While I’m almost certain that everyone is familiar with the term “flight” as it relates to wine or whiskey, on the off chance that there are newbies here let me start with a little explanation.
A flight consists of three to four smaller pours, usually 0.5 – 1.0 ounces, of three or more whiskeys, where a “standard” neat pour may contain about two ounces of a single offering. Bourbon flights are a great way to compare similar whiskeys, explore those you haven’t tried, and/or taste an expensive or rare bottle at a more reasonable price. Flights can benefit those that are just starting out in the world of bourbon, but are also used by seasoned pros. Flights are becoming more popular at many of the better bourbon bars across the country – some of these bars are even allowing the option of building your own flight for those that they have not pre-selected for you.
Flights are usually built around a theme to allow comparisons. You may find a flight that compares bourbons of the same mashbill, for instance all wheaters. Another similar mashbill flight might be to compare all “high rye” mashbill bourbons. I’ve seen flights of “bottom shelf” bourbons (good for trying to find a daily drinker that won’t break the bank, or a decent but solid bourbon for cocktails) and flights of the grail bourbons. On a recent trip to a farm-to-table restaurant in Kentucky, the bar had a flight that they named “come sit on pappy’s knee” which featured three Pappy Van Winkle bourbons (12, 15, and 20 year old) for a charge of $90 with an option to add the 10 year old for an additional $18 and/or the 23 year old for an additional $50. Not cheap, but have you tried to find Pappy lately? It might be the only way some folks can have the opportunity to see what all they hype is about.
As I’ve written elsewhere, one of the things I enjoy is finding those hidden gems, the bourbons that are really good but maybe are not the ones that get all the love and hype. I also like getting to know some of the bottom shelf labels from distilleries that I’ve come to trust and whose products I enjoy. Buffalo Trace and Heaven Hill both fit into this category – they offer several different labels ranging from bottom to top shelf, and most of their products are solid offerings. Wanting to explore more of Heaven Hill’s products and wanting to try some of their bottled in bond offerings, I decided to build a flight to compare them. For this particular flight, I chose the following four Heaven Hill bourbons: J. W. Dant, Heaven Hill 6 year old, Evan Williams and Henry McKenna 10 year old. Just to be clear, all four were the bottled in bond expressions.
As a reminder, for a bourbon to be labeled “Bottled in Bond” it must meet the following standards (in addition to the six things defined in Title 27 of the Code of Federal Regulations [27 CFR 5.22] for the whiskey to be called a bourbon), which are:
- It is made at one distillery
- It is made during one distilling season
- It is bottled at exactly 100 proof (50% ABV)
- It is aged at least four years in a government-bonded warehouse
All four of the bourbons are reasonably priced – in my area the most expensive of the four – the McKenna – was around $30. The other three were very reasonably priced at $16 or less. Of the four, all but the Heaven Hill 6 year old are fairly easy to find. The Heaven Hill is very common in Kentucky, but harder to find outside that state.
I started the flight by pouring about a one ounce sample of each into my Libbey Master’s Reserve whiskey glasses. All were very similar in color, being a medium amber, although the Henry McKenna and the Evan Williams were ever so slightly darker. All were given a good swirl in the glass and all exhibited fairly long legs.
Next, I nosed each of the samples. The J. W. Dant had notes of mint and bubble gum. The Heaven Hill had notes of clover and sweet corn. The Evan Williams reminded me more of biscuit dough with a hint of raisin and/or fig. The McKenna had more hints of caramel and candy corn.
Moving on to tasting. The Dant started with classic bourbon tastes of caramel and vanilla. Given it’s low price point and bottom shelf categorization, I didn’t expect a lot. I was pleasantly surprised. The Heaven Hill, another bottom shelf lower priced bourbon, was much lighter with hints of mint. It wasn’t the caramel/toffee/vanilla profile that I usually expect from bourbons. The McKenna hit the sides of my tongue and had a hot/spicy taste. It had notes of oak and leather. Of the four, it was the most complex. The Evan Williams had more “lip burn” than the others. Tastes consisted of toasted oak and barrel char and had notes of cinnamon and caramel.
I enjoyed all four of these BiB offerings from Heaven Hill. I’d place the Henry McKenna and Evan Williams in the Very Good/Average+ category and the JW Dant and Heaven Hill in the Average category. I do believe the Dant and HH make better mixers than for drinking neat. There is nothing objectionable about either of them, but they also don’t have anything that makes them a standout. Of those two, I think the Dant nudges just slightly above the HH – maybe because the flavors of the HH are so unassuming. Between the McKenna and the Evan Williams, the McKenna is definitely the winner. This shouldn’t come as a surprise as the McKenna is not only a single barrel offering, but is also a 10 year old whiskey. The fact that you can usually find this at around $30 a bottle makes it a great addition to your cabinet.