ELIJAH CRAIG PRIVATE BARREL
Barrel #6262699 selected by Bourbon County & Fred’s Liquors
MASH BILL – 78% corn, 10% rye, 12% barley
PROOF – 128.4
AGE – 9 years
DISTILLERY – Heaven Hill
PRICE – $95
WORTH BUYING? – Out of curiosity, yes. For the overall experience, no.
As a longtime Elijah Craig fan, picking up one of these new barrel proof private barrels was just a matter of time. So when one of my favorite small local shops, Bourbon County, got their pick in I didn’t think twice.
The standard release Elijah Craig Small Batch is solid and well priced. Small Batch store picks, ranging in age from 8 to 12 years, can be quite different from one to the next, this one leaning more into oak and that one into caramel. They also tend to evolve in the bottle after uncorking, sometimes even radically, but always within a dependable trifecta of oak, caramel, and baking spices. This combination of variance and dependability also applies to the thrice-annual standard Barrel Proof releases, where proof is the variable and age always stated at 12 hearty years. The ECBP line remains among the best deals in the Bourbon Boom era. The rarer 18 Year is good, but underwhelming for the price. The 23 Year can be a masterpiece of sweet oak, but also very expensive and even harder to find. The recent Toasted Barrel experiment was fantastic. And the relatively new standard Rye release is solid.
All to say the Elijah Craig line offers flexible options in a range of prices. The advent of a single barrel store pick variation on the Barrel Proof theme is a logical development. With such a dependable whiskey at hand, Heaven Hill is right to test its limits. And I’m happy to try the results. Elijah Craig is seldom wow-inducing. But it does occasionally wow. Really, it’s the increasingly unbeatable experience-to-price ratio that keeps me coming back. I know I’ll have better and worse bourbons, but few deliver with such consistency and variety combined.
So here we are, about three months after uncorking and a handful of pours into the bottle. I tasted it in a traditional Glencairn and Norlan Rauk tumbler, and these brief notes combine both experiences.
COLOR – very rich and murky oranges with honey highlights, like thick mist obscuring distant fire
NOSE – fine dry cinnamons, thick refined oak, a dusting of ground black pepper, sweet dry-cut caramel, dark granulating honey, black coffee, toffee, a bay leaf fluttering in and out
TASTE – a sharp initial bite so sip slowly, then comes bright dry oak, bright sparkly baking spices, plumes of prickly heat, a sweetness from the caramel only without so much of the caramel flavor
FINISH – a lingering prickly heat, fresh water in a brushed steel bucket, the sweet caramel stirred into fresh roasted coffee
OVERALL – forceful and complex on the nose, then forceful and simple on the taste and finish
The nose wins for best stage of the game. The heat means approaching with care. But when I do a wonderful array of sweet and savory aromas mingle as on a strong breeze.
Then on the taste and finish things simplify. That metallic fresh water aspect comes in contrast to the prickly heat, together giving the dominant oak notes a sharp seared quality. Lacking sweetness to balance it out, there is something almost unpleasant about it, which is a surprise given the wonderful range of the nose.
Overall, this Private Barrel has a rawness to it. I miss the careful blending that can make the standard Barrel Proof releases so satisfying. I can’t say how much the age plays into all this. But 3 years is a significant amount. Had this barrel reached 12 would it have become unbearably oaky? Or would its brashness have mellowed, allowing the promise of the nose to be fulfilled?
These questions make a comparison between this Private Barrel and a standard release Barrel Proof Small Batch inevitable…
This particular Barrel Proof release, C919, is 3 years older than the Private Barrel and 8.4 degrees hotter at 136.8 proof. It is also a “small batch” blend of some unknown number of barrels, not a single barrel. These are significant differences, of the kind that sometimes result in entirely different brand lines—the Buffalo Trace Eagle Rare versus Stagg Jr., for example; the former being 10 years old and 90 proof, the latter age-unstated (rumored 8 years on average) and barrel proof, both the same Buffalo Trace recipe. Heaven Hill has opted instead to put their variations out under the same Elijah Craig umbrella label.
The last Elijah Craig Barrel Proof I went through prior to this C919 was the excellent B520, which, at 127.2 proof would have made a closer comparison to this Private Barrel. I could likewise crack open a C917 release I still have in the bunker, at 131 proof only 2.6 proof points hotter than the Private Barrel. But in either of these cases, the age difference and small batch versus single barrel status would remain—factors that together likely make a more decisive impact on flavor than the varying proofs alone.
When I first uncorked the C919, the nose was robust with well toasted cherry pop-tarts, vanilla, caramel, and seared oak chips. The taste was very sweet with cherry syrup, balanced by sun-dried oak. It had a spiky but restrained heat to it that held back the proof’s full bite. The finish lingered with notes of cherry and buttery pastry dough. This was among the sweetest ECBPs I’d had, almost a Buffalo Trace level sweetness. Really nice.
As the bottle aired out over time, those seared oak chip notes, their softer sun-dried oak counterpart, and the spiky heat all gradually leaned forward a bit more. But the syrupy sweetness never relented, keeping the experience in constant yet lively balance. It’s a sweetness that doesn’t quite cloy. It’s more gaudy than cloying, more fierce drag queen than cute ingénue—smarter than to go sentimental.
So as a comparison to this Private Barrel, perhaps the C919 will offer some insight into the value between these two closely-aligned Elijah Craig options.
Here we are, six months after uncorking the C919 and at its final few pours. Like the Private Barrel, I tasted the C919 in both a traditional Glencairn and Norlan Rauk tumbler, and these brief notes combine both experiences. After tasting it on its own I’ll do a bit of side-by-side.
COLOR – soft murky orange, glowing from within
NOSE – a bright fruit (almost floral) sweetness right up front like an apricot and cherry sauce or preserve; then caramel chunks in cookie dough, heat that almost casually signals “go slow or get burned,” dusty oak in fresh air and sunlight
TASTE – that note of fresh water in a steel bucket is here as well but blended thoroughly with the fruit and floral notes, bright syrupy caramel sauce, bready milk chocolate cake with milk chocolate frosting, a plume of prickly heat right at the end
FINISH – the fruit, milk chocolate, and prickly heat all lingering together
OVERALL – fruity, desserty, caky, searing but fun
Though immediately recognizable as family to the Private Barrel, this C919 is as immediately its own experience, and more pleasing overall. It’s the strong sweet fruit aspects. They help soften the seared quality that pierces a bit too much to be fully enjoyable in the drier Private Barrel.
Now nosing them side by side in the Glencairns, they come across so very close to one another. The Private Barrel leans darker and the C919 brighter—by comparison; both are bright. The Private Barrel does offer more complexity on the nose, with a sense of unfolding layers lacking in the C919, where the aromas all seem to blow forth at once.
Tasting them one and then the other, without water to clear them out in between, the main thing that hits me with the Private Barrel is breadiness and oakiness, whereas the C919 hits me with tart fruity caramel. Both share that sharp seared quality, though this is more pronounced in the brighter C919. Interesting that the older, hotter C919 comes across as brighter than the younger, less hot Private Barrel.
This comparison leaves me questioning the need for the Private Barrel program. Beyond marketing and commerce, I mean. For the consumer, as a tasting experience, what’s the true need? The Toasted Barrel release, for example, offers a very clear distinction from the standard Small Batch release. Granted both the Private Barrel releases and thrice-annual Barrel Proof Small Batch releases are intended to showcase variation. But given today’s two examples, I can’t see why I should pay more for a younger single barrel when overall it’s offering a relatively comparable experience to the older small batch.
Maybe the allure of single barrels will win out with Elijah Craig fans in the long run, and the Private Barrel program will continue to flourish. Or maybe we’ll collectively catch on to the difference in price in relation to the similarity in experience, and the Private Barrel program will dwindle.
Time will tell.
Meanwhile, I’ve got this C919 to kill soon and this Private Barrel to get through. It does feel a bit like I’ll be getting through it. That’s not something I generally want to pay $95 for. Granted, this is just one of many single barrels out there and single barrels are always a gamble. Given the sheer range of Elijah Craig options, for me the gamble might not be worth it.