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 2020 that was released in September.
Name: Elijah Craig Small Batch Barrel Proof Bourbon (Batch C920)
Age: 12 years old
Proof: 132.8 Proof (66.4% ABV)
Type: Kentucky straight bourbon
Mashbill: 78% Corn, 10% Rye, 12% Malted Barley
Producer: Heaven Hill Distillery, KY
Nose: The nose opens bright with lots of brittle caramel spun from brown sugar, followed by thick cherries, baking spices, and tannic charred oak with notes of deep barrel toast. The longer you nose this and the further you move away from the glass the earthier it gets with ground nuts and oak-heavy notes of cloves, and maple syrup.
Palate: The palate opens sweet with powdered sugar and caramel before quickly turning hot and tannic as oak spice floods the palate. Once this fades bourbon-soaked black cherries, maple syrup, and dark chocolate notes emerge. The more you sip this the less spicy the oak spice becomes, instead bringing beautiful notes of toasted oak and baking spices before fading and again giving maple syrup, black cherries, and tannic charred oak that dries the tongue and cheeks.
Finish: The finish opens with a warm Kentucky hug that travels down the throat and leaves cinnamon, brown sugar caramel, dark chocolate, earthy nuts, and toasted oak spice that continues into the aftertaste.
Now this is what barrel proof bourbon should taste like! Drinking this has brought me right back to my first experiences of barrel proof bourbon: when the flavours were big, the alcohol was hot, and the oak was drying as tannins coated the inside of my mouth. Neat this tasted like I was sipping a concentrated bourbon, with the effects of the tannins and the proof quickly becoming apparent as my mouth dried out, however, as this passed it opened the door to a range of delicious classic bourbon flavours that work very well together. In fact, this bourbon is as good as anything I’ve tasted at barrel proof to date. That heavy brown sugar profile is simply delicious and combined with everything else easily elevates this into my top 5 bourbons of 2020. Yes, the tannic oak can be a bit of a shock to the palate initially, but as your palate adjusts the flavours open up in a way that makes it all worth it. Compared to the previous B520 batch (which I also really liked) this batch’s flavours are driven by the added proof which delivers more flavour intensity and oak spice. There’s also more dark brown sugar caramel on this batch compared to the almost butterscotch-like notes of the B520 and with a mere 3 drops of water this bourbon gains deep butterscotch notes on the nose, loses its tannic edge, and gains sweeter and more toasted oak-forward notes on the palate with tart cherries to compliment.
Once again I have to tip my hat to the team at Heaven Hill for another fantastic addition to the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof series. Typically, I wouldn’t be a massive fan of age-stated barrel proof bourbons that push over 12 years as more often than not they’re over-hyped, over-priced, over-oaked, or two-dimensional with tannins and barrel notes making up a majority of the flavour profile. Heaven Hill, however, seem to do things differently and consistently release a whiskey that brings more to the table. At 12 years old tastes like it has reached the pinnacle of its potential. Yes, it does have a decent amount of tannic oak notes but the complexities emerge once these fade and it then delivers a fantastic barrel proof drinking experience overall.
Try or Buy?
Another thing that Heaven Hill does well consistently is pricing. 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 will regret their decision.