Palate Comparison: Two Perspectives on Parker’s Heritage 8-Year Rye

PARKER’S HERITAGE COLLECTION RYE WHISKEY
Released in 2019

MASH BILL – 51% rye, 35% corn, 14% malted barley

PROOF – 105

AGE – 8 years

DISTILLERY – Heaven Hill

PRICE – $200

Named after famed Heaven Hill master distiller Parker Beam (1941-2017), the Parker’s Heritage series is an annual limited release that varies widely in age, proof and style of whiskey. The first release in 2007 was a cask strength bourbon without an age statement. Since then there have been whiskeys as old as 27 years, wheated bourbons, bourbons finished in Cognac or Curaçao casks, and most recently a 10-year, 120-proof bourbon. A portion of the proceeds from the Parker’s Heritage series goes to support Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) research, in honor of the late Parker Beam who suffered from ALS during his lifetime.

The distinct variations from year to year make a zig-zagging through-line of experimentation. In the case of the bottle on the table tonight, it’s the first ever rye release in the series, pairing a decently aged Heaven Hill rye mash bill with barrels charred to the highest level—level 5, rather than the very common level 3. A deeper char inevitably imparts stronger wood spice, caramel, and of course char notes to a whiskey.

Any Parker’s Heritage release comes with a sizable price tag. In the present case, one is paying for a bottle of specially curated barrels, not the average barrels put out by Heaven Hill for their standard Pikesville or Rittenhouse ryes. Yet whatever the specs of a given release, whiskey fans don’t go quite as wild-eyed bonkers when the latest Parker’s Heritage hits the shelves each Autumn like they do for any number of even comparatively more available Buffalo Trace products. Still, the annual Heaven Hill release arguably qualifies as at least a mid-level FOMO inducer.

I was never particularly intrigued by the series, myself. Its broad variability means one release might appeal more directly to some people than others. I haven’t cared much for any Curaçao finished bourbon I’ve tried, for example, so the 2018 release wasn’t anything I flinched about. Whereas I’d have loved to try the 2014 13-Year wheated bourbon, bottled at cask strength. What bottles of it might still occasionally be found are typically out of reach way up on the top shelf, both literally and metaphorically.

Being a big ol’ rye fan, and a particular fan of both Rittenhouse and its older, higher-proof sibling, Pikesville, I was indeed curious about this 2019 rye release when I heard about it. The age wasn’t the draw—8 years isn’t unusually old. It was the combination of the tasty Heaven Hill rye recipe with the uncommonly heavy charred barrels that appealed to me. How might that extra wood influence combust with the chocolatey Heaven Hill rye I love?

So when an acquaintance from my local Facebook whiskey group put out the real-time word that he was at a grocery store that had a handful of them behind glass, priced near msrp, and he was willing to pick up and mule any and all available bottles for whomever got their “BIN!” in while he was still standing there, I typed “BIN!” pretty quickly.

Now, had that gracious and generous offer not come across the interwebs when it did, and had I not happened to be online to catch it during that minutes-long window, this post would not exist. It’s accidental timing, not determined whiskey hunting, that provides me the opportunity to sample this not particularly flashy, yet still quite expensive, limited release. When I finally opened it in anticipation of this post, the money had long since been spent, and the whiskey was good right out of the gate, so, no regrets and no complaints.

I am happy to be joined once again by actor and fellow whiskey fan, Michael Barrett Austin, for a palate comparison of this Parker’s Heritage 8-Year Rye. Michael and I have done previous palate comparisons on the blog together—a Sonoma Distilling Co. Single Barrel Reserve Rye, the Elijah Craig 18-Year bourbon, and a Willett 6-Year Single Barrel bourbon. Pre-pandemic, we met up in person every few months, usually at Michael’s home and with one or more other friends, for a flight of related bottles that had gathered our mutual interest and curiosity. (One epic night of ryes got me home quite late!) Our online palate comparisons have been a means of keeping up that social tradition. Though here we focus in on one bottle in particular, our curiosity inevitably pulls us toward comparing the main event with others!

Here first are our respective notes in brief, followed by a bit of our conversation. We both used traditional Glencairns. I opened my bottle three weeks ago and am on my fourth pour. Michael’s bottle has been uncorked since sometime in May 2020—by someone else, actually. He’d acquired the open bottle in a trade. Tonight the bottle was still only a couple pours in and he himself was trying it for the first time, having had a sample given to him from some other bottle previously.

COLOR

MICHAEL – dark honey, or a rich, deep brown wood with an orange varnish stain

MARK – a deep sparkly orange with russet and dark amber highlights

NOSE

MICHAEL – took awhile to get past the ethanol, but then wood bark, charred wood from yesterday’s fire, some herbal notes like rye seeds and dill, then a touch of menthol and a fruit-based sweetener like monk fruit.

MARK – dark baked cinnamons and allspice up front, backed by a thick gooey layer of caramel, some vanilla cream frosting, dried pine bark, rough cut oak, granite, some kind of rugged floral herb, and an oh so faint and uncommonly rich bubblegum note

TASTE

MICHAEL – what a weirdo! But in a good way! Surprisingly understated at first, then after time some cinnamon stick, eucalyptus, horehound, and saltwater taffy…

MARK – peppery and baking spicy up front, then a wash of the caramel and vanilla notes, ending with a doughy breakfast pastry that brings it all together along with a nice pepperiness

FINISH

MICHAEL – a burst of citrus peel that’s more grapefruit than orange, then a bit of citrus oil lingering for a long time…

MARK – warm, with the doughy breakfast pastry summing up all the flavors together in a nice balance, some orange peel, with a minty coolness at the back of the throat amongst a black pepper note and the long fading warmth…

OVERALL

MICHAEL – I’d had a sample when this was originally released and thought “what a weirdo” then, too, and that’s the biggest selling point for me—that I haven’t had anything else like it and can’t quite put my finger on its notes.

MARK – very like its younger but slightly hotter cousin, Pikesville, with more herbs and spices in the flavor notes, and more depth and richness overall by comparison.

BUY AGAIN?

MICHAEL – if I could get my hands on another close to msrp, maybe. But this is a question I’d return to once I’m toward the end of this bottle…

MARK – no, because $$$ not taste.

MARK – So, overall, your thoughts?

MICHAEL – I tried this over a year ago when a member of our Facebook group reached out and offered a sample. And I remember thinking it was really weird. I had much less rye experience at that time. So, now, I can identify it as a rye. But back then it was like nothing I’d had, and I wanted to put it next to a scotch. This time drinking it, that’s not where my head went.

It’s an interesting and worthwhile experiment to throw the Pikesville rye into a heavily charred barrel and age it a little longer. I’m not sure it’s entirely successful, because somehow I feel we’re losing the front of the palate. It’s neither immediately bourbon nor rye, so my brain doesn’t know what to do with it at first. That said, I then start to look for what it is and dive in deeper and that’s what’s interesting about tasting whiskeys, when you have to work a little bit.

Simply from an economic standpoint, my thought right now—and this may change by the end of the bottle—is that spending money on another bottle of this wouldn’t make sense to me given Pikesville is so good for $50: similar age, less char on the barrel, but a higher proof. That said, this Parker’s Heritage is definitely a richer experience overall. I really enjoy the particular spiciness to it, which I assume comes from the deeper char allowing the liquid to interact more with the wood, and for two years longer than Pikesville. For rye whiskey in particular, the deep char is a nice element, I think, because rye is already spicy, so, the deep char adds additional wood spice to the mix that compliments the grain’s own spice well.

I’ve actually found myself writing “doughy breakfast pastry” as a note often lately. And tasting this tonight, I’m putting together now that this note comes up when its components—caramelized sugars, cinnamons, bready notes, cream, vanilla—all come into balance to form the one united note my senses identify as “doughy breakfast pastry.” And with this Parker’s Heritage, there are all these herb and spice and wood notes that surround that core breakfast pastry note, not integrating into it, but complimenting it very well by adding savory notes alongside the sweet.

That could be an interesting way to review whiskeys, with one note. “It’s breakfast pastry.” “It’s the smell of campfire.” “It’s Hostess Ho-Hos.”

Do you think this Parker’s Heritage Rye is worthy of “limited edition” status and pricing? Or is it close enough to other everyday, on-the-shelf ryes? Does it have enough of some extra something?

I do think it deserves the limited edition status, for its uniqueness. It’s an experiment that some people might hate and some might love. I’m neither. But I’m glad I tried it.

I think there are two ways to look at limited editions. Either they are special because they are unique experiments made in small quantities that won’t come around again, like the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection, which, I hear a lot of those aren’t great. But at least they’re unique. And that appeals to me with this Parker’s Heritage. I’d love to share it with others who haven’t had it and see what they think, so, yes, from that standpoint I’d say it fully hits.

The other way to look at limited editions is that when you try them you can definitively say to yourself, I really think this is in the top echelon of things I’ve ever had. That’s a good justification to pay more for it. This bottle doesn’t hit that mark for me. It’s not among my favorites in the way the Four Roses Limited Editions tend to be, for example. I’ve only had a couple of those. But they have hit that mark where I say to myself, Oh, I paid over retail for this and I think it’s worth it.

The nature of what “limited edition” means seems to be evolving. I wonder if as the bourbon boom’s thunderclap continues to roll along, and limited editions become more and more commonplace, will the prices come down because there is a glut of “limited” editions? In other words, even though each edition is limited in quantity unto itself, if it’s among many other limited editions lined up side by side on the shelf, then “limited edition” is no longer what’s special about them. What is special is simply what one hopes to be special about any whiskey—the precise tasting experience.

I’m guessing back in the day when it was normal to find an 18-year bourbon for $20 or $30 on the shelf, because nobody cared, I bet those were pretty dang good! The 18-year bourbons now can’t be so expensive because they’re better, the demand has simply changed. When is the tipping point going to come, where we the consumers collectively get wise and say to ourselves, Wait a minute, why am I paying three digits for this 15-year sourced whiskey bottled by Fill In The Blank, when I can pay two digits for this Knob Creek 15-year single barrel store pick?

Yes, and, similarly, this issue has increased exponentially with all the single barrel store picks, right? You think, Well, I’ve had the standard Buffalo Trace but I’ve never had this store’s pick of Buffalo Trace. At least store picks tend to be a bit more aligned in price with their standard release counterparts than the limited editions tend to be. I try to fight the “limited edition” mindset because it’s led to me buying too many bottles. I’ve always had that personality, not wanting to get rid of stuff or miss out on something. I think, This could be my only chance! I don’t know what will happen tomorrow! But that mindset leaves you with too big a collection to drink through.

I’m trying really hard—well, I don’t know how “hard” I’m trying—but my intent in 2021 is to buy less, and, when I do buy something, to first stop and ask myself: Wait, is this going to be available all the time? Do I actually need to buy it now? Because over the years I’ve bought many commonplace bottles out of curiosity, but then months or even years passed before I uncorked it. And those months or years later that bottle was still as readily available in stores, so, mine on my shelf was just taking up space.

Most of what I’ve bought so far this year have been uncommon items, like that Old Charter Chinkapin Oak I picked up recently. That was an opportunity. And ironically I uncorked it right away—it didn’t sit around for months or years, not even hours! So I’ve been going for that kind of thing lately, but nothing middle or bottom shelf. And though the individual bottles I’ve picked up lately have been more expensive on average, I’ve actually been spending less overall. We’ll see how long that continues!

I’m now pouring a Willett 6-year rye. I don’t know what its provenance is. But I got it as a sample.

We’re assuming it’s some store pick or another?

Yes.

Willett tends to be pretty wild, so I’m curious to hear how it compares to the Parker’s. I’ve poured some of a Tom’s Foolery Bottled in Bond Rye that I picked up earlier this week. It’s a bit over 6 years old. A store pick from K&L. I thought it would make an interesting comparison, because Parker’s Heritage comes from one of the largest mass producers of mainstream stuff, whereas Tom’s Foolery is the opposite of that—one warehouse, one assembly line, husband and wife team, they grow their own grains… And the mash bills are very different. The Parker’s is 51% rye and the Tom’s Foolery is 96% rye.

This Willett is mellower than that Willett we did last time. Was that a bourbon?

It was a bourbon, yes, from Ledger’s Liquors. Of course, the line between Willett bourbon and rye is very thin given the mash bills.

Right. This rye is not the wild ride that bourbon was. But opposed to what I was saying about the Parker’s having an understated beginning on the palate, that’s not the case with this Willett. It feels heavy and sweet. Everything’s big. It’s still great, but, I have that same feeling that I had with that Ledger’s bourbon. It’s just a lot!

It’s got a big personality.

It’s a funny mix. On the one hand, the Parker’s pales by comparison. On the other hand, I find the Parker’s a more pleasant experience. It’s less challenging, less of a threat.

Less of a threat? A threat to what? The overwhelm of the tastebuds?

Right! Everything is bigger about this Willett, even though it’s younger. Trying it next to the Parker’s, it also brings out that char in the Parker’s. I get more of a burnt ashy thing.

In comparing the two side by side, what’s the dominant feature of each?

The contrast brings things out. So the Parker’s becomes even more understated by comparison. But what’s different is that burnt wood, ash kind of thing, which, when it’s highlighted, I find a little less pleasant than before. But as for the Willett, I don’t know that the Parker’s is bringing anything more out of it. It’s sweeter, with more rye notes. It doesn’t seem that much hotter despite being 114.8 proof, a good 10 proof points higher than the Parker’s. …I’m also going to pour some Jack Daniel’s single barrel rye.

I’ve got the Parker’s here next to the Tom’s Foolery. These are quite different. Tom’s is much grassier on the nose. Not a bright grassiness. Darker, dry, long grasses, with some tree bark of some kind, and an undercurrent of caramel. With the Parker’s there’s an herbal quality, but a much stronger caramel note. The Parker’s is more of a mix. The Tom’s is definitely more herbal—dark herbs, dry like late Summer.

I know you’re only on the nose now. But would you go so far as to say the Tom’s seems savory as compared to the sweetness of the Parker’s?

Yes. More toward the savory end, and drier, whereas the stronger caramel and vanilla notes in the Parker’s add to a sweeter—not fruitier, but wetter quality as opposed to dry.

Interesting. Because I’m having the opposite experience. In tasting Parker’s I didn’t find it that sweet, rather more herbal. But when I compare it to both this Willett and now also the Jack Daniel’s rye, they are both much sweeter. It makes me want to find something more savory to see if it brings out the sweetness in the Parker’s.

I didn’t get this the other night when I was first tasting the Tom’s, but tonight I’m also getting something very—I don’t want to say floral, I want to say rose specifically. There’s a sweetness to it, still herbal, it’s a flower, but… Yes, very specifically rose.

Have you tried one of these Jack Daniel’s single barrel ryes?

I haven’t.

It’s off the wall banana! I like the banana note in Old Forester stuff, which I should compare this Jack Daniel’s to. But this is crazy banana. I don’t like Jack Daniel’s in general. I never have. For me it always has an artificial taste to it, artificial banana. But this rye is pretty good. It’s very rich.

Now tasting the Tom’s Foolery, it’s like I went to a gourmet restaurant and they had a dark, rich, dense chocolate cake with herbs sprinkled on top of it. It’s very balanced.

Did the first sip surprise you given the nose?

Yes. I didn’t get that chocolate cake note when I first tried it last night. But now it’s very strong, and very balanced with the herb notes.

With the three I’m tasting—Parker’s, Willett, and Jack Daniel’s—the Willett falls between the other two pretty well.

In what sense?

On the one hand, I thought this Jack Daniel’s wasn’t a good comparison after all because it’s just so different. It does have a lot of sweetness from the banana. But there are many more rye flavors in the Willett than in the Jack Daniel’s. So the Willett, which has its own kind of sweetness, bridges the gap between the Jack Daniel’s and the Parker’s. But only the Parker’s has that char note.

Tom’s Foolery (L) and Parker’s Heritage (R)

Now tasting the Parker’s again, though it’s very different than the Tom’s Foolery on the nose, they are similar on the palate. The Tom’s has that rich dense chocolate cake. The Parker’s has that doughy pastry bread. So they both have a sweet breadiness surrounded by the herb elements. That surprises me, given the Tom’s Foolery was sooooo herbal on the nose!

Right.

Any final thoughts on the Parker’s Heritage Rye, having now tasted it next to some other ryes?

On the one hand it pales compared to the others, because of its understated quality. I’ve put it next to ryes that are also pretty limited in terms of availability and tend to sell above their retail, so, I think that aspect is a fair comparison. I’d say the Willett and Jack Daniel’s are easier to be impressed by. If you only had one sip of all three of these and didn’t think about it too much, the Parker’s would come in third because it’s a lighter flavor experience overall and I don’t know quite what to do with it. But that’s also what makes it interesting to explore.

For me, tasting the Parker’s next to the Tom’s Foolery, I would be surprised if by the time I get to the end of the Parker’s bottle I’m inclined to buy another. Not because I don’t like it. It’s really good. But Pikesville is also good, and only $50. Tom’s Foolery is a very different experience, very unique in its own way, and also $50. Just from an economics standpoint I can’t justify a second bottle of the Parker’s. I’m happy to have this one. The money was spent a long time ago. I’ve never followed the Parker’s Heritage line too closely because each release is so radically different. My interest in this release was explicitly to do with how much I love Pikesville.

Now, to be honest, I wouldn’t buy this Tom’s Foolery again either, but for different reasons. Another Tom’s Foolery single barrel will come along and I would buy that instead. You can bet this single barrel I have here is going to sit at K&L for a long time, because hardly anyone knows or cares about Tom’s Foolery. They’re a very small operation in Ohio. But this single barrel is so unique in its flavor experience, in such a way that if people started saying, “Here’s a unicorn, y’all should get it,” people would go for it. It’s got a respectable age on it for a basic rye. The flavors are strong and unique. It reminds me of Willett in how pronounced it is in its personality. Maybe it’s less of a wild card than Willett tends to be. But it’s flavor profile is way out there.

I do have a nerdy love for the Parker’s Heritage line. I agree with what you said about it being totally different each time. But they put thought into it. They plan ahead and experiment. The ALS support is great.

Yes, I like that very much. Knowing some portion of what I’m paying will support ALS research is a part of the enjoyment. And anytime I saw Parker Beam himself interviewed, I always loved how he talked about bourbon, so, I think about him too when I drink it.

For me it’s fun that the experiments are all over the place from release to release. The 2020 release seemed a bit mundane. But some of the early releases seemed to be all about simply being really good bourbon.

Or insanely old! There was a 27-year and a 24-year.

I tried that 24-year.

Oh, how was it?

I loved it. It was woody, not too tannic, very sweet. I liked it a lot.

Epilogue

And from there we moved on to other topics and other whiskeys. A good whiskey tasting offering what whiskey tastings do—experience, conversation, shared ideas and points of view.

Cheers!

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