Elijah Craig 23 Year Single Barrel

Single Barrel #90 bottled September 13, 2018

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

PROOF – 90

AGE – 23 years

DISTILLERY – Heaven Hill

PRICE – $271

WORTH BUYING? – Oh so yes

I picked this bottle up in late Fall of 2018 at Royal Liquors, one of San Francisco’s increasingly uncommon fair-priced bottle shops. I’d never seen an Elijah Craig 23 in the wild, and haven’t again since.

I did taste it in the wild once. It was around that same time in 2018. Must have been shortly before I found this bottle. I’d stepped into another local shop, and the owner waved me over. He pulled a plastic cup out from under the counter and poured me a bit of the one bottle of EC23 he’d been granted that year by the three-tier mafia. As EC23 is his favorite bourbon, when a bottle comes along he keeps it for himself. Knowing this, I was grateful for his generosity in sharing a pour with me. It tasted like the sweetest, most subtly magical oak tea I could imagine. So when shortly after that I found a bottle myself, I took a deep breath at the price tag—at msrp easily half what I’d likely pay at most places, even back then—and scooped it up.

As has often been the case with such uncommon bottles, I squirreled it away in the bunker, waiting for an unusual occasion to open it. Four years later, when I sat down after a long day at work on December 31, 2022, and pondered what I should uncork to toast the first few minutes of 2023, Elijah Craig 23 seemed the obvious choice!

And how was it? Let’s just say 2023 was off to a great start…!

And now here we are, nearing four weeks after that midnight uncorking as I taste this, and three pours into the bottle. These brief notes were taken using a traditional Glencairn.

COLOR – rich, thick, vibrant russet oranges that smolder in the light

NOSE – syrupy, with sweet sweet oak, herbaceous in a dried rye spicy way, a layer of creamy caramel behind it all, a nice crisp edge around everything from the tannic oak

TASTE – very true to the nose, with that syrupy aspect carrying through into the texture, the sweet oak still taking the lead in terms of flavor, flanked by meaty orange peel and the dry rye spices

FINISH – the sweet oak and meaty orange peal linger together warmly, gently, and at length

OVERALL – As I remember it from that sample back in 2018, a mighty fine sweet oak tea

Granted this is a single barrel, and not all are alike. Same goes for the younger Elijah Craig 18 Year. Both the 23 Year and 18 Year are bottled at 90 proof. So the differences are the age and the given barrel. After sampling a few of the 18 Year outings, I eventually concluded there just isn’t enough there there to justify the cost. But two for two—and granting two is not yet a pattern—these Elijah Craig 23 Year single barrels offer something truly special.

Worth the price? Mmm. No whiskey is really “worth” $270+. But that’s the cost here. I chose to pay it. And in this instance I’m glad I did. (Easier to say when the money is long since spent.)

My fondness for oak is fully satiated here, with the sweetest oak notes I’ve experienced in any bourbon to date. Combined with the luxuriously syrupy texture, and the overall richness of the herbal and citric elements, the central oak notes are held back from drying everything out. It’s all wonderfully balanced. This is what conjures the tea element for me—that way a good warm green tea can be at once dry and refreshing, savory and sweet.

And calming. Some whiskeys kick your eyebrows up in surprise. Some light up your palate like a fireworks display. Some smolder warmly as they slowly make their way through you. All of those experiences can be great. But this whiskey does something else. It’s not offering spectacle. It’s not dessert, nor a hearty meal. Rather, just as a contemplative cup of tea would, it slows the busy mind and relaxes the tired body.

Having been bottled in 2018, this whiskey was distilled in the twentieth century, in 1995. I was just returning from living in Japan then. I drank a lot of green tea there. During the cold winter months, when the Siberian winds swept across the central Japanese planes where I lived, green tea warmed my body from the inside while eight layers of blankets warmed me from the outside. I was too poor to pay for either the petrol or electricity needed to heat my little apartment shack, with the small gas and electric space heaters the landlord had provided. The tea and blankets had to suffice. If only I’d had this Elijah Craig 23 then!

This whiskey could very well be too oaky for anyone who doesn’t care for oak. For me it’s a whiskey geek’s dream come true—an uncommonly well-aged bourbon that didn’t get overwhelmed by the barrel, but revived by it. And then there’s the “history in a bottle” aspect, taking me back to my time in Japan, which was such an important experience for me.

This is one reason I love whiskey—its ability to compel us through time. This bourbon was distilled and barreled in 1995. What was I doing then? It was bottled in 2018. What was I doing then? Now in 2023, it reconnects me with that impactful moment in the cold Japanese winter, when I was truly aware of my senses, and compels me to trace my steps over the next 28 years that brought me to today. So much has changed while this bourbon has quietly slept.


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