Heaven Hill is full-line distilled spirits company but they were founded in 1935 as a whiskey distillery and American whiskey has always been the centerpiece of their portfolio. In addition to bourbon they make rye and corn whiskey, and are the only major distillery that makes wheat whiskey.
During American whiskey's darkest days -- roughly the two decades between 1970 and 1990 -- they were one of the few distilleries that continued to make rye whiskey. Their reward was to be well-positioned to capitalize when rye suddenly got hot a few years ago. This year WHISKY Magazine declared Rittenhouse Rye Bottled-in-Bond to be the best American whiskey, period, better even than all of the bourbons. This from a product that sold for about $12 a bottle a few years ago and is still less than $20.
Rittenhouse is Heaven Hill's brand and they have enjoyed its success except for one little thing. Ever since Heaven Hill's Bardstown Distillery was destroyed by fire in November, 1996, all of Heaven Hill's rye whiskey has been made at Brown-Forman. This was necessary because Heaven Hill's new distillery, Bernheim in Louisville which they bought from Diageo in 1999, didn't have enough capacity.
The news is that they have increased Bernheim's capacity by about 40 percent and nearly two years ago moved all of their rye production there. Okay, something that happened two years ago may not be news, but just remember that we won't actually have any of that whiskey in bottles for another two years.
They are now mashing rye one day a month, which is up from three or four days a year just a few years ago. Supplies are very tight right now but a batch of nearly 1,000 barrels will come of age in October, so it should be much easier to find after that.
Although they weren't making rye whiskey at Bernheim at first they were making wheated bourbon for Old Fitzgerald, which they acquired with the distillery. Wheated bourbon is still bourbon, i.e., mostly corn, but it contains wheat instead of rye as a flavor grain.
With all of that wheat around they also hit on the idea of making a straight wheat whiskey. Although everyone assumes people made wheat whiskey before Prohibition, there is no record of it, and although a few micro-distilleries have made wheat whiskey, Heaven Hill is the only major producer that makes it. (A wheat whiskey mash must be at least 51% wheat.)
Heaven Hill started to make wheat whiskey shortly after they bought Bernheim and started to sell it in 2005 under the name Bernheim Original, with a suggested retail price (SRP) of $39.99. The label doesn't state an age but Heaven Hill says it is five years in wood.
Now in its fifth year on the market, Bernheim Original has grown slowly. Each year they have made a little more. At the beginning of this year they decided to start driving more volume by cutting the SRP to $29.99. They also added a brand ambassador, Rob Hutchins, who is responsible for Heaven Hill's premium American whiskey portfolio, including Rittenhouse Rye and Bernheim Wheat.
I like both of these products very much. Even though the price has gone up, Rittenhouse Rye is still a great value and $30 is the right price for Bernheim Wheat, so while maybe this news is not exactly timely, it is undeniably good.