Heaven Hill is releasing another superaged single-barrel version of its Elijah Craig Bourbon line with a 23-year-old limited release, now shipping to liquor stores. The expression follows on the heels of last year's release of a 21-year-old and joins the 12-year-old Small Batch version and the high-octane Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, another 12-year-old.
The company had released an acclaimed 20-year-old to great success a year before the 21, and the extra-aged series has served to demonstrate that Bourbon, which is famously quick to mature, can withstand added years without becoming overly tannic. The barrels used were specially chosen for their ability to age for long periods. They were also drawn from the middle floors of the rickhouses, where temperatures tend to be more moderate. Kentucky's generally high temperatures and the legally mandated use of new barrels tend to speed maturation of Bourbon compared with other whiskeys.
The entry-level Elijah Craig 12-year-old is itself an older expression in the context of the average Bourbon. (The minimum legal age is two years, but most are at least four.) This stalwart in the Heaven Hill line was named for an 18th century minister, who, according to legend, invented Bourbon. The whiskey uses rye for a secondary grain and is selected from what is the second largest collection of aging Bourbon in the world. (Jim Beam is first and Jack Daniel's, which is technically a Tennessee sour mash whiskey, is larger than both.)
The 20-, 21-, and 23-year old were all drawn from single casks, a treatment which allows slight variability in flavor from bottle to bottle. The superaged Craigs all have handwritten barreled-on dates on the bottle as well as a barrel number. The 12-year Small Batch version comes from dumps of 70 barrels at a time. The Barrel Proof bottling comes in varying proofs (between 132.4 and 137), depending on which batch it came from. The standard 12-year-old comes in 94 proof, and the single-barrel versions are both 90 proof.
The packaging of the Elijah Craig shares a motif: a flask-style, 750-milliliter bottle with cork stopper. The superaged versions have more rounded bottles and are themselves distinguished by label color (blue for 21 and green for 23). We decided to perform a taste comparison of Elijah to make sure the differences weren't solely in the packaging.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof (strength varies by batch, tasted at 137 proof, or 68.5 percent alcohol by volume; 12 years old; $39.99 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Deep, dark copper color. Quick, thick legs.
NOSE: Wafts with layers of maple and honey at first blush. Then becomes exuberantly fruity with samplings of berry flavors (blackberry and raspberry, cherry).
PALATE: The mouthfeel belies the fast legs with its persistent syrupy quality. The fruits from the nose break out on the tongue at once and expand quickly into the roof of the mouth with a tingling sensation. It cries out for water and we give it a splash. Thereupon, it becomes momentarily intensely woody, before calming to barrel flavors that are sortable: maple, caramel, vanilla, toffee.
FINISH: The insistent berry flavors won't be denied and come popping right back up on a finish that goes on and on.
CIGAR PAIRING: Cain F Nub 460 (Nicaragua, 4 inches by 60 ring gauge, $7.46, 90 points, August 2014 Cigar Aficionado) Packed with tobacco, this short, fat cigar imparts a dense smoke that is strong and hearty with earth, coffee bean and leather notes. The finish hints of dried cherry. The cigar brings a hearty aspect to the pairing, smoothing the whiskey out somewhat and pronouncing the barrel notes. The Elijah gives back, bringing the cherry notes of the Cain into sharper focus. The leathery flavor from the cigar is also in a better light, which adds to the enjoyment of the whiskey. A good give-and-take.
Elijah Craig Aged 21 Years Single Barrel (90 proof, or 45 percent alcohol by volume; 21 years old, barreled on May 25, 1990, Barrel No. 1; $140 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: A respectably, deep amber color that seems light in contrast to the above. Slow to give up its medium-girth legs.
NOSE: Much more of the berry fruit notes right out front, this time with a creamy nose and just a bit of the orange of a fine triple sec. A modicum of maple bouquet follows.
PALATE: With but two-thirds the proof of the above whiskey, this one doesn't have quite the same attack, but wild berries are certainly in evidence from the start. This time floral qualities are also detected. You expect overbearing woodiness from whiskey of this age, but instead get subtler influence from the trees. Caramel mixes with oak and up pops a dusting of nut flavor.
FINISH: Ends with a nuanced encore of fruit that lets the more savory flavors show through as well. The last impression will be of walnuts.
CIGAR PAIRING: Cain F Nub 460 (see above) The sweetness of the whiskey airs out the same understated notions on the cigar. Once again, the Elijah becomes rounder, this time under the influence of the Nub's leather notes. The cigar's coffee flavor helps to add to the sensation of the depth in the whiskey. Another fine example of pairing synergy.
Elijah Craig 23 Years Single Barrel (90 proof, or 45 percent alcohol by volume; 23 years old, bottled on February 26, 1990, Barrel No. 26; $199.99 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Slightly deeper color than its 21-year-old brother. Thicker, quicker legs.
NOSE: It's hard to get away from the fruit impression, but this older model brings creamier, heartier notes, also with a hint of orange. An elegant Cognac quality.
PALATE: The wood aspect of this taste is quicker to reveal itself, but once again it's not the sucking-on-barrel-staves experience that can come with Bourbons of this age. Fruit and barrel meld into a very balanced and pleasing proposition. Yes, there's berries and flowers and toffee, but we also enter a spicy anise/cinnamon realm.
FINISH: Not an overlong ending, but it serves to review all of the strengths of this whiskey and introduce a toasty, nutty side that wasn't as quick to reveal itself.
CIGAR PAIRING: Cain F Nub 460 (see above) These two find a happy lilting harmony somewhere over the rainbow. The same effect as influenced the above pairing is in play here (cigar gives heartiness to the whiskey and gets fruity, sugary tones in return). But this time it's harder to tell which is giving and which is taking. And that, after all, is the mark of a great pairing. Superb balance exists between both elements with the upshot of a wealth of hitherto unnoted element: nutty graham cracker, tropical fruit, bread dough, cocoa, rye and rum, etc.