There’s something about limited edition wheated bourbons that just whips up the whiskey geeks into a frenzy, isn’t there?
And no, we’re not just talking about Buffalo Trace releases (W.L. Weller, Pappy Van Winkle) anymore. Heaven Hill’s premiumized wheated bourbons seem to be nearly as hype-inducing these days as well, proof that the distillery’s decision to re-imagine the likes of Old Fitzgerald Prime—once a dust-collecting bottom shelf staple—was a strategically brilliant one. Along with the still-recent addition of Larceny Barrel Proof to the lineup, it’s helping Heaven Hill to stake a serious claim to the top-shelf wheated bourbon market.
Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond is a particularly interesting release, though, because so little about it is specifically consistent. The first two batches in 2018 were 11 years old and 9 years old respectively, but the next two swelled to 13 and then 15 years old, with floating price tags that essentially just added a zero after the age statement. Now, after trending upward, the Spring 2020 release of Old Fitzgerald is right back to 9 years old, an indication that the distillery tends to treat each release as its own animal. All have been warmly embraced by critics and whiskey geeks, not least of all for being housed in what is perhaps the most beautiful bottle on the bourbon market today.
But they’ve also projected a certain unattainable aura to fans, and the odds of obtaining a bottle seems increasingly unlikely when so few of the bottles actually seem to be sold at anywhere near their MSRPs. It seems to be endemic to the whiskey world as it exists today—make a well-aged wheated bourbon, and watch as the retailers jack up the price in an attempt to mint the next Pappy Van Winkle.
This is particularly noticeable in this newest Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond release, which, at a smaller 9 years of age carries a fairly attainable $90 MSRP, at least in comparison with the $150 MSRP of the 15-year-old version in the fall of 2019. The problem comes when trying to pick up a bottle via package stores, which are all too happy to utterly gouge the consumer for all they can get. A quick glance at Google shows how bad it is here in particular: Multiple liquor stores are offering online sales of this $90 bottle for $400 each, a more than 400% uptick. Not one is available for less than $400, in fact. Cruise over to Reddit, and you’ll find a thread of guys discussing their purchases of these bottles for $300 a pop, also presumably from local liquor stores. And really, I get it: An uptick from MSRP is absolutely to be expected when you’re dealing with sought-after bourbon. But 300% markups? 400%? Now we’re getting into the realm of lunacy, where probably few bourbons on earth could justify the cost. But if people are still willing to buy at that price, then retailers will have little reason to care.
Keep in mind, those prices are from the retailers, people. We’re not even talking about the secondary market yet, and we can absolutely assume that some percentage of those buying bottles at $300 and $400 are doing so with the intent to re-sell them. And they wouldn’t be buying at those prices if they couldn’t still turn it into significant profit by selling even higher.
Understandably, distilleries like Heaven Hill are frustrated by these kinds of reports of their MSRPs being inflated to such a degree by retailers. With limited ability to directly set prices due to the regulatory standards of the industry—outside of the bottles they sell directly from their own gift shops, of course—the distilleries are kept at a distance. At the end of the day, they can only do so much to shape prices. I reached out to Heaven Hill for comment specifically regarding this Old Fitzgerald release, and received this from Heaven Hill Master Distiller Conor O’Driscoll:
Through the secondary market, we see direct consumer interest for varying American Whiskey types that help us understand what consumers are eager to find. We can then turn to our innovation planning and see what we have available to fit those interests. The flipside of the coin is that we provide a wide range of affordable, high quality products, yet consumers can get gouged on limited edition products simply because some people have access to products and then sell them at an astronomic price online. Likewise, there is grave concern over counterfeiting and authenticity. Those concerns just don’t exist when going through traditional channels. Buyer beware.
As O’Driscoll points out, what is sometimes forgotten in these situations is the fact that the distillery does indeed have no shortage of high-value options—hence, several appearances of Heaven Hill products on our recent list of the best values in bourbon today. For the moment, anyway, we just need to accept that these limited edition releases stoke the greed of the retail side of our liquor distribution system, and it’s the consumer who foots the bill.
With all that said, who’s ready to actually taste some bourbon? As previously stated, Old Fitzgerald Spring 2020 is a 9-year-old, bottled-in-bond, 100 proof wheated bourbon that comes in a stunning glass decanter. Let’s get at it.
On the nose, this Old Fitz presents with big caramel and cream of wheat/vanilla bean, with underlying wheat bread doughiness and hints of nutty cocoa. Oak is moderate, more of a supporting player here, with a twist of orange citrus and some slightly floral or piney notes that are hard to place.
On the palate, this is big on toffee and rich caramel sauce—very heavy caramelization indeed, which segues into tons of baking spices that lean heavy into cinnamon sugar. As I observed in previous releases of Old Fitzgerald, I always end up being surprised by how much that baking spices note presents in this whiskey, as it’s not something I associate as much with wheated bourbons. Here it’s quite pleasant, though: Allspice and “Christmas cooki” notes, with toasted bread, candied ginger and slight pine needles. The texture is also nice; silky and lush.
I was curious just how different this might be from last fall’s 15-year-old expression, so I also pulled out some of that remaining bourbon to taste them side by side. The current release, as you would no doubt expect, presents as less oaky than the 15-year-old, but it’s also a bit less rich at the same time, as the 15 possesses a pronounced maple syrup sweetness that is quite decadent. In fact, tasting the 15-year again, I can see why it would command a higher price among collectors, as it’s the more bombastic and unique of the two, and my own appreciation of it seems to have increased over time, possibly due to its development with oxidation. The Spring 2020 9-year release, meanwhile, strikes me as more balanced than the over-the-top oak and maple combo of last fall—an all-around tasty wheater.
If you can somehow find this Old Fitzgerald at MSRP, it’s a great example of what has made Heaven Hill’s wheated bourbons so popular in the last half decade. But if I can ask a favor: Don’t pay a package store $400 for this. Hell, don’t pay a liquor store $400 or $500 for damn near ANYTHING, unless you just want to normalize that practice even more. It’s the last thing the whiskey world needs right now.
Distillery: Heaven Hill
City: Bardstown, KY
Style: Wheated bourbon
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $90 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.