In almost all cases, it’s the liquid within a bottle of whiskey that I find most interesting. As both a personal consumer and spirits writer, I must confess that the stories behind brands don’t always interest me all that much—because once you’ve heard countless variations upon a micro-distillery’s “bootstraps” story, or the tale of a major company’s apocryphal founder and his unsubstantiated claims to being the first person to do “X” within the emerging bourbon market, you begin to realize how much all the stories run together. Nobody really knows who was the first person to char oak barrels, much as popular myth might attribute that to someone like Baptist preacher Elijah Craig. Nobody really knows who created what we think of as “bourbon.” Best to just dispense with the mythology and romanticism in most cases, and simply focus on what’s in the bottle.
And yet … there are some interesting stories out there that manage to eclipse my interest even in a new product launch. So it is with Hotaling & Co.’s new “Hirsch Selected Whiskeys” offshoot, a label for sourced bourbons that has first put out a brand called The Horizon. This is a sourced bourbon from MGP of Indiana, that mega-source of so much of the nation’s sourced bourbon and rye, but it’s the history of the “Hirsch” name that is likely to fascinate nascent whiskey geeks. So let’s tell that story, before we dive into the new bourbon.
The new Hirsch Selected Whiskey brand is so named because of a man named Adolph Hirsch. In the 1970s, businessman Hirsch commissioned a 400-barrel batch of bourbon from what was eventually known as Michter’s Distillery near Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania—the modern Michter’s Distillery is named in honor of this company/distillery, which no longer exists. That 400-barrel batch was distilled in 1974 by master distiller Dick Stoll, who had studied under Everett Beam. Stoll therefore used the Beam mash bill of 75% corn, 13% rye and 12% malted barley.
The bourbon, however, was never released for one reason or another—perhaps the investor got cold feet, or moved on to other pursuits, but that batch of bourbon kept right on aging until the Michter’s Distillery faced bankruptcy and foreclosure. It kept aging, therefore, until 1989 when the liquid was acquired by Gordon Hue, an innovator in the acquisition and sale of well-aged and premiumized American whiskeys. Hue in turn had a working relationship with Julian Van Winkle III—yeah, those Van Winkles—and turned to him to bottle the brand, which was eventually christened A.H. Hirsch Reserve.
A.H. Hirsch Reserve was eventually released in a range of ages between 15-20 years old, but the 16-Year-Old version is the most commonly sighted. Ownership of the brand name, meanwhile, passed to a group called Preiss Imports, which eventually became part of Anchor Brewers & Distillers, which is today Hotaling & Co. So that explains how the modern Hotaling & Co. came to own the “Hirsch” name, but it doesn’t explain why old bottles of A.H. Hirsch Reserve are today worth thousands of dollars.
The reason for the sky-high price tags boils down to the rise of whiskey geeks congregating in online forums throughout the mid-2000s. As the brown liquor revival gained steam, whispers about the complicated history of A.H. Hirsch Reserve turned to raves and praise from those who had been able to unearth bottles. A cult slowly began to grow around the brand, fueled by its age, mystique and limited status. Prices of A.H. Hirsch bottles on the secondary market soared. As a mania grew around Pappy Van Winkle bourbons, the Van Winkle connection to A.H. Hirsch also played its part in increasing demand as well—as did a 2012 book about the bourbon by Charles Cowdery, entitled The Best Bourbon You’ll Never Taste.
Despite all that, it’s indeed still possible get a taste of this original 1974 distillate today—you just have to be prepared to drop a few grand to do so. There are a handful of bars that pour drams of A.H. Hirsch at more than $100 a pop, and bottles pop up online with price tags that range from $2,500 to $5,000. It’s one of the true white whales of the bourbon world, albeit one that still seems to be more well-known to the old-time bourbon geeks than the people frenziedly buying up bottles of W.L. Weller today. So yeah—you put out a new bourbon brand with Hirsch on the label, and it’s going to attract some curiosity.
With that said, this new Hotaling & Co. bottle is truly just a name and a tribute—not even its recipe has anything in common with the old A.H. Hirsch Reserve. Whereas that was a Beam house-style bourbon distilled in Pennsylvania, The Horizon is a blend of two sourced, high-rye bourbons from MGP of Indiana. The inaugural batch, AAH0320, comes in a nice-looking, straight-walled rectangular bottle, and is primarily (94%) 5 year, 4 month bourbon (75% corn, 21% rye, 4% malted barley), with a very small amount (6%) of 6 year, 2 month bourbon (60% corn, 36% rye, 4% malted barley) that is even more high-rye. That all adds up to a moderately aged, high-rye MGP bourbon, bottled at 92 proof, with an accessible MSRP of $40.
So let’s finally get to tasting it.
On the nose, the first impression I’m getting off this bourbon is fresh cornbread, with sweet caramel and hints of red licorice and anise. It has a “fresh,” slightly young character that presents as slightly grassy/hay-like, which isn’t unpleasant, and something of an apple fruitiness. At the same time, however, the ethanol s a bit aggressive here, and it seems to be stinging a bit more than it ideally should at this proof point.
On the palate, The Horizon opens surprisingly sweet, with a honey-caramel syrup sugariness, seguing into tart green apple. There’s a brightness here, and an acidity that gives these flavors a slightly tropical fruity quality, like tinned pineapples. Slightly syrupy in texture, it packs no shortage of heat for the proof point once again. Sweetness is the order of the day, with eventual impressions of sweet mint, liquid caramel and honey. Some rye spice, slight florals and grassiness eventually come to bear, but it can be tough to locate them with both significant residual sugar and ethanol heat vying for your attention.
All in all, I should note that The Horizon is absolutely not hurting for assertiveness—this is one of the most bombastically flavorful 92-proof bourbons I’ve tasted in recent memory, in fact, with a threshold of intensity that surpasses most other bottles in the same range. It does seem somewhat unbalanced in the direction of sweetness, however, and its ethanol presence could stand to be more gently integrated into the entire experience. As it is, though, this is a brash, adventurous bourbon that may well be enjoyed by those seeking sweeter drams in particular. It will be released throughout the summer of 2020 in select markets, including California, Texas, Illinois, Massachusetts, Tennessee, New York, Kentucky and Georgia.
Distillery: Hotaling & Co., via MGP of Indiana
City: Distilled in Lawrenceburg, IN, bottled in Bardstown, KY
Style: Straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 46% (92 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $40 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.