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Steal this Drink

Jack Bettridge
Posted: August 3, 2012

Here’s one you’ll want to pilfer from your buddy’s liquor cabinet: Larceny, Heaven Hill’s newly released wheated Bourbon with a taste that equals its interesting back story.

The whiskey is subtitled John E. Fitzgerald and that’s a nod to the Old Fitzgerald brand, which Heaven Hill now owns and produces in Bardstown, Kentucky. But Old Fitz was made famous by the legendary Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle. The Bourbon-making legend took over the now-shuttered Stitzel-Weller distillery, near Louisville, and started making wheated Bourbon (whiskey that uses wheat in place of rye in the grain mix) after Prohibition. We know his name through his grandson’s Old Rip Van Winkle brand, which is now made at Buffalo Trace (he’s the bearded gentleman lighting a cigar on the label). Diageo, which bought the distillery in 1992, sold Old Fitzgerald to Heaven Hill. (Diageo still owns an amazing stock of old whiskey from the distillery, some of which I had the privilege of tasting recently and am hoping they will release. But that’s another story.)

Anyway, it was long assumed by many that John E. Fitzgerald was a revered distiller and that’s why the whiskey was named for him. However, Sally Van Winkle Campbell, granddaughter of Pappy, revealed in her book But Always Fine Bourbon—Pappy Van Winkle and the Story of Old Fitzgerald (a tome you should read by the way) that the origin of the name was quite different. Fitzgerald was a treasury agent back in the days when they held keys to the warehouses to make sure taxes were being paid on the whiskey inside. It seems, the taxman also had a taste for Bourbon—and larceny—as he would use his entrée to the whiskey stocks to steal whiskey for his own pleasure. His knack for finding the best casks was such that the ones he chose to filch from were dubbed “Fitzgerald barrels”—hence the name Old Fitzgerald.

The new whiskey is a nod to that slightly crooked story in both its name and the packaging, which has a keyhole shape on the label. In the same way that the original was inspired by especially good barrels, so is Larceny produced. Heaven Hill distillers Parker and, his son, Craig Beam choose 100 select barrels from the fourth, fifth and sixth floors of its rickhouses to “steal” the small batches that become Larceny.

The result is a smooth whiskey that nevertheless possesses mounds of flavor. Smoothness is a characteristic of Bourbon made from wheat as it does not have the spicy bite of rye. In the right configurations—e.g. Maker’s Mark, Rip Van Winkle and Heaven Hill’s own 2010 version of the Parker Heritage Collection—it can be wondrous. This is. Furthermore, it honors Pappy as a great partner for the cigars that were always in his mouth. Naturally, we had to find out for ourselves.

Larceny, John E. Fitzgerald, Very Special Small Batch (92 proof, or 46 percent alcohol by volume, $24.99 for 750 milliliters)
APPEARANCE: Deep amber color, slow thick legs.

NOSE: Very pretty—almost perfumed—and complex nose with honey, nuts, maple syrup, bread dough, savory, cinnamon, nutmeg and baked apples.

PALATE: After that great nasal introduction, it does not disappoint on the tongue. With a lush mouth feel it is at once balanced and varied. Out comes honey drop candy at first flush, only to be followed by red berries, toffee, and more maple and nuts. 

FINISH: The close is long, sweet and a flavorful reminder of all that went before.

CIGAR PAIRING:
Undercrown Corona Doble (89 points, Cigar Insider)
We picked this dark and oily Churchill from Nicaragua, with its leather, earthy and peppery flavors to see if the whiskey’s wheat would stand up. It more than did, seeking out licorice flavors in the smoke and revealing much of its own vanilla character, which is otherwise a bit understated. The cigar responded in kind, turning rounder and heartier.

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