Two Elijah Craigs: Small Batch 12 Year Store Pick & Barrel Proof Batch B520

ELIJAH CRAIG SMALL BATCH
Single Barrel #5327938 selected by K&L (2020)

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

PROOF – 94

AGE – 12 years 1 month

DISTILLERY – Heaven Hill

PRICE – $33

BUY AGAIN? – Can’t. But any 12-year single barrel of Elijah Craig, yes, in a heartbeat.

ELIJAH CRAIG BARREL PROOF
BATCH B520 (2020)

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

PROOF – 127.2

AGE – stated at 12 years

DISTILLERY – Heaven Hill

PRICE – $60

BUY AGAIN? – Likely not, but only because there are three new releases each year and life is short.

The Elijah Craig line from Heaven Hill has been a favorite of mine for quite some time. I love the flavor profile’s dependable trifecta of oak, caramel, and cinnamon roll. With the Barrel Proof and Single Barrel releases, sometimes they lean more under one of those flavor umbrellas or another. But all three are always there, often complimented by fruit flavors like orange or cherry.

Whenever I come across a single barrel store pick of the Small Batch line that’s aged 12 years or more, I tend to go for it without much debate. These can be overly oaky for some people. But as a big ol’ oak fan, I’ve yet to try an Elijah Craig Small Batch single barrel I didn’t like.

I’d heard good things about the Barrel Proof B520 release, but held off buying a bottle because I already had a handful of Barrel Proofs bunkered and I’m trying to cut down on bunkering. Then I came across a bottle of the B520 for the increasingly rare price of $60 tax and all, and I bit. Spoiler alert: at uncorking it was easily among the best Elijah Craig Barrel Proof releases I’d had the pleasure of enjoying.

Then on a recent weekend evening, with a mighty piece of pumpkin pie before me, I thought it a good time to crack this Small Batch SiB I’d picked up from K&L. My inclination was correct: the Elijah Craig paired very well with the pumpkin pie.

K&L had had three single barrels on sale, two of them aged 12+ years and one just two months shy of 11 years. The two 12+ year barrels sold out online within a minute or so. The ~11 year barrel took a few minutes longer. This demonstrates the value fans place on age, despite age not guaranteeing a better or even pleasing taste. But in today’s bourbon boomed world, when presented with a 12-year single barrel of a dependable name brand like Elijah Craig for $33, and secondary bottlers are selling 12-year sourced bourbon for $100 or more, it’s very worth the gamble.

Out of the gate, of the various ~12-year Elijah Craig single barrels I’ve tried, this one was easily the oakiest. It was a sweet oak, backed up by a thin but tasty layer of caramel, sprinkled with that Elijah Craig baking spice blend, and with a dash of toasted orange peel in the mix for good measure. I’d cracked the B520 just a couple weeks before, and, given it’s also aged around 12 years, I immediately wanted to try them side by side.

So here we are. The B520 has been open for about two weeks, and I’m roughly halfway into the bottle. The single barrel has been open 24 hours, and I’m already a handful of pours in. Given the proof difference, I tasted the single barrel first, followed by the barrel proof, both in simple brandy glasses.

SINGLE BARREL

COLOR – a clear amber-orange with gold highlights

NOSE – baking spices and oak up front, then caramel in the background with some faint cherry and orange zest, all increasingly well balanced as it airs out in the glass

TASTE – sweet oak leads the way front to back, with the baking spices following lightly, only a hint of the caramel, and something faint like a dark chocolate prune cake

FINISH – very dry, with now less sweet oak, some graham cracker, a bit of dry roasted coffee, dry moss, and a nice warm tingle around the edges

OVERALL – oaky and dry, with only the tease of sweeter flavors hovering like a thin mist in the background.

BARREL PROOF B520

COLOR – a red and copper orange, like a penny with experience

NOSE – baking spices, caramel and chocolate, orange peel with chunks of the meat still on it, cinnamon pastry dough

TASTE – fiery up front without burning, then oaky and chocolatey with fleeting whiffs of caramel

FINISH – a nice peppery warmth, dense chocolate cake, oak, coffee

OVERALL – In addition to the expected oak notes, the chocolate notes stand out with this batch

Both of these are dryer now than at their respective uncorkings. That’s saying something for the Single Barrel in particular, which was already quite dry to begin with. I have found that Elijah Craigs do evolve quite wildly over the course of a given bottle. In a day, a week, or a month both of these could likely be drier or sweeter and back again.

With the Single Barrel, the nose wins for complexity. The dry finish conjures August in my hometown of Placerville, California, with its forest floors still thick with the previous Autumn’s long dead, long dried out oak leaves. They never disintegrate into mulch fast enough after the Winter snow melts and exposes them to the Spring and Summer sun. Come the next Autumn, a freshly fallen layer of oak leaves is inevitably added to the matt.

The Barrel Proof is all oak and chocolate cake. The dry oak and the moist chocolate cake create a density that ends up seeming neither dry nor moist. That’s the best way I can think to describe it. Like a day old, still tasty chocolate cake.

My various prior tastings of both these bottles were all in traditional Glencairns. Tonight I used simple brandy glasses, which I often use for these classic Kentucky bourbons. Partly it’s aesthetics—the Glencairns seem somehow at odds with old school Kentucky bourbons. But I do also find the brandy glasses hold aromas and flavors well in their way. But out of curiosity, I tried a second taste of each in traditional Glencairns.

Nosing the Single Barrel, right away I’m hit with the difference between these glasses. With the Glencairn, if a whiskey’s nose isn’t powerful enough I actually get a bit of the scent of the glass itself, a kind of sandiness. Given the aromatic shyness—and dryness—of this bourbon, there’s a bit of that going on here. But after some swirling and coaxing I pick up a fruity caramel note that’s almost wine-like, a variation on those fruit notes I picked up in the brandy glass. There’s also a black pepper note here. On the taste I get that sweet oak right up front, sweeter here, with a bit more caramel and now also some cacao and coffee. The finish leaves me with oak, more oak, some of the coffee, back to the oak, day old chocolate cake (still tasty, just drier).

Now nosing the Barrel Proof in a Glencairn, the caramel is bright and juicy right up front, followed by orange zest, something like mineral water, and eventually the baking spices. On the taste I get that bright caramel, the chocolate now more saucy than caky, and some of that mineral water thing. The finish also has the mineral water, now also in the texture of the experience, with the oak and chocolate notes lingering.

Well okay then. Point in favor of the Glencairns, aesthetics be damned. Both bourbons were still on the dry side. But in the Glencairns their sweeter aspects are much more forthcoming than in the brandy glasses. Note to self.

It’s very interesting to have the opportunity to try two ~12-year Elijah Craig iterations, one left at its natural barrel proof and the other watered down to the Small Batch line’s traditional 94 proof. Of course in this instance, the Barrel Proof is also a small batch, and the “Small Batch” is a single barrel. These details are key to the experience—a singular bourbon watered down, and a blended bourbon left at full throttle.

I can well imagine many people not taking to these dry, oaky ~12-year single barrel store picks. And I wouldn’t blame them. Even I, who love the nuances to be found in oak, miss the juicier fruit and candy aspects that create a more balanced bourbon. I won’t always be in the mood for this bottle. But I’ll never mind it.

And tonight I wouldn’t describe the B520 as the “best” Elijah Craig Barrel Proof I’ve had. It’s not wowing me quite as much now as it did on its first few pours. That said, I know Elijah Craig well enough to guess that, again, this could be yet another experience in a day or a week. Elijah Craig rewards the patient with nuances. I suspect this is no small part of the appeal to its many fans.

For example, I just tossed back the final drop of the B520 and it was all cinnamon hard candy. Where’d that come from?

This is what I mean.

Cheers!

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