The Parker’s Heritage series of limited release whiskeys at Heaven Hill is a particularly unique beast, in the sense that each year’s release is well and truly distinct from any other. Now in its 15th year, the series has never repeated one of its entries, at least not exactly. Each Parker’s Heritage edition represents some new bit of experimentation, although certain stretches of the series do keep a specific theme going.
And for the last two years, that theme has been “heavy char.” Starting in 2019, with Heavy Char Rye, Heaven Hill began showing off their experimentation with #5 charred barrels, which are seared with open flame considerably longer than even the #4 “alligator” char barrels commonly used at distilleries such as Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey. Heaven Hill, meanwhile, typically uses a lighter #3 char on its standard whiskeys, which makes the jump to #5 (not traditionally used in the industry) more of a dramatic one. In 2020, the company sensibly followed with the 14th edition of Parker’s Heritage, which was 10-year-old Heavy Char Bourbon.
This year, the 2021 release of Parker’s Heritage explores what is presumably the zenith of the “heavy char” concept in the form of an 11-year-old wheat whiskey. Bottled at a robust 122 proof (61% ABV), it should be noted that this is not Heaven Hill’s wheated bourbon mashbill, which can be found in brands such as Larceny and Old Fitzgerald. Rather, this is the actual wheat whiskey mashbill (51% wheat, 37% corn, 12% malted barley) that is usually only found in Bernheim Wheat Whiskey. That juice was then aged in a collection of 75 heavy char barrels on the sixth floor of Heaven Hill Rickhouse Y, where they rested for 11 years before being bottled without chill filtration. Like other releases in the Parker’s Heritage line since 2013’s Promise of Hope, the edition is dedicated to late Heaven Hill Master Distiller Parker Beam, with a portion of the proceeds from each bottle sold going to the ALS Association.
I enjoyed the surprisingly subtle nature of last year’s Heavy Char Bourbon, so let’s get into tasting this Heavy Char Wheat Whiskey and see how it compares.
On the nose, immediate impressions on this one are pretty rich, which is likely what many drinkers would be expecting from a barrel proof wheat whiskey from Heaven Hill. It’s very heavy on caramelized sugars, with supporting dark fruit jamminess, cocoa, vanilla and cream of wheat. As it sits in the glass, Heavy Char Wheat Whiskey also seems to become noticeably toastier and sweeter, eventually evoking freshly baked brown sugar cookies still on the cooling rack.
On the palate, this whiskey is again redolent in very deeply caramelized sugars, but it’s also quite jammy, with a pithy blackberry quality that is only mildly sweet. Toffee and brown sugar give way to lots of spice—hot cinnamon that becomes more mild over time, with hints of nutmeg and baking spices. Residual sweetness is mild to moderate, being kept in check pretty neatly by toasted oak and an accompanying tannic dryness that balances things out and never gets too assertive. As it sits in the glass, the dram again seems to become richer and more assertive in its fruit and caramelized sugar notes, segueing into maple cream. All in all, this is one of those whiskeys that sort of feels like it “grows in the telling,” as it were.
Parker’s Heritage Heavy Char Wheat Whiskey makes an ideal counterpoint to last year’s Heavy Char Bourbon, reading as sweeter, fruitier and more decadent, while still having enough structure to not seem ungainly. If this is the last time we see the “heavy char” barrels from Heaven Hill, at least in the immediate future, they’ll have gone out on a high note.
Distillery: Heaven Hill
City: Bardstown, KY
Style: Wheat whiskey
ABV: 61% (122 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $140 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.