For those pining away for the return of Elijah Craig 18-Year-Old Single Barrel, the wait is over and all is forgiven.
The much popular teenage version of the Elijah Craig line has been absent for three years due to a shortage of barrels deemed worthy in the age group. Now Heaven Hill, the distiller, is releasing 15,000 bottles on allocation in major markets. And it's just as good as remembered. The company also announced a re-release of its 23-year-old Elijah Craig, which has been available sporadically in the meantime.
Upon its introduction in 1994, the 18-year-old became the oldest single-barrel Bourbon on the market and developed an enormous cache. Of course, that status has since been stripped by the brand's own 20-, 21- and 23-year olds. Even while younger, the late teenager hits a sweet spot in aging that is hard to deny and easily competes with the older versions. It's nettled by none of the over-wooded qualities common to some superannuated Bourbons. Furthermore, like an older Scotch, it develops nuanced flavors that were hitherto not evident. At some points its Bourbon-ness takes a backseat to exquisite qualities it shares with very well-aged malts and brandies.
As well as the Single-Barrel versions of Elijah Craig, Heaven Hill also makes two 12-year-olds: the standard release Elijah Craig Small Batch and the high-octane Barrel Proof. The name is taken from the 18th century Baptist priest who, according to lore, set the standard for charring the inside of Bourbon barrels when he accidentally set one on fire, but used it anyway. If the story is apocryphal or not, this is a legendary whiskey.
The Single Barrel Craig is a product of selecting the right barrels at the right age from the 1.1 million casks (second only to Jim Beam in the Bourbon world) that are aging at any one time. Master distillers Craig Beam and Denny Potter perform the winnowing. The barrels used in the 18-Year-Old re-release were chosen from low storage areas in the rickhouse, where temperatures are cool enough to mature for that long. Heaven Hill says the stocks for the 18-year-old have come back into line since the bottling was discontinued in 2012. The company calls the whiskey "a victim of its own success" as it ran dry just as the market for high-end Bourbon was exploding.
A new, slightly altered bottle follows the logo type used on the 23-year-old package with the exception that the new bottle has a blue and copper, as opposed to the green and copper label, of the elder.
Elijah Craig 18-Year-Old Single Barrel (sampled from Barrel No. 4091, barreled on June 13, 1997; 90 proof, or 45 percent alcohol by volume; age; $120 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Bright orange/amber color. Slowly releases its chunky legs.
NOSE: Sugar-and-spice characterizes the aroma, with notes of cherry, baked apple and cinnamon. Some caramel and vanilla lingers on the end.
PALATE: The usual Bourbon suspects of notes of vanilla, caramel and toffee show themselves immediately. Then comes the only woody evidence of its long age: a golden, warming toastiness. The real show starts soon after that as a parade of spices and fruits traipse through. The cinnamon, cherry and apple of the nose are joined by orange peel, peppers, grapefruit, tangerine, licorice/tarragon and fennel seed.
FINISH: Savory graham cracker comes on at the finish as all the flavors of the palate make an encore. Elijah bows out like James Brown, coming back for extra encores, just when the performance seemed to be done.
CIGAR PAIRING: Diamond Crown Maximus Toro No. 4 (Dominican Republic; 6 inches by 50 ring gauge; $13.75, 90 Points; December 2015/Cigar Aficionado) The easy draw of this dark, oily cigar offers notes of earth and leather that take on a very creamy quality before a graham cracker and raisin sweetness. We thought this smoke would offer the whiskey at least one note that they shared—graham cracker—and one that they didn't—leather. The matching flavors are evident right from the get-go as the graham cracker's honey and wheat doesn't take as long to arrive on the whiskey and strengthens on the cigar. The Diamond Crown then informs the Elijah Craig with a more savory and sultry character with its leather. In turn, the whiskey's fruits fill out the cigar with the sweet flavors of orange peel and tangerine. In the end, it's the complements, not the like flavors that win out and make this a superlative pairing.