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 final release of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof for 2021 that was released in September and features the second 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.
Name: Elijah Craig Small Batch Barrel Proof Bourbon (Batch C921)
Age: 12 years old
Proof: 120.2 Proof (60.1% ABV)
Type: Kentucky straight bourbon
Mashbill: 78% Corn, 10% Rye, 12% Malted Barley
Producer: Heaven Hill Distillery, KY
Nose: The nose opens with rich and complex notes of sweet red and dark fruit covered in maple syrup and balanced out by charred oak, cocoa, earthy baking spices, peppery rye, and near-burnt caramelised almonds. As you nose deeper the charred oak note gains a herbaceous edge that’s complemented by warm allspice and sweet cinnamon notes.
Palate: The palate opens with a thick maple syrup note that borders on butterscotch, as red and black fruit notes also emerge alongside warm baking spices, earthy oak tannins, and a kick of white pepper rye spice. This fades to dark chocolate charred oak, a touch of herbaceousness, lingering white pepper, and bitter charred oak.
Finish: The finish opens with lingering tannic spice, dark chocolate, a touch of white pepper, and dried red and black fruits. The aftertaste is warm and long with baking spices and a sweet dried red fruit note that’s a touch herbaceous and brings a touch of bitter char.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof’s ongoing success comes from the fact that regardless of which batch you get, you’re pretty much guaranteed a delicious barrel proof bourbon. Yes, certain releases might need second visit to really hit their stride, but in all cases you’re getting a bourbon that’s uncut, unfiltered, and aged well. The difference between a good batch and a fantastic batch lies in those finer details that bring it all together such as the quality of the whiskey, the art of the blend, the intensity of the flavours; and the bottling proof. This C921 batch stands proudly in the fantastic batch category. It has deep caramels, luscious fruit, mature herbaceous oak, and those characteristic rye notes which marry together and produce a cohesive bourbon reminiscent of bourbon before the boom hit. It’s complex, it’s robust, and of the three releases this year it’s the shining example of what is possible when you age and catch bourbon stocks in their prime. The entire time you’re sipping it you’re aware of its 12 y.o. age statement and that herbaceous oak note leaves me wondering if some older barrels didn’t also make it into the batch. With a splash of water added this opens up nicely with the butterscotch notes becoming more pronounced on the nose, whilst the palate remains thick and sweet with butterscotch, cacao, a touch of heat, fruit, and lingering herbaceousness.
Compared to the B521 release, that has more floral ethanol notes and feels a little more ragged around the edges with heat on the palate coming from oak and the ethanol. It also doesn’t have the maturity, complexity, or refinement of the C921 and leaves your tongue a bit beat up. C921 instead is bursting with almost floral fruit notes that when added to the darker balance makes for a delicious sipping whiskey. A121 on the other hand feels subdued and chocolate heavy, leaving a lot of hot tannins and cinnamon on the palate. Going back to last year’s releases, this also did well compared to B520 and C920 which were excellent batches. My ranking would be C921, A121, and then B521 for this year’s releases.
2021 was once again an interesting year for Heaven Hill’s various annual and ongoing limited releases. In a world of consistency, their team have relied on their skills to keep ongoing releases like Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, Larceny Barrel Proof, and Old Fitzgerald interesting and exciting. Even comparing between batches of the same year there’s enough variation that no two batches follow directly from one and that always leaves me excited to try what they have coming out next.
Try or Buy?
If you see it, buy it. Any fan of barrel proof whiskies not buying this are seriously missing out. With a recommended price of around $60 (£85 in the UK) walking past this on the shelf will mean regret.
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Before you go…
Before you go…
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