Henry McKenna, a relatively untouted mid-priced bourbon, recently won Best Bourbon at the 2018 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Made by Heaven Hill Distillery, Henry McKenna Single Barrel won Best Bourbon and Best Single Barrel Bourbon. And another Heaven Hill bourbon, Elijah Craig Small Batch, won Best Small Batch Bourbon.
Is there anything special about this bourbon?
Yes and no, said Bernie Lubbers, brand ambassador for Heaven Hill.
"The recipe is the traditional bourbon recipe, the same as Evan Williams, so if you think Henry McKenna is the best bourbon in the world, as these judges did, Evan Williams is the same whiskey just five years younger. So give that one a try," Lubbers said. And the same recipe as the Elijah Craig as well.
"So yes it's special but it’s available every day," Lubbers said.
What makes a whiskey suddenly stand out like that?
While the judges who picked it were working "blind," Lubbers said bourbon lovers often are blinded by their search for "gold dust" on the top shelf. "And the way I put it is they step on bricks of gold to grab the gold dust," Lubbers said.
Henry McKenna is one of those gold bricks, he said. It's a single-barrel, bottled-in-bond bourbon aged 10 years, making it a very unusual whiskey.
"There are probably up to 3,000 American whiskeys on the market today and only 20 bottled-in-bonds," he said. And no other aged as long, he said. The bottled-in-bond designation means the bourbon was made by one distillery in one season, aged at least four years under government bond and bottled at 100 proof. It's seen as an endorsement of quality and distiller's skill.
"Most of our whiskeys are overlooked, and that’s OK," Lubbers said of Heaven Hill. "We know we make great whiskey and the people who love great whiskey know we make great whiskey."
Now the world knows about Henry McKenna and not everybody's happy about that.
Spirits writer Fred Minnick, who was one of the judges, blogged about it, revealing that Henry McKenna won. He posted a message on Facebook apologizing after receiving photos of empty liquor store shelves where the bourbon used to be.
"Less than 24 hours after my @sfwspiritscomp blog post, in which I detail the #bourbon winner, I am receiving pics and texts like this. Empty rows of Henry McKenna, a longtime whiskey geek pour for its bang-for-buck quality. It stands as the world's best bourbon at a major competition and it's only $30. And the shelves are clearing. I'm sorry. In my and the other judge's defense, we are asked to judge the glasses to the best of our ability and I stand by this pick.... I also hate myself for it, because it was my house bourbon (along with Old Fox 1920). Buy it while you can. #whiskey #whisky," Minnick wrote.