Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Malt Mission 2009 #367

Bernheim Original
Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey

45% abv


Keeping the American theme going with a few more drops from whiskEy country up my labcoat sleeve. Sorry if it takes me weeks to pull 'em out.

Typical of American whiskey, the Bernheim story is shrouded in mystery, some confusion, and even a little intentional deceit. The Bernheim website reads, "Brothers Isaac Wolfe and Bernard Bernheim, pioneering German immigrants with little money and big dreams, established a distillery in Louisville, Kentucky in the 19th century. Since that time, the Bernheim distillery has consistently produced whiskeys lauded for their superior taste and quality." The Heaven Hill website reads, "Heaven Hill produces its whiskies at the historic Bernheim Distillery."

Historic? consistently making spirit? The old Bernheim distillery was demolished and the new one was built in 1992. The whisky is distilled at (the new) Bernheim distillery and is matured at Heaven Hill's facilities in Bardstown, Kentucky. The amazing Sku, who helped me clarify some details about this whiskey (and many others over the years), also points out that
this is straight wheat whiskey (>51% wheat), not to "be confused with what in Bourbon lingo is referred to as a "wheater." A wheater is a Bourbon in which the remaining grains, beyond the required corn, contain wheat instead of rye. In a wheater, corn is still the base grain. In wheat whiskey, which is not Bourbon, wheat is the base grain.

Thank you, my west coast malt loving brother!

Tasted with an east coast malt loving brother, David Stewart (no, not that one. Or that one).


Perfumy, aromatic, like hot tea. Vanilla, chamomile, and fresh mint. Simple and clean with a gentle spice beneath the sweet surface.

Very soft in the mouth, verging on bland. Not much of note happening here. Hmm... Late notes of bread, baguette and then... fin


In tasting this with DS, we were both speechless for no other reason than there was next to nothing to say about the flavours in this drop. Light? Clean? Yes, but also boring and inconsequential. Although unique in the world of American whiskey, I think Greenore provides a parallel but this drop doesn't come close to the complexities of oak influence in texture and flavour found in its Irish comparison.

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John Hansell said...

Now Sam, wouldn't you be tempted to blend it with a little straight rye whiskey to give it more personality, depth and complexity? Or do you still think that whiskeys should be consumed just the way the master distiller intended them to be?

Dr. Whisky said...

I could add stuff, I guess. Seems like a waste if not also a bit, i dunno, presumptuous?
Who am I to judge professional whisk(e)y makers with 45 years of nosing experience, 3 generations of blending in their families, 10 year apprenticeship training, etc.?
Do you bring a paintbrush to an art gallery in case you find Renoir missed a spot? Do you add salt, tabasco sauce, and ketchup when dining at a friend's house?

Unknown said...

Ouch! I'm wondering if there is significant batch variability because I was really impressed with a bottle I had a year ago. I found it rich and full-bodied (but not syrupy), butterscotchy and nutty. It was not super-complex and perhaps was 'too' smooth (e.g. I'd recommend it to non-whiskey drinkers), but the flavor was certainly big. I've read other reviews of Bernheim Original that, like you, describe it as light and clean, which I can't reconcile with the awesome bottle I had.

sku said...

Hmm, I too wonder about batch variability, since I had a quite different reaction. Not that two tasters can't disagree, I just would never describe it as lacking in complexity.

It may also be, though, that what I find exciting about Bernheim is the chance to explore the flavor of wheat.

Of the elements of Bourbon: corn, rye, wheat and malt, all but wheat are very easy to sample as the primary grain in a whiskey. Corn whiskey, rye and malt are easy enough to find and tasting them in a purer form helps to identify the flavors in Bourbon. But for wheat, it's much harder, so Bernheim gives you a flavor profile that simply isn't readily available. That's why I include it in nearly every Bourbon tasting I do, to demonstrate that those smooth, citric notes you get in Van Winkle or Weller, those are the wheat singing its song.

John Hansell said...

I've been meaning to check back here...sorry for the delay.

Dr Whisky, you DID judge this professional whiskey maker's 45 years of experience. "Boring and inconcequential" were your words, I believe.

And since the ultimate goal here is to have a pleasurable drinking experience, why not do something to make it less boring and more concequential?? The bottom line is to make your drinking (or eating) experience as pleasurable as possible, given the tools available to you.

Do you not drink cocktails? What's the difference between blending Berheim with vermouth and bitters to make a Manhattan, compared to blending Bernheim with a rye whiskey (and maybe some water)? Isn't that, in essence, the same thing?

I can't add a rye whiskey, but it's okay to add vermouth and bitters (and ice, and a cherry)?

And you analogy to the Renoir is a false one. Each Renoir is unique. I would never consider adulterating it in any way. But, there have been how many bottles of Bernheim produced from the same batch that you drank? Thousands? Tens of thousands? Don't you think it's okay to take one of those thousands of bottles of whiskey and play around with it to appeal better to our palates, knowing fully well that if it doesn't work out, we still have 24 more ounces in the bottle and thousands of more bottles identical to the bottle purchased? Not exactly as unique as a Renoir...

Plus, if I bottle the Renoir painting, I am intitled to do whatever I want with it. It's now MY Renoir. And, if I buy a bottle a bottle of whiskey, am I not entitled to drink it how I want, whether it be neat, with water, with ice, with sweet vermouth and bitters, or with Sazerac Rye?

Dr. Whisky, I think you need to rethink your logic here.

John Hansell said...

Thinking about it some more, Dr. Whisky, your description of this whiskey: "boring and inconsequential" sort of reminds me of the food we had during our last meal together at the tavern, wouldn't you agree?

As I recall, we were all scrambling for the ketchup, malt vinegar, salt, pepper, and whatever else we could find to enhance the enjoyment of our dining experience. Sort of like adding a dollop of rye whiskey to what you describe as a "boring and inconcequential" wheat whiskey, perhaps?

Okay, no use beating a dead horse. I think you get my point.