This back story is as deliriously arcane and legend-fueled as any in American distilling: In 1974, investment banker Adolph Hirsch commissioned a single 400-barrel batch of bourbon from Schaefferstown Distillery in Pennsylvania (now known as Michter’s) from master distiller Dick Stoll. Stoll used a tried-and-true mashbill of 75% corn, 13% rye, and 12% malted barley. As the distillery faced bankruptcy, this private commission, now nearly forgotten and aged well beyond typical practices, found its way into the hands of Julian Van Winkle III, who bottled it as A.H. Hirsch Reserve.
A number of different agings were released, but the real yeti is the 16-year-old “blue wax” bottling from 1991. If you can find it, and have about $4,000 in your pockets, you can give it a whirl. Spirits expert and writer Charles Cowdery chronicled it all in The Best Bourbon You’ll Never Taste in 2012, and the rest is boozy history, as they say. But it forms a lynchpin in the history of American distilling, establishing a very high bar on outlier quality and desirability.
In that rebellious spirit, San Francisco importer and distiller Hotaling & Co. (whose portfolio includes such notable inspired brands as Nikka Whisky and No. 3 Gin) has introduced a spiritual descendent of that iconic whiskey, launching the HIRSCH Selected Whiskeys brand. Its first offering, which hit stores and bars over the summer in select states, is called, evocatively, The Horizon ($39).
Combining two straight bourbons distilled in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, there will be multiple releases of The Horizon into 2021 with varied “blends.” The exact ratio, agings, and mashbill sources for each release of The Horizon are detailed on the back of the label. The inaugural bottling is derived from a somewhat close match to the original A.H. Hirsch Reserve bill at 75% corn, 21% rye, and 4% malted barley aged just over five years. The remaining 6% of the mix is a six-year-old high-rye bourbon, intended to build up complexity. It is bottled at 90 proof.
Invocations of “holy grail” spirits aside, The Horizon is a very nice bourbon. The nose is quite typical; sweetness, a bit of vanilla and wood, and an alcohol-forward stance. And on the tongue? Some unique crispness, especially with a rock, and a kind of multi-layered structure more akin to wine than whiskey. Spiciness, via the high-rye hit, gives way to an unexpectedly light sweetness. There is a quick alcohol after-burner, but it quickly smoothes out into a lingering lightness, almost herbal in nature, until the next sip. An easy drinker, especially at the slightly over-proof bottling, with a lot of complexity; yet it never gets fussy.
Unfortunately, I cannot ably compare it to the original, but its spirit seems to be in-line with a more thoughtful, exploratory approach to bourbon. Alas, as for many of you, A.H. Hirsch Reserve remains the best bourbon I may never taste, but this Hirsch salute has earned a spot on my home bar, for sure.