Single Barrel #5929 barreled on November 13, 2008
MASH BILL – 78% corn, 10% rye, 12% malted barley
PROOF – 100
AGE – 10 years
DISTILLERY – Heaven Hill
PRICE – $35 tax and all (Those were the days! Now it’s ~$65 minimum)
BUY AGAIN? – No, alas, due to $$ not taste
This may end up more of a lament than a tasting notes post, though I’ll admit I’m loathe to add to the tears and gripes over the loss of Henry McKenna to the bourbon boom. Believe me, I’ve shed my tears and griped my gripes. Henry McKenna was among my first bourbon loves. But what’s done is done. And there are a zillion other good bourbons to be had.
The leap Henry McKenna made to unicorn status in 2019 took longer than many expected. It was rather surprising that it didn’t happen sooner. When it won “Best Bourbon” in the 2018 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, McKenna fans got nervous. Then winning “Best Whiskey” at the same competition a year later cinched the deal. It was only the second time a bourbon had won best whiskey in the S.F. World Spirits Competition’s history. Overnight it was suddenly appearing on shelves for $100.
I scurried and quickly managed to pick up a handful for $35 each, tax and all, at a local grocery store that apparently hadn’t heard the news. I’ve never seen it at that store again since, at any price, nor at any number of the other shops where I used to pick it up.
The first of those six bunkered bottles I opened right away, and it was a butterscotch bomb! I loved it. Luckily one of the other five were also from that same batch—#5741, barreled on August 9, 2008—so I can look forward to enjoying that experience again. The current bottle on the table was put into its barrel about three months later, and it’s a remarkably different experience.
And that’s the thing about Henry McKenna. It’s always been such a wild card. Some bottles I’ve experienced have been unpleasantly bitter. Others, like #5741, came as a gift from the whiskey gods. That lack of consistency was always a complaint about the brand. But still one couldn’t argue with the value—a single barrel 10-year bourbon bottled in bond for $30 on average?
In any case, there’s no reason to “review” Henry McKenna anymore. Its fate is sealed. And anyway I don’t actually write these posts with reviewing in mind, but rather as a means of tracking a whiskey journey. And Henry McKenna is certainly a significant stop on the journey. So here we are.
Taken one week after uncorking, three pours into the bottle, and tasted in both a traditional Glencairn and humble 5-ounce tumbler, here are some notes in brief:
COLOR – a clear medium copper
NOSE – baked cinnamon, fresh oak, thick buttery caramel, faint apricot preserves
TASTE – cinnamon, butter on freshly baked bread, oak
FINISH – a light peppery tingle, the buttery baked bread, baking spices, a drizzle of the caramel, oak
OVERALL – this one is all about the trifecta of cinnamon, buttery fresh bread, and oak
Interesting to taste this in two glasses. The notes above are taken from the Glencairn. In the tumbler, the buttery caramel is more prominent on the nose. The taste is roughly the same, with an added dash of cream and slightly grittier texture to the oak. And the finish emphasizes even more oak and butter. The differences are subtle, but noticeable, and I might actually prefer it in the tumbler.
It’s very Heaven Hill. Sense memories of Evan Williams Bottled in Bond come wafting back—a much younger product and not a single barrel, but sharing Henry McKenna’s mash bill, proof, and bonded status. As I continue to sip it I get hints of that particular peanuttiness I associate with Evan Williams. But overall the McKenna is drier, oakier, missing the orchard fruit notes that show up more readily with Evan Williams.
Especially now that it has achieved unicorn status, I understand why some people find Henry McKenna irritating. It is a truly inconsistent brand. There are single barrel lines—Russell’s Reserve, for example—that despite their variances seem to always please. McKenna swings about more wildly by comparison. This barrel #5929 couldn’t be more different than the afore-mentioned #5741. I’m almost tempted to open my second bottle of the #5741 to compare. Perhaps I will once this #5929 draws toward its end.
To be clear, this bottle of Henry McKenna on my table tonight is not at all bad. It’s certainly not worth $65 and up. But I’d say it’s quite worth the $35 I paid. It’s a solid, oaky, flavorful bourbon. The cinnamon aspect is strong, adding pizzazz to the prominent oak. The caramel note backs the baking and wood spices up well enough. I’d prefer more caramel. But this dry oaky McKenna followed nicely from the oaky Elijah Craig single barrel I used to warm up my palate. I’ve got an oak theme going that I’m enjoying perfectly well. It’s just not worthy of “unicorn” status at all.
I suppose my suggestion to anyone curious about Henry McKenna is to not break a sweat seeking it out. But if you ever find it lower than $65, give it a go. It’s worth experiencing for sure, especially if you happen to pick up a barrel that leans more into Heaven Hill’s fruitier or caramel aspects. I like oak so I’m pleased with this barrel #5929. I’m just really glad I got it for the right price!