I have, in the past, expressed my fascination with Heaven Hill’s Old Fitzgerald line of premium wheated bourbons, not only for the fact that I still believe they’re packaged in what is the most attractive decanter-style bottle in the entire industry, but because I can’t believe the company designed the series with such a massive focus on variation. Most distillery special releases fluctuate a small amount from year to year or season to season, and are intended for careful dissection by geeks comparing one to the other. Old Fitzgerald, on the other hand, makes those small variations appear utterly inconsequential in comparison.
Consider this: Last spring, in 2021, the biannual Old Fitzgerald release carried an 8-year age statement for Heaven Hill’s classic wheated bourbon recipe.
This year’s spring release for 2022? It’s 17 freaking years old. It’s more than twice as old, folks. This is such a wide, yawning gulf in maturation that those two bottles can barely even be considered to be the same brand at this point. Taken as a whole, then, the Old Fitzgerald series becomes this fascinating sequence of time capsules, like a natural history museum’s exhibit of primitive sea creatures crawling out of the sea to become land dwellers. When you compare them, you’re comparing the dramatic evolution of the same liquid across a disparate array of points.
The other thing that is funny about the series? Some of my favorite entries have been the most radically opposed in terms of age statements. One of the best, in my opinion, was the fall 2019 release, which was 15 years old. But more recently? One of the very best was the aforementioned Spring 2021 release, which was merely 8 years old. There have also been some batches that I didn’t like quite as much, but what has become clear is that the mere age statement is rarely an indicator of which ones will be my favorites. It’s the x-factor of the series—whenever I crack one of these open, I never quite know what I’m going to get.
I will say, I do love what Heaven Hill does with the MSRP of Old Fitzgerald, which generally just increases or decreases in $10 increments per year in the age statement. This strikes me as a more-than-fair way to do things, and runs counter to the expectation that the older age statements would have exponentially higher MSRPs. This way, the 8 year release represents a pretty good value at merely $85, while this 17 year keeps pace in a fair way at $185. Is that expensive? Absolutely, but the sliding scale is still fair. With that said, however, you should feel lucky if you’re able to find this priced at MSRP at a package store, which have increasingly taken it upon themselves to gouge the consumer in a bid to jealously reap their share of bourbon secondary market pricing. I can only imagine that this age statement, the oldest yet for the main Old Fitzgerald series, will inspire more intense secondary market pricing than ever before for Old Fitz.
With all that said, though, let’s get to actually tasting and reviewing this whiskey.
On the nose, the Spring 2022 Old Fitzgerald has the requisite big, weathered oak you’d be expecting, but I’m pleased to see that it isn’t really overtaken by it. Rather, I’m getting more impressions of cornbread, slightly burnt toast, fudge, black cherry and orange citrus. On top of it all, there’s that old, mature oakiness.
On the palate, this is actually quite rich on the front end, with tons of caramel, vanilla and sweet oak that turns more dry and tart as it goes on. Surprisingly, this release isn’t overly oaked or totally defined by oak in my opinion, which was my biggest concern when seeing the 17 year age statement. The oak is definitely assertive, and it transitions to more dominance on the finish as the slightly tart nature closes out the sip with tannic dryness, but throughout most of the sip it’s quite well-balanced by sweetness and the richness of this wheated bourbon. In the mid-palate, I’m getting cherry here, and sweet mulling spices, while the ethanol is pretty mild for the proof. All in all, this has a mildly desserty vibe, but simultaneously functions as a pretty elegant sipper with its old oak profile when all is said and done.
It should probably go without saying, but this is a release that will be most appreciated by those who enjoy extra-mature bourbon with a significant oak presence, but for a 17-year release I’m pretty surprised by how balanced it still seems to be. This could easily have been a full-on oak bomb, but it hasn’t really become one, and it’s better for it. This Spring 2022 release takes its place alongside some of my other favorite Old Fitzgerald batches, without a doubt.
Distillery: Heaven Hill
City: Bardstown, KY
Style: Wheated bourbon
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $185 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.