Elijah Craig Barrel Proof (B521) 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 second release of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof for 2021 that was released in May and features the lowest proof we’ve seen yet from Elijah Craig Barrel Proof. Heaven Hill appear to be making some bold moves this year when it comes to the proofs and ages of releases so I’m curious to see why this batch came out so low and what it brings to the whiskey.

Vital Stats:

Name: Elijah Craig Small Batch Barrel Proof Bourbon (Batch B521)
Age: 12 years old
Proof:  118.2 Proof (59.1% 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


Nose: The nose opens with subtle dark stonefruit mixed with thick caramel, earthy baking spices, a touch of freeze dried red fruit, and oak notes of coffee and charred oak. As you nose deeper the ethanol becomes increasingly apparent and prickly on the nose with earthier notes of cacao and cloves emerging.

Palate: The palate opens with chocolate, red fruit, sweet maple syrup, earthy baking spices, and a kick of peppery spice. As you chew through the spice a medley of  barrel notes including dry char, bitter cacoa, emerge alongside faint dark fruit notes and earthy nuts. There’s also a herbaceous note that floats around in the background the longer you chew but is somewhat kept at bay by the proof.

Finish: The finish is warm and opens with caramelised nuts and red fruits from the palate before becoming dry as charred tannic oak and dark chocolate develop with a faint red fruit edge and lead into a warm aftertaste of tannic oak, peppery rye, and fruit.


This has been an interesting year so far for Heaven Hill’s various annual and ongoing limited releases. Refusing to rest on their laurels, their very talented teams have worked to put out whiskies that challenge what we believe are the brand boundaries with sometimes very interesting results. Who thought we’d ever see an Elijah Craig Barrel Proof coming in at less than 120 proof?! In a world of consistency, pushing the boat out and not just producing the same carbon copies each time has kept ongoing releases like Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, Larceny Barrel Proof, and Old Fitzgereald interesting and exciting. Even comparing between batches of the same year there’s enough variation within the target profile that no two batches follow directly from one another.
So how did the lowest proof Elijah Craig barrel proof perform? It’s a spicy, chocolatey, and fruity 12 y.o., unfiltered and uncut, barrel proof bourbon with all the halmarks of a bourbon much higher in proof. On a postcard- it’s delicious. When I tasted it first I was unsure, however having had a few pours of it and the bottle having had a chance to settle with some air in there, by the third tasting the fruit really pushes through and brings that barrel proof fruit note that combines with the various spices and chocolate notes to give a barrel proof drinking experience that’s complex, layered, flavourful, and packs that punch I want from Elijah Craig Barrel Proof. If I had to compare it to something it would be strawberries, cherries, and raspberries all dipped in 72% dark chocolate and dusted with various baking spices to add a lick of heat and earthiness. Compared to the A121 this is a barrel-forward release and this is evident from your first dark chocolate-laden pour. Everything else revolves around a dark chocolate, almost caramel fudgy core, with various types of fruit, earthy baking spices, roasted nuts, and even further barrel notes of cloves and cacoa powder coming out to balance it across flavours as you chew and move it around the mouth. This barrel-driven core also works in its favour, adding a level of oak maturity that elevates this bourbon above other releases that lack that distinct maure oak profile.

As the second release of 2021, I compared this to the A121 release and found this to be more barrel-forward (no surprise there!) and the A121 to have less peppery spice and more fruit as a result of not having such a strong oak influence. B521 still has that spicy kick and enough complexity and fruit notes to challenge A121, however, A121 is much fruitier, has less chocolate notes, and ironically has less tannic spice despite being a higher proof. With  drop of water this becomes a cherry bomb with milk chocolate now making a delicious appearance alongside brown sugar syrup and almost none of the spice, gaining an almost sweet edge instead. Even at a lower proof B521 is a fighter and delivers the perfect barrel proof drinking experience.

To date I have not yet met an Elijah Craig Barrel Proof I haven’t liked. Yes, certain releases willl test your resolve, and others will be a winner straight out of the gate, but overall the quality of the whiskey, the art of the blend, and the drinking experience outshines any expectations and delivers a classic barrel proof bourbon.

Try or Buy?

I’m not going to waste your time. Buy.

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. 


Before you go…

Before you go…

Before you go…

Like you, I’m a whiskey enthusiast. I don’t earn any money from distilleries, their parent companies, or their subsidiaries for my reviews. If you like what you’ve read and want to support this page then why not buy me a dram?


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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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