Anyone familiar with the recent history behind Henry McKenna Single Barrel knows just how far being an award-winning whiskey can go. More specifically, it won the “Best in Show Whiskey” at the 2019 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, which has prompted something of an eye roll reaction in internet subcultures. More specifically, people will remark that any whiskey which wins this award or another of similar pedigree will become sought after and highly allocated. A more serious proposition has been that single barrel whiskeys shouldn’t be eligible to win any award outside of awards specifically for single barrel products. The reason being one simple question: What’s to stop distillers from cherry-picking which barrels are submitted? This in and of itself means the specific bottle/barrel that wins may not be representative of what average consumers will ultimately purchase, assuming they can find it.
Considering I’ve only ever seen Henry McKenna Single Barrel at two stores, one asking $60 and the other $140, I’d say the influence of its award has rippled quickly and effectively. The whiskey, produced by Heaven Hill, is named after an Irish immigrant and is touted as “resting in the barrel through 40 Kentucky seasons” (aka 10 years) while meeting the requirements for a bonded bourbon. This will be the second time I’ve sampled Henry McKenna Single Barrel. The first time I tried it was in a blind flight against two other single barrel samples: Colonel E.H. Taylor and 1792. McKenna came out on top with the one caveat being that it didn’t do anything exceptional. Time to see how this second sample holds up, this time evaluated on its own.
Nose: Cherry, apricot, and brown sugar. Has a gently sweet and dry baking spice essence with hints of nutmeg and vanilla. Orange peel, lightly honey glazed peanuts, and a bit of oak spice mingling seamlessly with the sweeter notes. After sipping the fruit begins to come forward a bit more, treading into baked peach and caramel territory.
Palate: Fruit, nuts, and oak. Apricot, peach, orange, brown sugar, and some nuttiness on the back-palate heading into the finish. A cherry note begins to develop after a few sips. Decent supply of vanilla throughout with soft fruit notes offset by the oak. The mouthfeel is clearly influenced by the oak, imparting a consistency that tingles without being grainy. Almost comes across like a Buffalo Trace expression.
Finish: Respectable length. Smoky oak and brown sugar. Roasted peanuts and pecans with enough toffee to balance things out. A bit of corn actually works its way into the picture later on.
I’m somewhat surprised; this is quite similar to my previous sample when all is said and done. My palate has naturally expanded so it’s easier to pull more notes out, but the ultimate experience is largely consistent. Henry McKenna Single Barrel is a nicely balanced pour that does a stellar job representing what a well-aged bourbon should be. I particularly enjoy the strong but not overbearing oak and spice combination, which helps lend a lasting finish that you’ll want to take your time with. Any bourbon that pulls off a strong finish scores some easy points in my book. However, I must bring this back to price and availability, which always depends on where you live. I can only factor in my location, and as much as I enjoy Henry McKenna Single Barrel, I can’t bring myself to justify spending $60 or more for a bottle. This price range is where value is especially important, since we’re dealing with some heavy hitters. Anyone who knows me knows what I’m going to point toward: Old Forester 1920, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel, and Wild Turkey Rare Breed. This is without going online to remind myself of some other expressions priced similarly that deliver a drinking experience that’s just as good or better, depending on what you’re looking for. Continuing with this tangent would result in a column, so we’ll save that for another day. I’ll close this review by saying that Henry McKenna Single Barrel is one of the best representations of a middle of the road bourbon and its award status isn’t terribly surprising. If that sounds like something you have to have right now, knock yourself out. Otherwise? There’s plenty of good stuff to choose from in the $40-$60 range.