A Bottle with a Long Road to Market
Illinois Whiskey from the 1980s
The origin of various whiskeys can be difficult to trace. The industry has undergone tectonic shifts over the past few decades and new distilleries have emerged, established companies have merged or been acquired, and still more have closed up shop. With all of this activity, ageing casks can shift hands a number of times. What was once whiskey distilled for one company can end up being bottled or blended into the product of a completely different brand. With these transitions, it can be difficult to understand what exactly makes up the liquid in the bottle you are drinking.
Several years ago, we were invited to a whiskey-focused dinner. The dinner was incredible, with food prepared by a chef who knew whiskey well and paired each course with a different bottle. Hands down, the consensus favorite of the night was a bottle from a company almost no one knew. It had one of the longest names we’ve ever encountered: Hirsch Selection, Special Reserve, 20 Year Old American Whiskey. Being a whiskey newcomer at the time, Lee canvassed the city to find this elusive bottle and was able to acquire two.
The history of this whiskey is quite murky. Hirsch was, at some point long ago, a brand produced by the Bomberger’s distillery in Pennsylvania. After being acquired multiple times, the label eventually ended up in the hands of Anchor Distilling in San Francisco (now Hotaling & Co.). This particular bottle had almost nothing to do with the A.H. Hirsch line of bourbons. As stated on the bottle, the whiskey was discovered ageing in a warehouse in Illinois. Ultimately one of the acquiring companies, Preiss Imports, found the product and decided to bottle it under the Hirsch Selection label.
20 Year Old American Whiskey
While its history may be difficult to discern, the label on the bottle fortunately gives us a lot of information about the production of this whiskey. The mash bill was that of a traditional bourbon, which means at least 51% corn. Unlike a true bourbon, the spirit was aged in used casks. The 20 Year Old is also billed as a ‘single barrel’ whiskey, and the label indicates there were 120 total casks in the batch. After spending 20 years in oak, Preiss bottled this whiskey and added it to a list of Hirsch Selection expressions of similar eclectic origins.
On the Eyes: A warm-hued golden color with red undertones. The consistency was fairly thick with long legs in the glass.
On the Nose: The first aroma is of fresh corn on the grill. We also picked up sugar and notes of green apples, combining to evoke Jolly Rancher candies.
To the Taste: The first sips brought forward straight corn husks and kernels. The mouthfeel was very clean, and not very oily or viscous nor very sweet. Overall, the palette was smooth with some heat up front.
And the Finish: The finish brough notes of raw oak and a building heat. As the dram quickly faded we tasted caramel apples.
Having a glass from this bottle for the first time in a while reminded us how quickly our tastes can evolve. This doesn’t mean that the 20 Year Old is a bad whiskey. It has a surprising amount of depth and the long time in the barrel have mellowed the harsh tones from what tastes like a high corn mash bill. However, since purchasing it, we have found many brands of American Whiskey and bourbon that are aged as long and have a more nuanced flavor.
The whole Hirsch Selection range maintains an allure because each bottle comes from an overlooked or set aside batch of casks that changed hands many times over. The 20 Year Old American Whiskey sat in an Illinois warehouse through four American Presidents while the ownership changed hands from the east to the west coast. This bottle is a reminder that whiskey production is not always straightforward as you might imagine, with a single company distilling, ageing, and bottling the same spirit year after year. Distilleries may purchase stock from other companies to produce a special expression, or blend totally different casks to come up with this year’s version of their flagship brand, supporting the idea that the role of a distiller is equal parts science and art.