged whiskey. The fire also destroyed the only examples of yeast that Heaven Hill used for fermentation. After Heaven Hill began distilling at the New Bernheim Distillery a couple years later, they switched over to the same yeast that Jim Beam uses because they gave it to them. This resulted in bourbon that tastes very similar to each other. It has also led to enthusiasts becoming obsessed with tracking down any Heaven Hill whiskey made from before the fire.
The interesting part of the story occurred sometime in 2006 when, for some reason, a large amount of these “Pre-Fire HH” barrels were shipped over to Scotland. From there, they sat in an undisclosed warehouse for 12 more years before they were dumped into a stainless steel vat. It’s unknown how many barrels in total were dumped but what is known is that the additional aging that occurred in the more temperate climate of Scotland resulted in the proof dropping dramatically. From what we’ve seen so far, it’s probably between 94 and 96 proof at cask strength.
The owner of this vat appears to be willing to sell between 250 to 1000 liters of this 24 year old bourbon at a time to whichever Independent Bottler is willing to pay the premium for it. At the time of writing (mid-2022), there have been at least 3 takers: Single Cask Nation, That Boutique-y Whisky Company and C. Dully. Each of them have set a price of roughly $40 per 100ml and all of the releases have been between 2 proof points of each other (yes, the proof can still change in a vatted whiskey). But the bottom line is that if you miss any of these releases, chances are high you’ll be able to have another chance to buy the same bourbon in another year under a different label.
This Single Cask Nation Release came out in 2020 and had quite the buzz around it when it was released. Very few people realized that bourbon had been setting in Scotland for so long, which made the frenzy to find it even greater. I will admit that I was curious when it came out too. Thankfully, with the help of 2 friends I was able to experience it for myself. So how does it taste? Let’s take a look. I sampled this neat in a glencairn.
Nose: Velvety smooth oak on the nose. This is by far the best, most polished oak note I have smelled from a bourbon in a long time. I was sure I’d find nothing but wood varnish for days, but I do not detect it here. This fools me into thinking the whiskey is younger than it actually is. Loads of toffee combine with melted Tootsie Rolls. Vanilla latte sprinkled with nutmeg and cinnamon makes this a treat I keep coming back to. I cannot emphasize enough that toffee is the dominant note here.
Palate: This is one of the softest palates I have tasted. It’s like I’m drinking marshmallow fluff. There is a very nice sweetness throughout and surprisingly, nothing tastes over-oaked. Light cinnamon, caramel, vanilla creme, and subtle, yet enveloping oak all make this a sweet experience. Dried raisins and a hint of dates are about the only fruit notes I can find. Otherwise it’s the sweet oak that tastes like it’s been soaked in vanilla that sum up what I’m tasting on the palate.
Finish: Sweet and soft oak reside on your tongue for a long time. Nothing is bitter or tannic and everything seems to be perfectly balanced. If there is one thing to ding this bourbon on, it’s that it doesn’t really taste like it’s 24 years old. Hell, it barely tastes like it’s 10 years old. I suppose the one telltale sign that it’s old is that there is virtually no proof sting at all. I also get some chocolate swirled with hard caramel candies that brings the sweetness out in the end. It’s a very nice bourbon to drink, but frankly there is something a little boring about how it finishes.
Tasting this 24 year old Heaven Hill product and looking at my final score has my brain confused. How could something so old, with so much backstory and for such a large price be anything less than spectacular? I don’t know how to explain it to you but it just does. Granted, the oak on the nose is probably one of the most unique scents you’ll ever smell but there isn’t much else that follows behind it. Everything is lovely and nuanced and exactly what a bourbon drinker would want but somehow it’s not enough. It’s not robust enough, it’s not unique enough and it’s not $300 enough.
I’ve tasted dusty bottles before and they all seem to have this unique wood polish note among them. This does not have that note and I can’t get over the fact that it tastes so much younger than the label says it should. Am I happy I was able to taste this? Absolutely. But would I drop this kind of money after having a chance to sample it? The short answer is “no.”
It pains me to write a review where I have a bottle that is still considered very rare just to say “it’s not my cup of tea.” But I do it to warn you that this bottle may not be for you either. There will be other chances for you taste the contents of this Scottish Vat but you shouldn’t be in a rush to go buy one on the secondary market or anything. The main justification for buying it might only be as a talking point with your other bourbon friends. But if that’s the case, then I would encourage you to find another bottle of dusty pre-fire HH for the same price which could tell the story much better than this one.
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