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 second release of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof for the year (2020) that was released in May.
Name: Elijah Craig Small Batch Barrel Proof Bourbon (Batch B520)
Age: 12 years old
Proof: 127.2 (63.6% ABV)
Type: Kentucky straight bourbon
Mashbill: 78% Corn, 10% Rye, 12% Malted Barley
Producer: Heaven Hill Distillery, KY
Nose: The nose opens with deep brown sugar and sour cherries mixed with notes of dry oak spice, cinnamon, cloves, dark chocolate, and charred oak which jump out of the glass and are coupled with a kick of ethanol from the high proof.
Palate: The palate initially opens viscous with black cherries and red fruit glazed with brown sugar caramel, quickly adding dark chocolate and cinnamon to the mix before white pepper spice that is subtly grassy builds on the tongue. Once this wave of spice mellows it clears the way for notes of baking spices, leather, deep dark chocolate, dried cherries, and faintly bitter charred oak to develop on the tongue.
Finish: The finish opens with lingering spice from the palate coupled with unsweetened cacao powder, earthy nuts, and a touch of red fruit builds in flavour before becoming tannic, and leaving an aftertaste of oak spice, burnt brown sugar, and faint nuttiness.
As expected, this whiskey is a robust, spice-driven roller-coaster ride of unbridled caramel and red fruit notes dancing across the palate alongside the influence from charred oak barrels and the peppery rye in the mash bill. True to Elijah Craig Barrel Proof’s reputation it is a complex and bold bourbon that takes no prisoners and delivers an unfiltered and concentrated bourbon drinking experience that paints the inside of your mouth with flavour and warms your throat as it goes down. With a such a high proof each sip demands to be treated with respect and rewards those who savour it with it’s many layers of complex flavours. When you add a few drops of water the nose gains more caramel and floral red fruit sweetness to compliment the earthy oak spice. The palate follows suit with less bitter oak and more rye-forward earthy spice and red fruit that coats the palate in spice before mellowing to a more fruit-driven bourbon. The finish remains peppery with again more fruitiness before leaving a less tannic and charred oak-heavy aftertaste.
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 you could want in a barrel proof bourbon.
At this point I think it’s fair to say that Elijah Craig barrel proof is one of the worst kept secrets in value-for-your-money-bourbon. Although each batch is different, it’s undeniable that the skill involved in choosing and blending the barrels is where the team at Heaven Hill excel and prosper with this release being no exception. Honestly, if you’re looking for a delicious, unfiltered, straight-from-the-barrel, barrel proof bourbon that’s aged to maturity (12 y.o. minimum), packed with complex and robust flavours, and that’s distributed widely enough to make getting a bottle or two feasible then you need not look any further.
Try or Buy?
As I’ve already said, this is an unfiltered, straight-from-the-barrel, 12 year old bourbon offered at barrel proof. If you’re a fan of barrel proof whiskies and not buying this you are seriously missing out. With a recommended price of around $60 (£85 in the UK) anyone walking past this on the shelf at around this price will regret their decision.