Rising from the ashes of Prohibition and into the midst of the Great Depression in Bardstown, KY, Heaven Hill Distillery has grown to be the largest independent family-owned and operated producers of distilled spirits products in the US, and the second-largest holder of bourbon whiskey inventory in the world. The distillery was set up in 1935 after a small group approached the Shapira family seeking capital investment to set up a distillery using their technical expertise. Following personal financial difficulties among the other members of the founding group, their interests in the “Old Heavenhill Springs” distillery was bought out by the Shapira family making the distillery a fully family-owned enterprise. With renewed purpose the family kept on one of the original investors, James L. Beam as Master Distiller, and hired the best bourbon producing talent they could find in their local Bardstown. Four years later in 1939 they released their first product, a 4 year old Bottled in Bond bourbon under the Old Heaven Hill brand. The brand quickly became one of the top selling bourbons in the State and cemented the distillery’s position as one of the top bourbon producers in Kentucky at the time. The name of the distillery originates from the family name of William Heavenhill who was an early pioneer farmer and owned the original property on which the distillery sat. When originally registering the company a clerical mistake resulted in the name becoming Heaven Hill as opposed to Heavenhill.
On November 7th 1996 a fire that started in one of the barrel ageing warehouses spread by strong winds, destroying almost the entire distillery and numerous ageing warehouses. Overall 90,000 barrels of whisky were lost and for the next 3 years the company was dependent on production capacity in neighbouring distilleries. In 1999 Heaven Hill completed the purchase of the Old Bernheim Distillery from Diageo in Louisville and once the distillery was adapted, the production and distillation end moved to Louisville whilst ageing, bottling, and shipping still occur on the original Bardstown site.
Today the modern iteration of the company, Heaven Hill Brands, has become a diversified supplier of whiskeys, liqueurs, vodkas, rums and other spirits. They own 57 rickhouses in Central KY and distribute over 48 brands including 17 bourbon labels such as Henry McKenna, Elijah Craig, Evan William, Larceny, Old Fitzgerald, and Rittenhouse rye to name a few. The distillery also has the largest number of Bottled in Bond whiskies on the market and is the only heritage distiller that features every major category of American whiskey in their 5 distinct mashbills producing traditional bourbon, wheated bourbon, rye whiskey, corn whiskey, and wheat whiskey. Under 7th Master Distiller (and fellow countryman) Conor O’Driscoll the distillery is on course to fill lamost 400,000 barrels this year and with continued investment production capacity is growing every year to meet rising demand.
First introduced in 1986 as the bourbon market was nearing a historic low point, the Elijah Craig brand consisted of a 12 y.o. premium bourbon offered by the Heaven Hill Distillery as a statement against the younger, cheaper, and lower quality bourbon offerings that were dominating the bourbon market at the time. Named in honour of the Baptist preacher of the same name, Heaven Hill accredit the first discovery and use of barrel charring in producing bourbon whiskey to Craig. The Elijah Craig brand is comprised of multiple offerings with current releases including the Small Batch, a barrel proof offering, an 18 y.o. offering, a 23 y.o. offering, and a distillery-only Barrel Select offering. Previous bottlings under this brand have also included the popular 12 y.o. age-stated Small Batch, and 20, 21, and 22 y.o. offerings which have since been discontinued. Despite the Small Batch losing its age-statement in 2016, due to demand outstripping supply, the barrel proof offering still retains its 12 y.o. age statement as do the older releases such as the 18 and 23 y.o.
As the first barrel proof offering from Heaven Hill , Elijah Craig Barrel Proof was released in 2013 and is an uncut, minimally-filtered, small batch of 12y.o. Elijah Craig bourbon bottled straight from the barrel. Being a limited release product there are three releases each year in and around January, May, and September, with each batch bearing a batch number (since 2017) and a unique proof. This variance in proof between batches gives Elijah Craig fans a unique opportunity to explore the impact of the long ageing and resulting proof in a small batch of approximately barrels. The first letter of the batch number indicates which of that year’s releases the bottle was a part of, starting with “A,” the second digit indicates the month of the year the bottle was released, and the third and fourth digits indicate the year. Today I’ll be taking a look at the third release of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof for the year (2019) that was released in September.
Name: Elijah Craig Small Batch Barrel Proof Bourbon (Batch C919)
Age: 12 years old
Proof: 136.8 (68.4% ABV)
Type: Kentucky straight bourbon
Mashbill: 78% Corn, 10% Rye, 12% Malted Barley
Producer: Heaven Hill Distillery, KY
Nose: The nose opens with deep caramel on the verge of being burnt, concentrated vanilla bean, crushed fresh cherries, earthy black pepper, sweet cinnamon, leather, a kick of alcohol, faint vegetal herbaceous notes, charred oak, and cacao powder.
Palate: Sipped neat the palate opens sweet, viscous, and tannic, with deep almost burnt brown sugar caramel and a flash of floral vanilla, followed by freshly cracked black pepper spice, cherries covered in powdered sugar, and a prickly wave of earthy, peppery, and cinnamon-heavy spice that washes over the palate, simultaneously giving thick bitter dark chocolate notes, and almost fruity tannic oak notes that fade to bitter charred oak as the spice fades. Add a few drops of water and thick caramel and earthy nuts emerge on the nose, followed by a dominant fresh cherry note on the palate that is still supported by tannic oak and dark cacao notes but also has a bit more rye heat as opposed to oak heat.
Finish: The finish opens with a kick of baking spices and dark chocolate notes before fading to caramel, a touch of fresh cherries, and a lingering aftertaste of vegetal oak and spice which develops into sweet caramel and red fruit as it fades.
This is a very big pour in every way and a true barrel-proof bourbon drinker’s whiskey. The nose is packed full of big flavours that wash across the palate in a wave of spice and intensity, ending in a dry and impactful finish. As you’re drinking it you experience it when you breathe in, you experience it when you breathe out, and every second unearths more layers of complex flavours that melt away and reveal further layers. The longer you leave it to open up in the glass the the more sweet notes emerge to complement the cherry and sharp oak notes that ooze from this bourbon, and adding a few water drops releases rye spice and crushed fresh cherry notes galore. This being said it can easily be enjoyed neat if you don’t mind riding the hot peaks and flavour troughs of a 136.8 proof (68.4% ABV) bourbon whiskey.
Similar to Elijah Craig Small Batch, this release has around 200 barrels going into each ‘small batch’. This may seem like a lot but every barrel that goes in is first tasted by the Heaven Hill team under Master Distiller Conor O’Driscoll because even at that scale a bad barrel can ruin a batch. The resulting batch is big on flavour, bold on spice, and ticks every box for what I want in a barrel proof bourbon. Even when I drank this next to a barrel proof bourbon from 2019 that’s older, more limited, and very sought-after this batch of Elijah Craig barrel proof came out on top and reminds me why this is continuously such a popular release.
The team at Heaven Hill have been making outstanding bourbon for long enough to know what it it takes to create a whiskey that isn’t just amazing on its own but can also easily compete against similar releases with the results speaking for themselves.
Try or Buy?
If you’re not buying this then you’re missing out. With an MSRP of around $60 (£85 in the UK) anyone walking past this on the shelf at around this price will regret their decision. This easily stands in for almost any limited edition barrel proof bourbon from 2019 and should scratch even the itchiest of itches for a solid barrel proof bourbon.