Thursday, March 8, 2012

Dusty Thursday: The Bourbon Heritage Collection

Back in the early '90s, when the bourbon renaissance was just in its embryonic stages, United Distillers & Vintners (the company that would later become Diageo) released the Bourbon Heritage Collection. The Heritage Collection was a series of five whiskeys from the company's US distilleries. These include whiskeys distilled at Stitzel-Weller and labels that no longer exist, so I was pretty happy to find an old set of miniatures (you know I love the minis) representing the entire collection.

I found these in a small Greenwich Village liquor store. They come in a gray, rectangular box with no outside marking and there were two of them tucked away on a back shelf. My guess is no one had opened the little boxes for years. This is a good case of knowing what you are looking for. If I hadn't been familiar with the gray box (or curious enough to ask to see it), I would easily have passed these over. Instead, I grabbed them up for $18 per set. And because they had been tucked away in their gray boxes, the minis were in great condition, just like new.

Here's a run down of the whiskeys followed by some tasting notes.

Old Fitzgerald 12 and Weller Centennial. These are the prizes of the collection, distilled at the old Stitzel-Weller distillery which closed in 1991. After the closure, UDV continued to sell them for a while until it eventually sold the labels off; Buffalo Trace got Weller and Heaven Hill got Fitzgerald, but the minis in this pack were from the old days. While this set may have been bottled after the closure of the distillery, the bourbon itself was most likely distilled at Stitzel-Weller (which we know from the Louisville address on both labels). Buffalo Trace continued to make Weller Centennial for about another decade and discontinued it a few years ago. Heaven Hill still makes the Old Fitzgerald label. As with all Stitzel-Wellers, they are wheated bourbons.

Old Fitzgerald 12 years old, 45% abv

The nose on this has sweet corn and oak. The palate is a bit flat with soapy notes, and it's hot for its abv. Some caramel and candy notes in the background. Finish is sweet and a bit buttery.

Weller Centennial, 10 years old, 50% abv

The nose on this is really sweet and caramelly. The palate is sweet and woody with a fair amount of acid. The finish is sweet bourbon. I have had a number of bottles of Weller Centennial, both Stitzel-Weller and Buffalo Trace, which were excellent, but this one doesn't quite live up to those.

The Old Fitz is fine and the Weller is good but neither of these match up to the better Stitzel-Wellers I've had. They both had a certain flatness to them.

Old Charter Proprietor's Reserve and I.W. Harper Gold Medal. Since I don't know when exactly these bottles date from, I'm not sure if these two were made at the Bernheim distillery or the old Belmont distillery. Both labels were made by Belmont until UDV bought the distillery and tore it down. In its place, they opened the Bernheim distillery in 1992 and then sold it to Heaven Hill in 1999. The Harper brand is still owned by Diageo but bottled only for export, and the Charter brand is now owned by Buffalo Trace. Trace discontinued the Proprieter's Reserve label around the same time they got rid of Weller Centennial.

IW Harper Gold Medal, 15 years old, 40% abv

IW Harper is probably the least well regarded of the collection. The nose is light but has nice blush wine notes. The palate is a bit on the harsh side with lots of bourbon-corn and alcohol notes. The finish is salty/savory. It's not bad, but it lacks much depth.

Old Charter Proprietor's Reserve, 13 years old, 45% abv

This has a nice rich nose with some floral notes. The palate starts rich with candy notes then turns to chewy, woody notes which last into the finish, accompanied by caramel. It's definitely one of the nicer whiskeys in the set.

George Dickel. Dickel is the only American distillery that remains in the Diageo portfolio. I'm a big fan of Dickel, so I was excited to try this no longer available version.

George Dickel Special Barrel Reserve, 10 years old, 43% abv

The nose has that nice Dickel woodiness. The palate opens well with wood planks (tastes like Home Depot) but then it develops a diluted quality and water seems to drown out the flavor. The finish brings back some of the wood and some maple syrup, but the whole thing doesn't come together very well.

I was excited to find this mini collection (and they say there aren't any dusties in Manhattan!) but overall, while all of these whiskeys were decent, none was that exciting. The Weller and Charter were the best, followed by the Fitzgerald, the Dickel and then IW Harper bringing up the rear.

The thing about dusties is that sometimes a weird old mystery bottle turns out to be great but sometimes a fabulous find turns out to be just okay.


BMc said...

I think you're going to catch some flack for this - the old fogies with their bunkers full of this stuff don't want the word to get out that, SOMETIMES, our current selection of whiskies is as good or better than what you could get in the old days.

sku said...

BMc, I was surprised that these whiskeys made such a poor showing. Of course, I've had excellent versions of the Weller Centennial and very good versions of the Old Charter in the past, so it could be this period or even bad handling of these bottles (even though they looked fine, you never know).

I agree that there are many excellent current whiskeys and that the general quality level now is likely higher than anytime in history. The fun of dusties for me is not that they are better than current expressions (though some are) but that they represent flavor profiles that no longer exist. The Bourbon Heritage Collection, though, (or at least this representation of it) didn't offer much of interest.

Fussychicken said...

Old fogie here that has been fortunate enough to find many of these bottlings while hunting. I also managed to snag a similar miniatures set like this (instead of 5 in a row it had 3 on bottom and 2 on top)

A few years back I cracked open this mini set of mine and tasted them all as well. I don't have notes, but remember really enjoying the Charter and Weller and ranking them as above average. The Charter reminded me of a more old fashion style of bourbon while the Weller had a nice richness to it.

The Harper was watery as many have said and I don't remember much about the Dickel and Fitzgerald.

I wonder if part of the blame for the lack of taste that Sku found could be placed on chill filtering and just generally low abv.

Anonymous said...

Mornin' Sku,

I got beyond lucky yesterday and found 3 of the 5 from this collection (WL Weller, George Dickel, and Old Fitz), all 750ml bottles.

Is there anyway to accurately date these bottles?

The WL Weller is a Louisville bottling, as is the Old Fitz. I am pretty sure the store owner obtained these around the same time, so if there is a way to figure out one of them, I think we can have an answer for all 3. Strangely though, The old Fitz and George Dickel seem to be missing up to 15% of its contents. All still have the original black seals around the corks and neck so I am 99% sure they were never altered.


sku said...

J, are there any markings on the bottom of the bottles? That can indicate a bottling year. The Louisville address on the Weller was used, I believe, up until BT bought the label in 1999, so it likely means it's Stitzel-Weller bourbon that was released in the '90s.

Unfortunately, if they are missing that much liquid, it indicates poor handling which might have led to evaporation. That doesn't bode well for the bourbon inside.

Unknown said...

I found these at by boyfriend grandpas. house and wanted to know how much they are wroth now if not opened?

sku said...

Robin, I don't really do valuation, I would try the LA Whiskey Society: