All September on VinePair, we’re turning our focus to America’s spirit: bourbon. For our third annual Bourbon Month, we’re exploring the industry legends and innovators, our favorite craft distilleries, new bottles we love, and more.
The story of Henry McKenna begins like those of many of its bourbon counterparts. In the heart of Kentucky, Henry McKenna himself set out to create a high-quality, well-aged bourbon. Today, the Henry McKenna brand belongs to the largest family-owned distillery in the country, which houses a well-known collection of bourbon labels.
It’s more than just another Heaven Hill bourbon, though. Henry McKenna has accumulated notoriety and awards over the years, making it something of a star child for the distillery.
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Read on for 11 things you should know about Henry McKenna.
BOURBON MAY BE ‘DISTINCTLY AMERICAN,’ BUT HENRY MCKENNA WAS AN IRISHMAN’S BRAINCHILD.
The brand’s founder was born in Ireland in 1819. After emigrating to the U.S., McKenna settled in Kentucky in 1855. There, he took his love of whiskey and tweaked the family’s Irish recipe so it was suited to Kentucky grains. He quickly started his own distillery and hired another Irish immigrant to work as a distiller.
QUALITY OVER QUANTITY HAS ALWAYS BEEN A TOP PRIORITY.
When McKenna began distilling his bourbon, the Louisville Courier reported that he was “unique among Kentucky distillers for refusing to sell his whiskey until it had been aged at least five years.” He took his time with more than the aging process, too, starting by making a humble half-barrel each day, then upping the number to three after moving to a larger distillery.
FOR MCKENNA, CLEANLINESS WAS A TOP PRIORITY.
Word has it that McKenna’s penchant for aged bourbon stemmed, in part, from a commitment to sanitation in the bourbon distillation process. In the 1800s, most distillers whitewashed their fermentation tubs. McKenna opted to scrub them down and sterilize them with boiling water before starting on a new batch. His efforts to keep things clean paid off, as aging the bourbon longer helped refine the final product.
HENRY MCKENNA IS ONE OF THE LONGEST-AGED BOTTLED-IN-BOND WHISKEYS ON THE MARKET.
Bourbons that are bottled-in-bond must adhere to a clear set of legal regulations. The Bottled-In-Bond Act of 1897 holds that a bonded bourbon must be produced during one distilling season, distilled at one distillery, bottled at 100 proof, and aged at least four years in a federally bonded warehouse. Henry McKenna is aged two and a half times longer than the minimum, with the bottle proudly labeled as a 10-year-old, single-barrel, bottled-in-bond liquid.
‘THE MCKENNA BILL’ WAS BROUGHT BEFORE CONGRESS IN 1892 AS A NOD TO THE MCKENNA FAMILY’S DISTILLING METHODS.
McKenna’s passion for aging his whiskey longer than the competition was so evident that his name became associated with a congressional bill. The McKenna Bill was introduced in Congress in 1892 with a goal to allow distillers to legally have an unlimited bonding period. The bill failed to pass, but an 1894 bill extended the maximum bonding period to eight years. In 1958, the number was increased to 20 years.
THE BRAND WAS MCKENNA-OWNED UNTIL THE GREAT DEPRESSION AND WORLD WAR II HIT.
Prohibition hit distilleries hard, and Henry McKenna’s family never fully recovered after repeal. Two of McKenna’s sons, James and Stafford, helped oversee the distillery at the time, and struggled to keep it open through the Great Depression and World War II. When James died in 1941, Stafford finally threw in the towel and sold the distillery to Seagram’s, which later sold the company rights to Heaven Hill Distillery, where the brand still resides today.
HENRY MCKENNA HAS A FAMOUS FAMILY.
Henry McKenna is produced in the same Bardstown, Ky., distillery that has created and acquired other well-regarded bourbon brands, including Elijah Craig, Larceny, and Evan Williams. It is the largest family-owned-and-operated distillery in the U.S., with a large collection of labels to show for it.
ITS MASH BILL IS SIMILAR TO THAT OF ITS HEAVEN HILL SIBLINGS.
The distillery has several bourbons that bear corn percentages above 70 percent, including Elijah Craig and Evan Williams. When sized up against other names like Four Roses (60 percent) and Basil Hayden’s (63 percent), Heaven Hill bourbons’ high corn content is a distinguishing feature. The Henry McKenna mash bill is 78 percent corn, 10 percent rye, and 12 percent malted barley. This higher corn content contributes to Henry McKenna’s sweet, smooth tasting notes.
IT WON ‘BEST IN SHOW’AT THE 2019 SAN FRANCISCO WORLD SPIRITS COMPETITION…
It was only the second bourbon ever to win the whiskey category. The other was also a Heaven Hill distillery product, Parker’s Heritage Collection. What’s more, it was one of the least expensive in the competition, at only $35 per bottle. Other high-scoring whiskeys in the category ranged in price from $70 to $150 per bottle.
…AND PEOPLE WEREN’T HAPPY ABOUT IT.
Longtime Henry McKenna fans were the most frustrated by the win. They felt that a higher-priced, rarer whiskey should have taken home the prize. Disgruntled fans took to social media to air their fears and angers that their favorite brown would gain traction post-win and experience price hikes. Turns out, their worries were at least partially justified.
PRICE SPIKES AND DROPS HAVE BEEN COMMON IN RECENT YEARS.
Henry McKenna sold for around $35 per bottle prior to 2019. Once it won the “Best in Show” title, demand caused prices to rise to an average of $85 per bottle. Its price has since dropped to around $75 after the San Francisco World Spirits Competition buzz died down.