Palate Comparison: Two Perspectives on Elijah Craig 18 Year Single Barrel

ELIJAH CRAIG 18 YEAR SINGLE BARREL
Barrel #4778, bottled on 11/15/19

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

PROOF – 90

AGE – 18 years

DISTILLERY – Heaven Hill Distillery

PRICE – $163

Elijah Craig has been top of my list from early on in my whiskey journey. I’m a big oak fan, having grown up climbing the thick oak trees that stood sentinel around my family’s home. Elijah Craig is pretty dependable for balancing oak flavors with its caramels and baking spices.

A 2019 store pick of the Elijah Craig Small Batch from Randall’s Wines & Spirits was exceptional in this regard. It clocked in at 12 years 8 months old, offering dense sweet oak slathered in vanilla-caramel and dusted with a lovely array of fine baking spices. It also went on quite a journey as the bottle aired out over time, veering away from its best qualities into a tannic grove and then back into balance toward its end. Other Elijah Craig bottles I’ve had have also gone on winding journeys. But they always seem to return to the brand’s sweet spot at the crossroads of caramel and oak.

Fellow whiskey aficionado, and actor, Michael Barrett Austin, has also developed a taste for Elijah Craig, particularly the 18 Year Single Barrel edition. He and I recently managed to pick up bottles of the same release, Barrel #4778 bottled on 11/15/19. We had sampled our respective bottles at our previous quaran-tasting. That evening we focused on a Bourbon County store pick of Sonoma Distilling Co. Single Barrel Reserve Rye. But toward the end of the night I uncorked my Elijah Craig. Michael had cracked his not too long before. We agreed it would make a good subject for our next tasting.

So a couple weeks later, still separated by the bay between San Francisco and Berkeley but united by the interwebs, we each poured ourselves a glass. Tasted in traditional Glencairns—me about a quarter of the way into my bottle, and Michael about halfway into his—here first are our respective notes in brief, followed by our conversation.

COLOR

MICHAEL – marmalade orange, lighter than expected for an 18 year bourbon

MARK – a rich maple and copper orange

NOSE

MICHAEL – interesting, but different than at uncorking—less fruit and more rich, old, polished oak, like a banister in a mansion; eventually a little moss, dust, eucalyptus, menthol, and finally some bittersweet chocolate, orange and lemon zest…

MARK – cinnamon, caramel chunks rolled in baking spices, with air some cooked cherry starts to emerge in the background

TASTE

MICHAEL – flatter than I remember, thin in both texture and depth, no there there, with the oak winning out over vanilla, burnt sugar, creme brûlée, a bit of orange zest

MARK – caramel and oak, then cherry dipped in caramel sauce, very smooth with a not unpleasantly watery, thin, actually quite nicely silky texture

FINISH

MICHAEL – a pop of sweetness like a firework, a cinnamon Fireball candy that goes spicy; drying, and then a savory band-aide aspect like an Islay scotch

MARK – warm, the cherry now most prominent and very like the juice in a warm cherry pie, faint refined oak, all lingering softly but for a very long time…

OVERALL

MICHAEL – intriguing in how it rolls from the complex nose, bypassing the taste, and popping again in the finish; a parabolic curve from the high of a unique nose, to the low middle of a rather light and thin palate, then back up again to a great finish.

MARK – good, with the cherry aspect distinguishing it most, but milder (almost to the point of being forgettable) as compared to the average Elijah Craig Small Batch or Barrel Proof

BUY AGAIN?

MICHAEL – Yes, at msrp.

MARK – Maybe, if I was out of stock, found it at msrp, and nothing else in the price range was vying for my $$$.

Mark J – And so?

Michael – I enjoy this quite a lot. It’s a very pleasant surprise compared to the Barrel Proof, which is hotter than I generally prefer, and the Small Batch, which I find not terribly interesting but a good cocktail mixer.

How do you explain what this bourbon is doing?

I’m not as well versed in Heaven Hill products as compared to some others, although I did visit the distillery and it was a good experience. I’d love a chance to try this 18 Year at whatever proof it came out of the barrel. My best guess as to what’s going on is that it’s simply been very well aged. At least this particular barrel is not over oaked. It’s never tannic or sharp. I don’t get a lot of musty, wet oak flavors. I have had the Parker’s Heritage 24 Year from Heaven Hill. I like that a lot too, and this Elijah 18 Year reminds me of what I remember about that bottle—soft, but unmistakably well-aged.

Something I’ve been thinking about since opening a 2016 Elijah Craig Barrel Proof a few weeks ago is that, at first, I really didn’t like that particular bottle. It had a weird, fresh water and river granite aspect, which wasn’t so present as to be offensive, yet strong enough to make me not want to reach for it. But then lately when I’ve tried it, that’s been less the case and I’ve been enjoying it more.

Similarly, this 18 Year is quite different tonight than it was two weeks ago. And the 12 year 8 month Small Batch I got from Randall’s Wines & Spirits also went on quite a journey. It was amazing at first, then too tannic for me, then it swung back and was great again. So, something that seems to be consistent about Elijah Craig is its intriguing inconsistency once uncorked. If I don’t like a given bottle, I leave it alone for a few weeks and then try it again. It’s very chameleonic.

It’s that old cliche, “If you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes…”

Very different from the 2018 George T. Stagg or the Van Winkles, which have been very consistent over the course of months after uncorking.

I poured a little more just now, and I’m getting a lot more caramel. I think my palate is waking up after the first round. Like Houdini, when they punched him in the stomach when he wasn’t ready and broke his appendix. But they punched him again after that and he was fine. There’s a lot more sweetness now, after some time, which makes the whole package more appealing.

There are other whiskeys I’ve had that have also swung around a lot as they took air, and I disliked them for it. But Elijah Craig I keep coming back to because even when it goes in a direction I don’t prefer, there’s always something there. That 2016 Barrel Proof is the first time I thought, I don’t like this and I won’t in the future either. It’s still going to take me awhile to get through that bottle, because it’s not great. But I was shocked that it started to come around at all.

It’s worth noting that bottle’s been an anomaly among the Elijah Craig Barrel Proofs I’ve tried. I find them pretty consistently good.

I should note I’m about halfway through my bottle.

Have you noticed it changing? How has it evolved?

I did think this first taste tonight was the most savory and least sweet I’ve noticed it being, and that dip in the middle seems more pronounced. When I first opened it I was pretty excited about it. I’d had two other experiences with Elijah Craig products I didn’t care for, a barrel proof and the standard small batch. And I remember your having said to me an 18 Year you’d had once was a real oak bomb, and wondering what the 23 Year would be like in that regard. And at that time “oak bomb” did not sound good to me. Since then I’ve become someone who really appreciates oak, because I like old stuff.

“Oak bomb” does sound painful.

I’d always wanted to try the 18 Year but never saw it close to retail. But then someone gave me a free sample, and I was so pleasantly surprised. That sample was heavier on the sweet side and had a really rich, interesting, oaky nose. Based on that, I thought I’d like to get a bottle.

I think now, further into my bourbon journey, I wouldn’t describe this as an “oak bomb.” When I had it four or five years ago my palate was not as developed. And of course whatever single barrel I’d had might have been vastly different… Shall we test this against something else?

I’d like that. What are you going to compare it to?

I’m going to try it against this Jefferson’s Presidential Select 20 Year, which I suspect might be sourced from Heaven Hill based on my initial tasting of it at uncorking. I haven’t tried it again since.

I have a standard Eagle Rare, and an Elijah Craig Small Batch store pick from K&L.

Which intrigues you more as a comparison?

I think the K&L Small Batch pick, since you’re doing something that’s more of a mystery. I think it will be interesting to compare a younger, store picked single barrel—a slightly higher proof at 94—compared to the 18 Year, 90 proof single barrel.

Sounds great, let’s do it.

MICHAEL’S COMPARISON
Elijah Craig 18 Year next to a 2019 Elijah Craig Small Batch store pick from K&L (94 proof, 10 years 7 months)

NOSE – If I were tasting blind, I’d have guessed the 90-proof 18 Year was higher proof than the 94-proof Small Batch. It’s more astringent, though not in a bad way. The Small Batch is easier, lighter, less exciting or interesting, with none of the earthy notes and a teensy more corn and bubblegum. The 18 Year is richer, sweeter. I’m more a dark chocolate fan than a milk chocolate fan, and the Small Batch is more of a milk chocolate.

TASTE – There’s a clear lineage in common. The Small Batch has a smidgen more of a flavor punch at first sip. But the 18 Year quickly wins out, because the Small Batch doesn’t go anywhere. Its taste is much closer to its nose than with the 18 Year, which is more of a rollercoaster ride with that pop of sweetness and then a fade into the drying oakiness. I had a lot of trouble picking out nuances from the Small Batch, just a lot of that corn and bubblegum that I don’t care for.

FINISH – The 18 Year, even at 90 proof, lingers a long time, if a bit weakly. The Small Batch fades fairly quickly.

MARK’S COMPARISON
Elijah Craig 18 Year next to a 2016 Jefferson’s Presidential Select 20 Year

NOSE – The Elijah Craig is more cinnamon and caramel, and the Jefferson’s is that plus an almost… rubbery oak…? I don’t know what that even means… Okay, with some air that initial rubber aspect goes away entirely. They both have the cherry notes, much darker and more buried in the Jefferson’s and brighter in the Elijah Craig. These bottles are 2 years apart in age, and, like what you’re tasting, 4 proof points apart. The Jefferson’s noses a bit darker overall, more mysterious, not revealing itself as much. It’s like a seasoned old actor who doesn’t have to work so hard anymore to be really good. Whereas the Elijah Craig is talented but maybe a little lazy, so, not hitting its potential.

TASTE – The 18 Year’s flavors taste much more integrated, like a good soup, now that it’s been sitting out. And if the Jefferson’s isn’t sourced Elijah Craig I’d be shocked. It has the same blend of caramel, cherry, and oak, all notably darker than this 18 Year, and with a not unpleasant cough syrup or menthol thing going on, as well as that savory, Islay, almost band-aide smoke you mentioned—maybe the power of suggestion! Both bottles have that thin, watery, but pleasingly silky texture.

FINISH – Both have a soft, not terribly complex finish that lingers much longer than I would expect given the lack of flavor-punch going on in the taste.

So what do we take from this? Something about a family of bourbons, and how siblings are alike and different.

It’s fun to hunt for the similarities. I found myself wondering, if someone gave these to me blind would I ever guess they’re related? Would I be ashamed if I didn’t? I don’t know if I’d guess it. But the 18 Year and this Small Batch pick seem to compare like they should—one is the younger, less developed, “less wise” version of the other.

I am a big believer that the barrel itself plays a huge part in how a bourbon comes out.

Did I ever share with you that funny anecdote about the Armour meat packing company? I heard it on NPR. When they rebuilt their old factory they worked very hard to replicate every nook and cranny, how the steam and smoke travelled through the building, everything, because they wanted the products to taste the same. But people were then noticing things just didn’t taste the same, and they couldn’t figure out what was different in the new facility. They eventually determined that the only difference was that the old facility’s night watchman, who would make the rounds, wasn’t working in the new place.

Really? What did he do?!

I don’t know, move the air?

Was he spitting tobacco juice in the meat vats?

I don’t know. But that story is what I think of when we ask what makes a bourbon special.

I suppose it’s like the old iron skillet you have at home that you’ve used for years, and its particular seasoning can’t be replicated by any new skillet. Or how Jimmy Russell held on to the old cypress wood fermenting tanks at Wild Turkey for thirteen years while they tried out the new metal tanks. He wanted to be absolutely certain the new tanks wouldn’t change the flavor profile of the whiskey.

I’m pretty convinced this Jefferson’s is a Heaven Hill product. Unless it’s a Buffalo Trace product, given that cherry note I also get from Buffalo Trace Mash Bill #1 bourbons. Do you have your Eagle Rare out?

Oh yes, I poured it alongside the rest. I must say, the fruitiness seems tawdry compared to the Elijah Craigs. Like it’s wearing way too much cheap perfume. A lot of grape and apple skin from apples you’ve had sitting around too long. Something grandma would drink, a little too overripe, sweet, like dime store cough syrup.

I’m going to pour some of that 2016 Elijah Craig Barrel Proof. It’s 12 years old as always, and 136 proof—so, 6 years younger and 46 degrees hotter than the 18 Year. I’ll just pour a bit…

So yes, right away, they’re obviously family. The 18 Year, now late in the evening, is all dusty oak, cherry and caramel. No surprises, just dustier. The Barrel Proof still has that dang fresh water and granite aspect. It’s stronger on the nose and finish, but goes away quite a bit in between. The taste is caramel, taffy, chocolate, cherry… Ugh! And that fresh water, there it is. I don’t like it.

Is it mineral? Is that what it is?

It’s a flavor reminiscent of the fresh water streams I grew up around, where the cold mountain water has been washing over slabs of granite for eternity. There can be a metallic quality to the smell of that water. Wet granite has a particular smell to it, and when there is a whole stream or river soaking it 24/7 it’s very strong. Out in the woods, that’s a smell I like. But here it’s very unappealing.

It sounds like the difference you’re picking up between the Eagle Rare and Elijah Craig 18 Year is more cheap sideshow circus versus Cirque du Soleil?

Yes, sadly. It definitely drives home the fact that I prefer older and more refined bourbons.

And Eagle Rare is 10 years old, a pretty solid age.

That’s true. I don’t know, next to these Elijah Craigs it almost tastes like they’re adding sweeteners to the Eagle Rare, though of course we know they’re not.

…So what’s your take-away from all this?

Well. Like so many side-by-sides and blind tastings I find it a little flummoxing, in that it serves equally to make me see qualities I like in whiskeys while sometimes taking a bottle down a peg. The ease and strength of flavor with Eagle Rare is very straightforward, and I can see someone new to bourbon being pretty taken with it. It doesn’t taste light. It tastes like you’re drinking something real. But its sweetness makes it pretty easy.

The Elijah Craig 18 Year is easy in its own way. But I also think it’s much more interesting, nuanced, and a little more bizarre—a little off from what one might call an “average” bourbon profile.

I can imagine someone new to whiskey enjoying the Elijah Craig 18 Year. It’s not so complex, like a Booker’s that assaults you with its flavor and proof.

The lower proof helps. This also makes me want to compare it with the 2019 Four Roses Limited Edition, because the last time I tried that one, similarly to the Elijah 18 Year I couldn’t quite put my finger on what I loved about it. It was pretty subtle, and not going to tell you why it’s so good, but it’s good.

Most bourbon drinkers believe the best way to determine what they really like is to try things blind, free from the influence of labels, cost, fondness for the distillery. I’ve not believed that myself, given so much of the experience is knowing—if I’m drinking Wild Turkey 101, for example—that it’s made by three generations of one family who have been dedicated to perfecting that bourbon for going on 70 years. That knowledge is part of what I’m drinking.

Or with this Jefferson’s 20 Year: knowing they source their bourbon, there’s an enjoyment in comparing it based on my own sense-memory’s suggestion that it may have been sourced from Heaven Hill, a distillery I quite respect and appreciate. That hunch and curiosity is a part of what I’m drinking.

So much of a whiskey is the story behind it, or who gave it to you on what occasion, or if you opened it on a special night. We’re tasting those memories in the whiskey. So, can tasting whiskeys blind really be a true arbiter of taste?

That’s where the comparison between bourbon and art is so appropriate. The value of art really has so much to do with critics, mass appeal, how much the ticket cost, what people said about it.

If a kid I love gave me a painting, I imagine I’d value it as a great painting even if a museum wouldn’t.

Right, and you can see their personality in it. It’s more personal.

When you yourself are trying to decide what you like best and why, how do you measure that?

I think both arguments are valid. I really took it to heart when we blind-tasted the Weller 12 and Van Winkle Lot B at my house that one night, and I chose the Weller 12. I wouldn’t have guessed that. Given the tasting experience, and knowing I could get the Weller for less money… To be honest it dampened my enthusiasm for both of them.

That’s what I was getting at when I said side-by-side and blind comparisons have a dual effect for me. On the one hand, it’s always very interesting, surprising, and a good test that helps me build my skills at identifying flavors and differences. That’s all very valuable. At the same time, like you do, I also value the story and artistry of a bourbon. That’s why it’s so fun to tour distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, and to read about whiskeys and hear distillers interviewed. But I wouldn’t tell someone they’re wrong if they were to say, “I’m a purist, and I’m interested in what is the best product purely according to my taste buds.”

I’ve always relied a lot on other people telling me what they appreciate about a whiskey. It often helps me pick those notes out myself. Going back to the analogy with art, I didn’t really care about Shakespeare until someone taught me how to appreciate it. I thought the stories were good. But what was really interesting was learning how to use the language, and how the characters are built.

For a long time I never cared much about Shakespeare either—because language isn’t my first language! I understand things visually and through movement. I played Macbeth in high school, and I was terrible without a doubt. I was horribly intimidated by it, found it very difficult, and begged the teacher to cut as many lines as possible. I was a scared kid. But that intense experience made me determined to continue to face Shakespeare as I got older.

And when I think about it, the whiskeys that got me into whiskey were bottles like a very smoky Lagavulin, a punch-you-in-the-face Booker’s—really intense, in your face whiskeys. And since Shakespeare’s language is such an assault of a kind—that ornate, melodious, non-stop poetry, the melodrama and blood and magic—for someone not as naturally keyed into verbal language I think the challenge to understand it was part of the appeal. I wanted to understand what was going on in those plays, and I had to dig to find my way in. So, similarly, if a whiskey really throws me for a loop I’m inclined to keep at it, try it in different glasses, pair it with other whiskeys.

That’s part of the appeal of Elijah Craig bottlings for me. I love the flavor profile, and then that tendency to swing so wildly as they air out. I get intrigued and find myself wanting to keep drinking it, to follow where that journey goes over time.

There are certain intense theater pieces I’d like to return to every five or ten years, just to see how they’ve aired out. Macbeth, Hamlet, and Romeo & Juliet I’ve each done twice, and would gladly do them again. My partner and I have worked on three different productions of Three Sisters, each a devised riff on Chekhov’s play using a lot of dance and music. I can imagine our doing a fourth.

I’m actually doing a reading of Three Sisters on Zoom sometime soon.

Oh, who are you playing?

Solyony.

Ah great. He’s a great character.

Epilogue

And from there we talked about a few more plays, some local bars and how they’re handling things under the Stay-at-Home mandate… And we called it a night. But turns out Michael kept going! The next evening I received this text:

So, yet another night of good whiskey doing what it does so well—stoking curiosity and compelling conversation.

Cheers!

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