Elijah Craig Barrel Proof (A121) Review

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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 62 rickhouses in Central KY and distribute hundreds of brands. Under the Heaven Hill Distillery portfolio, they produce award-winning products 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 almost 400,000 barrels again 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, 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 as 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 first release of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof for 2021 that was released in January.

Vital Stats:

Name: Elijah Craig Small Batch Barrel Proof Bourbon (Batch A121)
Age: 12 years old
Proof:  123.6 Proof (61.8% ABV)
Type: Kentucky straight bourbon
Mashbill: 78% Corn, 10% Rye, 12% Malted Barley
Producer: Heaven Hill Distillery, KY
Website:  https://elijahcraig.com/barrel-proof
Glassware: Glencairn

Review

Nose: The nose opens complex with deep maple syrup, barrel spices, fragrant red fruit notes, faint vanilla, a touch of baking spices, black pepper, a kick of ethanol from the proof (ABV), and cacao powder.

Palate: The palate opens viscous, with tart red fruit glazed in caramel and dusted with peppery cinnamon spice which moves down the sides of the tongue. Once this fades, there’s dry cacao powder and a lingering peppery spice that moves into faint herbaceous and barrel spice territory with the impact of the oak becoming more apparent as you continue to chew.

Finish: The finish opens with lingering barrel spices like clove and oak spice aswell as some herbaceous elements and oak tannins leading into the aftertaste.

Overall

Like its predecessors, this is a very complex bourbon that juggles some big flavours. For a start, it’s not only 12 y.o., but also unfiltered and uncut before bottling, which brings all those big, super-concentrated bourbon notes you would expect from a whiskey of this caliber. From nose to finish it’s packed with dark oak notes, thick caramels bordering on maple syrup, tart red fruit and cherries, earthy pepper and baking spices, and a healthy kick of ethanol spice. As you sip there’s layers of flavour and spice which melt away as you chew and release even further flavour nuances. Sipped neat it’s a powerhouse of a bourbon that holds no punches but that doesn’t mean that Heaven Hill have cheated you out of complexity, balance, or an enjoyable drinking experience. It’s the kind of bourbon that keeps changing in the glass after you’ve poured and demands to be savoured carefully as the ethanol evaporates over time and opens the door to more flavours. At 12 years old I’m not surprised that the barrel has started to throw its weight around on the overall profile either, and this is bourbon does a great job of balancing those darker barrel notes out with some sweet deep caramels and fragrant fruit notes. There’s also enough rye spice to remind you that this is at heart a high-rye recipe but the beauty of this is it doesn’t assault your palate to make its point. With a few drops of water, the red fruit notes on the nose become more apparent, the palate gains more caramel and chocolate notes, and the finish has more fruit and faint caramel before leading into the aftertaste.

Last year was the first time that I tried three consecutive releases of this bourbon back to back. What I’ve come to realise whilst doing this is that a consistent theme of this whiksey is that it tastes like it has reached the pinnacle of its potential, and this batch is no different. Yes, it does have a decent amount of barrel-driven notes, however, this is not at the cost of further complexities and it delivers a fantastic barrel proof drinking experience overall. Typically, I wouldn’t be a massive fan of age-stated barrel proof bourbons 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.

Try or Buy?

The pricing on this release is always a strong draw considering the quality of what you get. 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. 

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Before you go…

Before you go…

Before you go…

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Your contribution is appreciated and will ensure I can keep this website impartial, operational, and stocked full of new content. Cheers!

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