Elijah Craig Straight Rye
MASH BILL – 51% Rye, 35% Corn, 14% Malted Barley
PROOF – 94
AGE – NAS
DISTILLERY – Heaven Hill Distillery
PRICE – $30
WORTH BUYING? – Sure. A solid mixer/sipper at a decent price.
Elijah Craig is among my favorite bourbon lines. The thrice-annual Barrel Proof release is easily among the best deals in bourbon—uncut, age stated at 12 years, and decently priced around $70 on average. Single barrel store picks of the 94-proof small batch release always have something tasty to offer in and among a typical trifecta of caramel, oak, and cinnamon-laden baking spices. And the standard release Small Batch itself is a dependable mixer/sipper bourbon at a good price.
The merits of the 18 Year and 23 Year releases are often debated. At 90 proof, the 18 Year can be underwhelming, too oaky and thin for some, not packing enough flavor punch overall for many, and very expensive. I’ve tried the 23 Year once, when a shop keeper poured me a glass from his bottle tucked behind the counter. I found that pour a sweet, oaky, satisfying sip. But I’d need to give it more thorough attention to offer any meaningful commentary.
In any case, I don’t imagine anyone dismissing the basic Elijah Craig premise. It’s solid, dependable bourbon. And so the advent of an Elijah Craig brand Straight Rye elicited great anticipation. What would Heaven Hill do under the Elijah Craig name that they weren’t already doing with Rittenhouse or Pikesville?
When Elijah Craig Straight Rye finally hit California, I nabbed the first bottle I found and uncorked it that night. At uncorking the nose showed strong sweet caramel, bright grassy/floral rye spices, and a sprig of dill. On the taste the caramel note was gentler, the rye spices and dill sprig still very present, with some banana and chocolate. The finish wrapped things up with chocolate brioche, baked banana, and the grassy/floral rye notes.
All in all not bad. So here we are now, four days and four pours after uncorking. These notes were taken in both a Canadian and traditional Glencairn.
COLOR – a vibrant rusty-brown orange
NOSE – bright rye florals and spices lead, then some finely ground black pepper, cinnamon baking spices, and a thin layer of caramel underneath
TASTE – the rye florals and spices upfront with more of the black pepper, then a stronger wave of caramel than the nose let on, plus a nice light oak note and a bit of buttery brioche
FINISH – subtle but lingering, with the black pepper, buttery brioche, some caramel, and the rye notes now surprisingly faint given how prominently they led on the nose and taste
OVERALL – A fine bottom-shelf rye I’d put alongside Old Forester and Rittenhouse as an affordable, no nonsense mixer/sipper.
Interesting that now a certain dichotomy is reversed from the uncorking pour. Then the caramel leapt forward on the nose and backed off on the taste. Tonight it’s the opposite.
Tipping more herbal in the Canadian Glencairn, while leaning more into its caramels in the traditional Glencairn, either way this Elijah Craig foray into rye achieves the aim its price point suggests. It’s not out to dazzle. It just wants to get the job done well.
Given the mash bill, featuring a strong sweet corn ratio and barely enough rye to qualify the whiskey as a “rye,” I’m surprised how rye forward this actually is. Old Forester Rye, for example, features a mash bill of 65% rye, 20% malted barley, and only 15% Corn. It’s been a minute since I’ve sipped on the Old Forester, and I have no doubt in a side by side the differences would be clear. But the prominent floral rye notes in this Elijah Craig brought it immediately to mind.
The Elijah Craig bourbons—whether the standard small batch release, single barrel store picks thereof, or the beloved Barrel Proof edition—have such a devoted following, hopes for this rye were high. I do believe it’s achieving in its way what the standard small batch bourbon does in its. They’re meant to be workhorses that will mix well and also sip neat well enough. I’d say this rye does that.
And you just know there’s going to be a Barrel Proof Rye release at some point! Maybe it won’t be aged 12 years like the bourbon. But I can’t imagine Heaven Hill not offering it once they have the stocks on hand and have determined what age works best for both taste and the financial bottom line. Whenever that bottling rolls out, I’ll be eager to try it.
Heaven Hill also produces that other workhorse bottom-shelf rye, Rittenhouse. With a mash bill of 51% rye, 37% corn and 12% malted barley, Rittenhouse is a close cousin to this Elijah Craig. Rittenhouse is bottled in bond, though, so its age is stated at 4 years and it’s offered at 100 proof. Similarly, Heaven Hill’s mid-shelf Pikesville sports a mash bill of 51% rye, 39% corn, and 10% malted barley. But it’s age-stated at 6 years and bottled at a spiky 110 proof. These variations all being so close, and especially considering the Rittenhouse, I can’t help wonder why Heaven Hill thought the Elijah Craig Rye was necessary other than to capitalize on the name.
Marketing musings aside, for an herbal rye at this level I’ll reach for either Elijah Craig or Old Forester, likely siding more often with Old Forester given the lower price. And for a more caramel/chocolate rye I’ll reach for Rittenhouse. And then for a step up on the Rittenhouse theme, it’ll be good ol’ Pikesville.
The more I sip at tonight’s pour, the more the herbal and sweet aspects come into balance, and the more I start to think of Rittenhouse and Pikesville as opposed to Old Forester. Makes sense. Rittenhouse, Pikesville and Elijah Craig are family. Old Forester is a neighbor. All four are Kentuckians.