As smooth as butter.
As smooth as silk.
As smooth as glass.
These are cliché expressions to describe something that is smooth but until you’ve tried Bernheim Original Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey, then you don’t really know smooth. Compared to this whiskey, butter is as smooth as churned gravel. Silk? You may as well wear sand paper. Glass should be called clear sheets of spiked torture. A baby’s bottom is now as smooth as a porcupine’s and this whiskey doesn’t keep you up all night crying for a diaper change, unless you’ve had too much. However, there’s more to this whiskey than just its smoothness.
This wheat whiskey was named after the historic Bernheim Distillery in Louisville Kentucky to honor bourbon giant Isaac W. Bernheim of the elite I.W. Harper brand of bourbon. His success played a major role in making Louisville a major whiskey city by attracting other pre-prohibition distillers to set up shop nearby.
Bernheim Original was the first new variety of American straight whiskey to come out of the gates since Prohibition ended but it took several decades. Larry Kass, Director of Corporate Communications for Heaven Hill Distilleries explains why it took so long, “I think it came about as a result of the real explosion in Bourbon, and to a lesser degree rye, that happened in the early part of this 21st century. As consumers grew to know and love specialty bourbons—single barrels, small batches, extra aged—they asked, “What else in American Straight Whiskey is out there?” Now, after a long break, wheat whiskey is once again part of the growing whiskey landscape with a re-birth that tells an interesting story.
“We had acquired the Old Fitzgerald brand several years prior, so for the first time Parker and Craig Beam were producing a wheated Bourbon mashbill and so had a silo or two full of winter wheat. Craig played around and came up with a mashbill he thought would work, kind of a wheated Bourbon in reverse and he ran the smallest quantity we could through – about 150 barrels – and he put it up on the top floor of a very good [aging] house,” tells Larry Kass. “We then decided to taste it about every 4-6 months to see how it was aging and coloring up, knowing if we did not like how it was progressing we had the luxury of blending it off in one of our very large mid-tier American blended whiskeys. After we tasted it at 8 months, however, we knew it was going to be something special. It continued to exceed our expectations and with the very high storage, we ended up bottling it at 5 years old, which is more like 8-10 years on any of the lower floors.”
Wheat whiskey must contain at least 51% wheat in its mashbill. However, Bernheim also has a high percentage of corn and some malted barley. The wheat is red winter wheat grown in Kentucky, which gives the whiskey its softness and golden copper color like a freshly minted penny. However, the flavor profile has a lot to do with where the whiskey is aged – the special “Rickhouse Y” Kass previously mentioned. “We have 49 rickhouses in Jefferson and Nelson counties, they all are different due to construction and location – on a hill or in a hollow, how the sun hits them, etc.” explains Kass. “A few are particularly good in the upper floors due to these factors, these are the ones where we tend to pull our single barrel and most of our small batch barrels. Y house, which is actually the closest rickhouse to the plant, and the one we take tour groups into, is one of Craig Beam’s favorites. When he came up with the idea and mashbill for Bernheim, he wanted it to get really good aging conditions…so all barrels of Bernheim age on the upper floors of this particular house.”
This is a whiskey with balance and depth that would have turned the head of whiskey legend Pappy Van Winkle. The nose is subtle and gentle with buttery vanilla and peppery notes, like a Michelin star chef seasoned it. A touch of honey rounds off the pepperiness before the first sip. The whiskey coats the mouth with the subtle flavors of wheat bread handled by a master artisan baker. Toffee and very fresh wood mingle with the bready flavors. The finish is long and mellow leaving the same way it left the nose with honeycomb and muted spice tickling the roof of your mouth. The finish builds slowly and fades long with more pleasant laid-back spiciness.
Yes this whiskey is smooth and much more. In Dominic Roskrow’s epic 1001 Whiskies You Must Taste Before You Die, Lew Bryson nails what this whiskey is all about in nine words, “not too hot, not too woody, not to spicy.” It’s the balanced item that Goldilocks was searching for when she broke into the three bears’ house. Except this time, with whiskey involved, the story would have ended with Goldilocks asking, “Officer, what do you mean by I have the right to remain silent?” However, with Bernheim Original Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey, it’s our duty to wave this right to remain silent and make sure it finds its way onto every whiskey lover’s shelf.