Bottle Kill: A Well-Aged Elijah Craig Small Batch Single Barrel

ELIJAH CRAIG SMALL BATCH
Randall’s Wines & Spirits SiB (2019)

MASH BILL – 78% corn, 10% rye, 12% barley

PROOF – 94

AGE – 12 years 8 months

DISTILLERY – Heaven Hill

PRICE – $38

BUY AGAIN? – No, but only because I picked up 2 bottles initially and enjoy trying different store picks

Originally, this was not a “Bottle Kill” post, but a revisiting during this bottle’s second half. But timing happens. And before I came to post it, I’d killed the bottle. Not wanting to miss an opportunity, I took note. What follows is the original post, as written, followed by an epilogue added to document this exceptional bottle’s final pour.

ORIGINAL POST:

First off, a “small batch single barrel” would appear to be a contradiction of terms, or at least a crowding of terms. In this instance, it means a single barrel of bourbon that might normally have been put towards the standard Elijah Craig Small Batch has been selected by a liquor store for bottling on its own. To maintain the connection to the standard Small Batch line, while also distinguishing it from the standard Barrel Proof line, these Small Batch Single Barrels are watered down to the standard small batch 94-proof.

A fellow member of a San Francisco Bay Area whiskey Facebook group noticed this particular 12-year 8-month Elijah Craig Small Batch Single Barrel on the website of a Missouri liquor store. He put out the alert, and a handful of us went in on a group order to help bring the cost of shipping down. For the fellow who organized the order, it turned out this well-aged bourbon was too oaky and tannic. For me, who grew up climbing oak trees, it was a bottle of home sweet heaven. Here are some notes from my initial tasting of it, about two months ago when I’d just uncorked it:

AT THE UNCORKING:

COLOR – soft burnt orange

NOSE – a lovely, spiced, and sweet caramel-glazed oak

TASTE – creamy, oaky, sweet, deep, a nice glowing heat, more oak at the end

FINISH – soft oak warmly glazed with caramel

OVERALL – oak dipped in sweet, soft, warm caramel

Oh how I wish this remarkable single barrel had been released at its 128.9 barrel proof! Yet even at the standard Small Batch 94-proof, upon uncorking it was immediately a lovely, woodsy sipper. I also tried adding 7 drops of water to it, which set loose a cinnamon note and further sweetened the caramel. I wondered if it was the best single barrel of Elijah Craig I’d ever had.

Over the next couple of weeks I tried it a few more times. I began to notice some peanut in the nose alongside the oak. The pallet was all oak, peanut, and soft caramel. The finish was mildly tangy, leaving behind a warm whiff of caramel and oak. Though the oak aspect became notably stronger, even harsher, and this was disappointing, altogether it remained a thoughtful, easy going, mature bottle of bourbon.

Then several more weeks passed and I was trying other things. I forgot about this bottle for a while. But I always come back to Elijah Craig. It’s not as dependable as Wild Turkey. But the standard small batch release is a fairly consistent bourbon, all things considered. And the blended barrel proof releases are inevitably good—if you like oak! The small batch SiB bottlings, I’ve found, tend to vary in quality a bit more. Lacking the intensity that the barrel proof releases have to shove all their flavors forward, the lower-proofed small batch SiBs tend to be more revealing of the range of what Elijah Craig offers.

So I tried it again. This time—two months after the uncorking and halfway through the bottle—the tasting notes went like this:

TWO MONTHS AND 1/2 A BOTTLE LATER:

COLOR – a lovely soft burnt-orange

NOSE – caramel, oak, sweet baking spices, toasted honey

TASTE – sweet oak, savory caramel, a slight tannic note drizzled with the toasted honey

FINISH – mild warm pepper, oak, caramel, very faint peanut, hangs around lightly but long

OVERALL – not as overwhelmingly dreamy as at the uncorking, but still an exceptional and balanced caramel and oak combo.

This tasting improved upon those middle tastings, where the oak so dominated that the sweeter aspects couldn’t keep their balance. In this current tasting, I enjoyed the nose most of all. Second to that, the pallet. The finish was a bit forgettable in their wake and so I circled back to the nose to re-up, appreciating especially the finely balanced oak, baking spice, and caramel aspects.

I do believe my having been raised in an area populated by huge oak trees, which I knew intimately from climbing their every branch, is a part of why I’m so drawn to Elijah Craig. Not to mention my hometown being an apple orchard enclave, with caramel apples and fruit pies abound every autumn. So I’m also versed in caramel and autumn orchard fruits. Elijah Craig is a true oak-lover’s bourbon, with a strong caramel undercurrent. 

I very much look forward to the 18-year and 23-year single barrels sitting patiently on my shelf. No doubt they will be very oaky, given the intensity of the oak influence in any Elijah Craig bottling. That’s an exciting prospect to this oak-born whiskey fan.

EPILOGUE:

…And then came the bottle kill.

I was enjoying the final ounces on my backstairs one Friday early-evening, reading a book and admiring the Elijah Craig between paragraphs:

I’d poured it into a green-tinted tumbler, the shape of which I’ve found does good things to support what autumnal bourbons like Elijah Craig and Wild Turkey have to offer. I couldn’t keep focused on my reading, so I turned to note taking:

BOTTLE KILL POUR
final 2 ounces

NOSE – cinnamon, toasted sugar, bright baking spices, toasted honey, fresh cut oak

TASTE – juicy caramel, gentle oak, nicely toasted sugars, vanilla

FINISH – vanilla, caramel, rich but soft baking spices, a whiff of the oak, all lingering gently

OVERALL – I’m so glad I have a second bottle of this magic barrel!

It’s surprisingly light on the oak at the end here.

But I like surprises. Such a great journey with this bottle! A wower out of the gate. It slid a bit too far into the harsh side of oak in the middle and lost my interest for a time. Then it swung back to a beautiful balance of caramel, autumn spices, and sweet oak in the end.

A model for what patience and openness can do in a good, complex relationship!

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