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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 was on course to fill almost 400,000 barrels last year and with continued investment production capacity is growing every year to meet rising demand.
Named in honour of a Baptist preacher, the Elijah Craig family of whiskies have been a staple in drinks cabinets for almost 40 years. Boasting many sought-after releases since the brand’s inception, the current family of offerings consists of a small batch bourbon, a barrel proof 12 y.o. bourbon, an 18 y.o. single barrel bourbon, a 23 y.o. single barrel bourbon, and a distillery-only barrel select offering. Thus, when it was announced in October of 2019 that a rye whiskey was soon to be added to the Elijah Craig family of whiskies, the fans of Heaven Hill’s existing rye whiskies and the Elijah Craig fans celebrated the news collectively. Featuring Heaven Hill’s Kentucky-style rye recipe, the press release for this whiskey stated that “The line extension affords experimenting whiskey fans the opportunity to challenge their palates with a new extra-aged Rye offering from the award-winning Elijah Craig family of Bourbons.” What this means is that, similar to its bourbon counterpart, this whiskey is a blend including much older rye stocks to create a whiskey that carries a more mature rye flavour profile than Heaven Hill’s existing releases.
Today I’ll be taking a look at the first release of Elijah Craig rye whiskey. This whiskey is also non age-stated and bottled in the same iconic bottle as Elijah Craig small batch and barrel proof bourbons.
Name: Elijah Craig Small Batch Rye
Age: NAS ( a blend of 8 – 12 y.o. rye stocks)
Proof: 94 proof (47% abv)
Type: Kentucky straight rye
Mashbill: 51% rye, 35% corn, 14% malted barley
Producer: Heaven Hill Distillery, KY
Nose: The nose opens with notes of black pepper rye, cacao, and a touch of almost burnt caramel, these are followed by earthy baking spices, cloves, a flash of fresh red fruits, a touch of herbaceousness, citrus peel, and charred oak.
Palate: The palate opens with more sweetness and viscosity than I was expecting, giving notes of thick caramel, earthy baking spices, peppery rye, faint cloves, dark chocolate, a touch of citrus peel oils, and charred oak all whilst a continuous undercurrent of dark stone fruit and warming rye spice hum in the background.
Finish: The finish opens with rye spice from the palate before giving herbaceous oak notes and leaving a herbaceous aftertaste of rye grain spice, cacao, grass, and faint citrus peel.
When Heaven Hill announced that they were going to release a rye whiskey to complement their Elijah Craig small batch bourbon they weren’t messing around. This whiskey tastes old, complex, barrel-forward, and less sweet than other rye whiskies such as Rittenhouse. The corn in the mashbill has matured to give it a delicious sweet caramel backbone whilst the rye and oak notes are taking centre-stage to deliver a robust, herbaceous, chocolate-heavy, and warming rye whiskey drinking experience. Despite the mashbill containing the minimum percentage of rye that is legally permissible (51%) the influence still carries through strong with bold spice and earthy notes galore. These are rounded out by the corn and barrel notes as is traditional from Heaven Hill’s whiskies.
For many years the resurgence of rye has been picking up steam with Heaven Hill leading this charge with their Kentucky-style rye whiskies. Containing a large amount of corn and malted barley to both add sweetness and reign in the spiciness of the rye grain, Heaven hill’s rye whiskies are well-known for having very little of the aggressive spice associated with rye whiskies containing a higher percentage of rye in their mashbill. This whiskey is no exception, providing a long-awaited and much-anticipated addition to the Elijah Craig family as Heaven Hill continues to innovate within their existing brands to offers drinkers an increasingly expansive experience. It’s both delicious and fills a gap in Heaven Hill’s rye portfolio for a more mature rye whiskey. Master Distiller Conor O’Driscoll and his talented team continue to give fans both what they have been asking for for so many years, and simultaneously exceeding all expectations by delivering a fantastic whiskey.
Try or Buy?
With a retail price of $30 nobody can argue with the price of this whiskey. In fact, when it comes to value for your money in rye whiskey it’s one of the best options out there. On this side of the pond we probably won’t see this whiskey enter the market for a while but when it does it will no doubt take off just like its bourbon counterpart.