Review: Bernheim Straight Wheat Whiskey / by Jason Hambrey

Charred Virgin Oak
~51% Wheat, 39% Corn, 10% Malted Barley
Distiller Heaven Hill (Bardstown, Kentucky)

This is a straight wheat whiskey, which means that its primary grain is wheat, rather than corn or rye which are more common. In many parts of Canada and the US, wheat was the most common grain for whisky at the beginning of whisky history in those places. “Straight whiskey” means that it has been aged in new charred oak casks, for at least 2 years. To say it is “wheat” means that it is at least 51% wheat (this is 51% wheat, with the remaining 49% corn and malted barley). Wheat rounds out the profile, resulting in “softer” whiskies (like wheated bourbons, which have wheat as a secondary grain to corn rather than rye bourbons, which are more spicy due to the secondary grain of rye) and a typically more viscous product. Also, I find, they give some very interesting, unique fruity and floral notes.

There is now an age statement of 7 years appearing on Bernheim despite many distillers just dropping age statements (this review is from a bottle just before the age statement started to appear). Bernheim whiskey was first released 5 years after its production, so this bottling is likely 5-7 years old.

Review (2014)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: ~2013

Nose: Lightly fruity, in some ways giving the apple notes I more often associate with single malts than straight whiskey. There is light oak, but it doesn’t dominate – and there are edges of wheat in the nose as well, much like white flour or bread dough. It seems to sweeten a bit into woody notes reminding me of maple syrup over time. At times you are reminded of wheat flour, at times you are reminded of freshly baked (or baking) white bread. There are bits of orange, apricot, vanilla, honey, cinnamon, and caramel, but they are slight and in seem lightly integrated. Overall, it’s quite soft, but there’s a fair bit going on and lots of suggestive or subtle notes – and, to its credit, it is quite balanced and isn’t harsh. It’s still surprising to me how much this reminds me of a light single malt (of similar profile to Glenfiddich), with the vanilla, slight spice, and apple notes.

Taste: The body is quite nice – thick. Overall it’s very light, as wheat can have the tendency to be. The entry is lightly citrusy, and light, before some tingling cinnamon comes forward, then a nice vanilla kick with some grassy malt notes, before some oak and caramel take the reins. If not for the citrus and the spice, it would be quite flat, and in some ways unimaginative. There are notes of guava as well – wheat, as I have observed, has a capacity to produce some really interesting fruity notes in whiskies despite being light overall. And, lots of creamy coconut.

Finish: Malt, with quite a decent body – and some light cinnamon and apple and coconut. However, I did hope for a bit more flavour in the finish. The spicy cinnamon bite is fairly nice, but it lacks some of the body and length I would like. It seemingly dies down to very little, other than a few hints of wheat and malt, before oak appears seemingly out of nowhere. Notes of fresh bread both from the wheat and the yeast also make a decent appearance here.

It is somewhat instructive to compare this whiskey to Centennial 10 Year Old, a Canadian whisky from Highwood Distillers which is also wheat-based, as this shows some key differences (generally) between Canadian and American whisky. The two whiskies are produced quite differently, and this shows on the profiles. Bernheim, as an American “straight” whiskey, is aged in new, charred oak. Centennial, as a Canadian whisky, has fewer restrictions placed on how it is aged and is likely aged in bourbon or refill (previously used) casks. New, charred oak has a much stronger wood influence on flavour than previously used casks, which brings out different flavours. This is why American whiskey is generally much more woody (with prominent oak, caramel, and vanilla) than Canadian whisky, which (generally) has more relative grain influence.

In terms of colour, as well, new casks give a deeper colour – and in this case, though Bernheim is a few years younger than Centennial, is darker in colour. Centennial has a stronger wheat character than Bernheim, with wheat and vanilla coming forward centrally as opposed to the caramel and oak that come from Bernheim. Additionally, Centennial is even softer than Bernheim, with a bit of a spicy edge (likely from flavouring rye whisky blended into 100% wheat whisky to produce Centennial). Bernheim, on the other hand, has spice that is a bit more integrated into the wood and is a bit more central rather than on the edges of the palate. Bernheim, though, is bigger and more complex than Centennial, and I like it more.

Recommended (81% of whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: Average, at $74.