Black Maple Hill has a sort of notability unmatched in the Bourbon community. At first you may disagree, with names such as Pappy Van Winkle or Buffalo Trace Antique Collection springing to mind. These are whiskies that see a bourbon-crazed frenzy every autumn as devoted fans race in their droves for the rare chance to get their hands on a bottle (a near impossible task as they sell out almost instantaneously). But what drives a level of singularity for Black Maple Hill is in fact not its ability to inspire an over-subscribed ballot or appear in a Hollywood movie but indeed it is the obscurity and anonymity it exists in.
Black Maple Hill is not a distillery, but rather an ‘independent label’ first introduced in 2000 by a Californian wine and spirits distributor called CVI Brands. Their catalogue focussed mainly on Grappa and Cognac, but it also featured a number of boutique independent Scotch bottlers at the time, such as James MacArthur, Murray McDavid and the Hart Brothers. These were perhaps the catalyst for the company to seek to market its own boutique bourbon brand. The practice of contract-distilling was nothing new in the US, whereby a company would buy casks from a distillery to be marketed as their own product (Diageo buys its Bulleit bourbon from Four Roses for example). Black Maple Hill however was bottled by third-party companies, who neither distilled the whiskey nor made themselves known on any of the labelling.
Like nearly all things that command a premium in bourbon nowadays, this story starts with a man named Van Winkle. Julian Van Winkle III (grandson of the legendary ‘Pappy’) had opened his own bottling facility at the former Hoffman distillery in the 1980s. His father had been forced to sell the family’s Stitzel-Weller distillery ten years before, but they were still able to buy barrels from it. In addition to producing the much-lauded Old Rip Van Winkle products, he also bottled bespoke bourbon brands for various clients. Among these are legendary releases such as Nathan Stones, Very Olde St Nick, and of course, Black Maple Hill.
The source of vintage bottlings of WL Weller, Old Fitzgerald and Old Rip Van Winkle, bourbon from Stitzel-Weller is legendary and hugely sought after. The Black Maple Hill bottlings are particularly so, and near impossible to acquire. By the time the brand was conceived however, this was already a finite resource. United Distillers (nowadays known as Diageo) had shut the distillery down in 1992, meaning Julian Van Winkle’s stocks were beginning to thin, necessitating him to form a partnership with the Sazerac company in 2002. This resulted in the cancellation of his independent contracts, leaving Black Maple Hill in limbo. Thankfully, a company called Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD) were waiting in the wings. Owned by the Kulsveen family and operating out of the silent Willett distillery, KBD had bourbon in their warehouses from every distillery in Kentucky bar one, Willett itself.
The Kulsveen’s oversaw a golden period for the brand, with well-aged bourbons filled into a number of now hugely collectable Black Maple Hill releases. Although KBD had acquired some Stitzel-Weller stock, the majority of their casks came from the neighbouring Heaven Hill distillery in Bardstown, a distillery sadly lost in a fire in 1996 and increasingly desirable ever since. KBD also introduced a Rye whiskey to the Black Maple Hill portfolio, using what is believed to have been the legendary Cream of Kentucky barrels from Bernheim, the same used to bottle certain Van Winkle Family Reserve, early Sazerac 18 year olds, and the first Michter’s releases (which KBD was also responsible for at its outset).
By the late 2000s, a global Bourbon boom had catapulted Black Maple Hill into the spotlight. The irresistible prospect of old-aged liquid capsules of Stitzel-Weller and Heaven Hill swept the Bourbon community, and Black Maple Hill bottlings quickly became an absolute must-have. They developed a cult-following of fans fuelled by curiosity and connoisseurship. Black Maple Hill bottlings were increasingly becoming harder to find and soon were appearing on the secondary market for values far in excess of their original retail price tag. Sadly they were not the only benefactors, and KBD’s own Willett Family Estate brand had surfed the same wave, and the company increasingly reserved its stock for this, limiting what they could make available to CVI Brands and their other contracts. Black Maple Hill was eventually reduced to a non-age statement product, before disappearing from shelves. As they struggled to find an alternative it appeared as though Black Maple Hill was at the end of their story.
The brand was then suddenly resurrected in 2014. Gone however is the mystique of the label that once promised the chance to own rare old stocks from some of bourbon’s greatest dynastic institutions. Instead, the brand now supported a small craft-distillery in Oregon called Stein. To opt-against buying in bulk from one of the states big companies, and shed the iconic name of “Kentucky” from its labels was a bold and refreshing approach that proves that Black Maple Hill, while in its modern manifestation may be less valuable to the collector, is a brand that has always held the quality of its liquid in the highest regard.