“This. This pour. Please, just suspend me in this moment, forever…..”
That was my initial thought as I took my first sips of the the Heaven Hill Select Stock “Rye Bourbon”. A 131 proof phantom; A tasting adventure cloaked in mystery.
Part of what I love about sipping bourbon is the adventure that comes along with it. Sometimes I feel like anyone who saw me holding my glencairn would be instantly reminded of any number of scenes from an Indiana Jones film. Indy is carefully inspecting a booby-trapped artifact in some ancient cave in South America, bewildered and entranced by its beauty, contemplating the moment in an almost spiritual fashion, fawning over the details of craftsmanship of the piece….the dancing torch light reflecting off the gold gilding and casting an aura over his face. Except my idol is that of a 15 year old corn based bourbon, rather than an…..idol. Well, idols come in many shapes, sizes and pours I suppose.
Regardless. Any of us that revel in experiencing the deepest nuance of the most epic drink are also adventurous spirits at heart. Bourbon is in our blood and its a deeply gravitational force, a pull of charred oak and mashed corn that excites our senses and causes the pulse to speed up in anticipation. Real life provides few chances of adventure on par with that of Indiana Jones, however the desire for mystery and adventure remain…..
So when I was offered the opportunity to try an expression of bourbon that I had no idea even existed, I didn’t hesitate to accept.
This particular pour is the Heaven Hill Select Stock 131 “Rye Bourbon” picked for Bourbon Bar. If you haven’t heard of it, you aren’t alone. It’s the kind of pour that’s spoken about in hushed tones between only the elite connoisseurs of the bourbon world. This particular juice comes from a 65 gallon barrel that was a sister to the 9 barrels that would eventually become the storied William Heavenhill 15yr 135 proof green label bottles. It was set aside as a private pick for a hotel bar in Atlanta, and bottled at 131 proof as Heaven Hill Select Stock. In fact it’s the only Heaven Hill Select Stock that wasn’t of the (delicious) wheated/cognac finished variation. Unfortunately, there was some disagreement between the hotel management and the bar over the purchase, and ultimately it was decided the assumed owner couldn’t take possession of the barrel. The remaining bottles went back to the warehouse, where they sat in languished exile for 19 months, waiting for a white knight to rescue them out of a future of uncertain obscurity. From there the story becomes murky, and a bit of a mystery to say the least. It seems some of them managed to cast off their shackles and disappear like 131 proof phantoms, scampering silhouetted under the blue moon of Kentucky into the night. However, the method of their exodus is shrouded in more secrecy and hypothetical conjecture than the famed Alcatraz prison break.
Its altogether fitting, and at the same time unfortunate that this juice didn’t receive the typical bluster and fanfare that would (and should) accompany a bourbon of such magnificent quality, character and back-story, not to mention rarity. No lines waiting around the corner of the Bourbon Heritage Center. No awkward pictures from the parking lot. In truth, I had never seen this bourbon, let alone heard of this bourbon, and that’s a shame because it’s simply a majestic pour, one of the finest I have ever had the pleasure of sipping. Majestic isn’t even a word that does it justice. Mesmeric might be better.
All I knew was the advice that accompanied this pour; In essence, “Give it a drop of water and all it’s beautiful secrets will be revealed.”
The first thing I noticed while swirling the glass was how dark this bourbon was, more akin to an ultra-aged specimen that had been cooking down, forgotten, in the back of the warehouse for 24 years.
Just as the bourbon rolls off the lip of the glass, that split second that it’s suspended in air is a moment I would love to have paused, or slowed to a state of near pendulous animation. My nose is gushing full of sugars and musky charred oak, but the definition of these scents is so much more refined than any I have experienced before. It’s a language of waveform, rich and rolling. I detected ultra-rich dark roast coffee, creamy, heady. It’s gracefully overwhelming, but not overpowering, and an utter experience rather than just a smell. I can actually taste the juice before it hits my palate. It makes a grand, elegant entrance, announcing it’s arrival in an unforgettably thick wave of sugary pipe tobacco and syrupy caramel, melting in my mouth like a combination of maple cotton candy and oakey-smoky resonance. The pungeant aromas of toasted pecans mingling like lovers hands with the sweet scents of pipe tobacco. A July wind that has wafted though miles of Southern Indiana cornfields, thick with humidity that rises like a sweet apparition out of the landscape, gently whipping through the swaying tendrils of my papaw’s giant weeping willow tree. Oh that pipe tobacco, and leather….this is exactly what I want in an aged bourbon.
The mouth-feel is just enormous and substantial. A friend compared it to that of truffles, and that’s not far off. It invades every corner of the inner mouth and olfactory senses. You can practically see it, and it literally disintegrates into multiple soft flavors. At least five times I shook my head in disbelief, exhaling with puffed cheeks and pursed lips as if I’d just done 350 sit-ups. (disclaimer: I hadn’t…)
The flavors are immediately sweet….decidedly up front. More of the tobacco dancing with herbal/floral notes, like sweet breakfast tea, or a basket of dried flowers. A mild spice of rye, trading punches with caramel. The flavors retreat, then reappear, floating, bobbing, weaving…. My notes said, “I close my eyes. I’m standing in the barn, in the afternoon when the heat begins to break. The ground corn is laid out for the cows, musty and sweet. I can smell the wildflowers and papaws old pipe. I’m chewing on caramel squares, my favorite. The old oak boards of the barn siding have been absorbing sunlight all day, and they creak as moisture evaporates, expelling the heat with an exhalation of caramalized oaken dreaminess.”
This is quite possibly the most complex bourbon I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. It took me three attempts to decipher the nose and flavors, and there was still more of the flavor riddle that could have been untangled. I tried it straight (AMAZING), and with a drop of water (ALSO AMAZING). To aid in that, I kept the previous night’s empty glencairn covered, and let the aroma bake itself inside, which made many of the oak and sweet flavors come alive. I would sip and smell at the same time, letting the flavors wash around in my mouth…..until the finish took control.
And that finish! It’s hot, but not blazing, and certainly enjoyable straight or with a drip of spring water. It coats the entire mouth, tongue and lips with an amazing amount of heat an sizzle. The burn expands, similar to the way Stephen Hawking would describe the Big Bang. Ever expanding. Exponentially multiplying itself. Beyond comprehension. It lasts as long as you want it to, until you are ready to extinguish it. It will wait, like glowing embers in your core, beckoning you like a siren to try just one more epic pour. You can’t resist. You just can’t!
How lucky I felt to sip the Heaven Hill Select Stock 131. How lucky are those that actually have these bottles, giving them the ability to partake in this mesmeric pour.
That, my friends, is the meaning of Epic Bourbon.