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, a distillery-only barrel select offering, and a small batch rye whiskey.
Starting in the mid to late 2000s, the rise of an aggressively innovative craft distilling movement that swept across the US meant that existing distilleries, which once rested on the laurels of their traditional production methods perfected over decades (and sometimes centuries), had to also begin pushing the boundaries of innovation to keep up with the latest emerging trends whilst maintaining their legacies of consistent quality. These usually started small with very limited releases, but some became permanent brand extensions that improved aspects of core whiskies without offending the sensibilities of existing fans or new whiskey drinkers alike. The results of these innovations have been things such as more barrel proof offerings on the market, rye whiskies of all shapes and proofs, Non Chill-Filtered offerings, interesting limited editions, and the use of innovative barrel finishes such as those using heavily toasted secondary casks, exotic woods, or ex-wine casks to name but a few. In the past decade, however, many innovative releases have popped up in response to the ever-changing trends of consumer demand as the customer’s understanding of various production processes has improved, aswell as the producer’s knowledge of their craft also expanding in an attempt to stay a step ahead of their competitors. Of the more popular innovations that has withstood the test of time, the rising popularity of whiskies that have been finished in secondary casks with a heavy toast – and sometimes a very light char – has become a consistent trend that has not escaped distilleries looking for something interesting to offer their customers. Thus, when news broke early this year that the Elijah Craig family was soon to welcome another permanent addition the fan excitement was electric. With a release date set for during Bourbon Heritage Month 2020 (September), Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is Heaven Hill’s first release of a whiskey finished in a heavily toasted barrel and the second premium innovation we’ve seen in the Elijah Craig family in as many years.
Beginning its journey as the traditional Heaven Hill high-rye bourbon recipe, the fully mature bourbon earmarked for Elijah Craig is first dumped before being re-entered into custom toasted barrels at barrel proof and being finished for a period of approximately 2-3 months. Following this period it is dumped again, filtered, cut to proof, and bottled as standard. The custom barrels that were used have been produced in close collaboration with the Independent Stave Company (ISC) and feature a toast profile uniquely designed to hold Elijah Craig bourbon and impart its flavours over a short finishing period. To achieve this profile, ISC employed a smooth and steady increase in both time and temperature at a moderate level of intensity during the toasting phase to bring forward dark sugar notes within the wood that both caramelise and blend together the sugar flavours to create a profile that’s not too smoky and offers the desired level of sweetness. The barrels were then flash charred to a Level 1 char (approx. 15 seconds) to ensure that the legal Standard of Identity for Straight Bourbon Whiskey were maintained by using a new charred American oak barrel to finish this whiskey in. For reference, here’s what a standard Elijah Craig bourbon barrel stave (left) with a Level 3 char looks like compared to a heavily toasted no char stave (middle), and finally the heavy toast stave following a Level 1 char that was used to finish this bourbon (right).
As you can see, the standard barrel stave (left) has been charred to a point commonly known alligator char (level 3) and with minimal toasting as evident by the lack of a distinct ‘red line’ where the wood sugars have become concentrated in the wood via the toasting process. Compared to the toasted stave (middle) and the flash charred toasted stave (right), the darkening of the wood from the custom toasting is clear in both and shows that the whiskey didn’t have to travel very deep into the second barrel’s staves to interact with the concentrated wood sugar and attain the target flavour profile. It’s also clear from level of charring in the second barrel that, compared to the original barrel is quite, it’s quite light and was also specifically designed not to interfere with the flavours coming from the heavy toasted staves whilst allowing the resultant whiskey to maintains the designation of a straight bourbon whiskey as legally defined.
Today I’ll be taking a look at the first release of Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel Finished bourbon. Remaining consistent with Elijah Craig small batch bourbon, it has been bottled at 94 proof and has undergone the same chill filtration process. Did Heaven Hill manage to create a good toasted barrel finished whiskey? Let’s find out!
Name: Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel bourbon
Proof: 94 Proof (46% ABV)
Type: Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey
Mashbill: 78% corn, 12% malted barley, 10% rye
Producer: Heaven Hill Distillery
Nose: The nose opens complex with deep brown sugar and warm baking spices covering soft dark stone fruit. An earthier touch emerges as you continue to nose with the warm sweetness of toasted oak present throughout.
Palate: The palate opens viscous with dark stone fruit stewed in butterscotch before a mild earthy spice starts to build on the mid-palate and work its way to the tip of the tongue. Once this heat passes earthier barrel notes of dark chocolate, cloves, and a faint touch of vegetal char all emerge alongside caramel with a touch of dried raspberries.
Finish: The finish opens again with deep brown sugar and warm oak tannins that heat the tongue and throat before notes of thick caramel, cloves, and peppery oak lead into a slightly vegetal aftertaste of cacao and oak.
Wow, this whiskey is delicious. It’s complex, packed full of robust flavours from the toasted barrel and has me wondering why Heaven Hill didn’t jump on the toasted oak wagon a long time ago. Despite only being finished for 3 months the toasted oak influence is a joy throughout. On the nose it identifies itself as soft dark stone fruit sitting in warm brown sugar butterscotch with a hint of spice, on the palate it’s butterscotch and fruit again before those traditional Elijah Craig notes of charred oak and earthy spice emerge. For comparison, the standard Elijah Craig has more classic earthy charred oak, peppery rye spice, and sharp red fruit notes without the level of refinement present in the Toasted Barrel Finish. The caramel in the toasted has a softer creamier texture and there’s a lovely stewed red fruit note I don’t get from the standard Small Batch.
This honestly tastes like Heaven Hill could have stuck this in a fancy bottle, charged $150 for it, and I would still be advocating people try and at least get their hands on a sample – it’s that good. I still wonder why it took this long for them to do a toasted barrel finish, however, I am also very happy that we can now taste the fruits of their labour at the end of a very long journey that no doubt involved a lot of backwards and forwards R&D between Heaven Hill and ISC to get these barrels down to a tee. Having spoken to the people at Heaven Hill there are no big plans for an extension of toasted barrel finishing on any of their other whiskies, however, with R&D being a constant pursuit there will no doubt be something exciting down the line.
Try or Buy?
Did I mention that this is a permanent (albeit allocated) addition to the Elijah Craig family with an RRP of only $49.99!? Please don’t panic buy this like crazy because honestly I want as many people to be able to buy and try this as possible. There will always be more – remember, stay cool.