Elijah Craig has always been one of my go-to bourbons. I’ve been drinking it since the age-stated days when the bottle had more of a bulge to it, rather than the sleeker, flatter bottle that they moved to once Heaven Hill dropped the age statement. Many will say that the bourbon changed significantly from the 12-year age statement to the NAS expression. Honestly, back when the age statement was there, I was less into writing about bourbon and more about just drinking it.

My memory of taste isn’t as good as some and therefore I cannot say that the 12-year was better than today’s small batch. I vacillate between “age is just a number” and “the 12- to 18-year old bourbons are the best.” What I will say is that today’s Elijah Craig Small Batch (NAS) is, in my opinion, one excellent example of what a bourbon should taste like. It is on my list of one of the five bourbons that will always be in my cabinet.

I’ve always appreciated that EC comes at 94 proof. Ninety proof seems to be my entry point, especially given that I’ve spent a lot of time with bottled in bond bourbons; I tend to lean toward higher proof whiskeys. I don’t want that to come across as a “proof snob” so much, just a preference. And that doesn’t mean that I shun anything under 90 proof — Evan Williams Single barrel comes in at 86.6 and it is still a fine (and reasonably priced) single barrel bourbon. My preference is for the higher proofs and I was thrilled to find an Elijah Craig Barrel Proof at one of my local stores.

Heaven Hill has released a barrel proof expression of Elijah Craig on a fairly steady schedule, often three times a year. The label provides information about the release, including an age statement of 12 years. The proof varies by batch. Each batch is given an alphanumeric designation that tells which release (A, B, C, etc.) followed by a digit for the month and two digits for the year. The particular batch that I opened was B518, so the second barrel proof batch of the year (2018) which was bottled in May.

Heaven Hill also releases Elijah Craig as part of a private barrel selection program. This allows certain liquor stores (usually through their distributors) to select a single barrel of bourbon that is then bottled and shipped to the store that chose it. Some stores travel to Heaven Hill for their selection process. Others are sent three to five samples from which to pick. In these cases, you end up with an Elijah Craig Single Barrel (store pick) which, because of differences from barrel to barrel, will be different from the standard Elijah Craig Small Batch. Unfortunately, Heaven Hill will proof down those store picks to the standard 94 proof. So while you do end up with a single barrel bourbon, it is not a barrel proof single barrel.

One should note that the term small batch is not a well defined or regulated term and will differ from distiller to distiller. It is also rumored that when Elijah Craig dropped their age statement, they also increased the number of barrels included in small batch. While I’m uncertain of the actual number, I’ve heard that they went from 200 barrels to 400 barrels per batch.

As a brief recap, Heaven Hill releases Elijah Craig in the following expressions:

  • Elijah Craig Small Batch, 94 proof (the most available, standard release)
  • Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, proof varies by batch (released three times per year)
  • Elijah Craig Single Barrel, 94 proof (as a store selected barrel pick)
  • Elijah Craig 18-year old Single Barrel, 90 proof (limited release, allocated, hard-to-find)
  • Elijah Craig 23-year-old Single Barrel, 90 proof (limited release, allocated, hard-to-find)

As previously stated, EC has always been one of my go-to bourbons. After finding the barrel proof version, I thought it might be interesting to compare the Small Batch to the Barrel Proof. Let me say up front that my goal here was not to see which one would “beat” the other — there is no way that I would expect a standard bottle to win out over a barrel proof. My curiosity was in the similarities and differences between the two expressions. Knowing that a 133.4 proof whiskey would be fairly evident in the glass, I didn’t even bother to go for a blind test.

Each sample was poured into a Libbey Master’s Reserve distilled spirit glass. They were almost identical visually. The barrel proof was ever so slightly darker, which makes sense as it is at least 12 years old, possibly four or more years older than the small batch. Not surprisingly, the nose on both the small batch and the barrel proof were very similar. What did surprise me was that the barrel proof didn’t burn the nostrils like I thought it would for a 133 proof whiskey.

On the palate, both came across with notes of vanilla, caramel, and toffee. There is an ever so slight hint of mint way back in the background. Barrel char and oak were more present in the barrel proof expression, which was to be expected with the older juice. The barrel proof is non-chill filtered. The biggest difference in the two comes in the mouthfeel. Putting the small batch up against the barrel proof is almost a disservice as it seems thin compared to its weighty sibling. The barrel proof has a wonderful, mouth-coating creaminess that creates a warm, long finish. Don’t get me wrong — the small batch is a phenomenal whiskey, but the barrel proof (for those that gravitate toward higher proof bourbons) is just so much better.

For those who  aren’t fans of the high-octane pours, I’d recommend the small batch bottles that are store selections. This will give you a single barrel experience which will be somewhat different than the regular small batch. Those who do favor the higher proof expressions will certainly enjoy the barrel proof, but at two or three times the price of the small batch, you might want to save the barrel proof for those special occasions.

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