Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Side By Side Tasting: Elijah Craig Barrel Proof: Batch A117 - B517

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
Batches A117 and B517
Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Distillery: Heaven Hill
Age: 12 Years
Proof/ABV: Batch A117 - 127 Proof. Batch B517 - 124.2 Proof.
Mash Bill: 75% Corn, 13% Rye, 12% Barley
Average US Price: $60
Release: Ongoing

Points: Batch A117 - 93 Points. Batch B517 - 92 Points

There's probably not a better example of a bourbon distillery and brand trying to navigate the current boom in bourbon than Heaven Hill and their Elijah Craig brand. Long considered one of the best values in bourbon, Elijah Craig's transformation from a 12 year, age stated bourbon into what is now a NAS bourbon, (widely believed to contain a mix of 8-12 year barrels) began as a simple label change and a corporate denial that the change was anything more than a cosmetic matter and no plans for dropping the age statement were being considered. A few months later, bourbon shoppers were finding no less than three different label designs on shelves and one of them no longer contained an age statement.

Fortunately, Heaven Hill and Elijah Craig continue to release their Barrel Proof version of this bourbon and the 12 year age remains, with company spokespeople claiming they have no plans to remove the age statement.

Like me, you're probably saying to yourself, "Yeah, we've heard that before."

Two things make me believe Heaven Hill's assurance that the age stated Elijah Craig Barrel Proof (ECBP) offering will continue as a 12 year bourbon. First, ECBP is released in much smaller quantities and geared more toward bourbon enthusiasts rather than value conscious consumers more attracted to the Small Batch, 94 Proof Elijah Craig. Second, if the quantities of the last two ECBP releases that I've been seeing at retailers are any indication, Heaven Hill has more barrels of 12 year stock to devote to the ECBP offering. Simply put, with fewer 12 year stocks being used for their Small Batch, more can be used to make the Barrel Proof more widely available and in greater quantities. If this proves to be the case, I'm a happy guy.

With the first release of the 2017 ECBP,  (as well as the standard Small Batch) Heaven Hill introduces a new bottle style and a new batch identification code for the Barrel Proof offering. It's a four digit, alpha-numeric code with the first letter indicating the release sequence for that year. The second numeric digit represents the month of the release and the final two numbers represent the year of the release. For the purpose of this review, A117 translates into "A" for the first release of the year, "1" translates to January and "17" indicates 2017. B517 translates to "B" for the second release of the year, "5" would be May and "17" 2017. If past releases offer any indication, we'll get another release in September, for a total of three releases for the year. That code would be C917, should it be a September release.

Heaven Hill began offering Elijah Craig as an uncut, non-chill filtered Barrel Proof bourbon back in 2013, normally at proof levels closer to 135-140. However, the latest two releases have both come in closer to a more manageable 125 proof. I'll be curious to see if this is a trend or simply an anomaly.

While both of these releases under review share a common flavor profile, as would be expected in a batched bourbon, and the lower ABV definitely provides an approachability while also maintaining a full flavored character,  there are several notable differences between them

Both batches took a good amount of time to open up on the nose, with the A117 stubbornly needing about an hour to reach what I thought was its best nose. Over several flights, I experimented with a few drops of water and although it does hasten the opening up of the nose, I found the whiskies to become more tannic and the spices too subdued to trade what is otherwise an approachable bourbon on the palate for a quicker developing nose. I simply poured and did other things around the house for an hour. The B517, in particular, does not need the water. The A117 accepts the water pretty well, but I still preferred the time in the glass over adding water.

On the nose, the B517, at 124.2 proof, offered up a very rich, caramel, toffee, vanilla, graham cracker, cocoa, sweet corn and cola with a nice backbone of oak. All the hallmarks of Elijah Craig amped up by the additional ABV creating a very nice richness that was super sweet and inviting.

The nose of the A117, when it finally develops, is every bit as rich in Elijah Craig hallmarks and adds a nicer level of toasted char, along with notes of ripe cherries and dark fruits. I initially preferred the nose of the B517, but that proved to be the stubbornness of the A117. After an hour of glass time, it really came into its own and was a bit more impressive by comparison. Up to then, I was leaning more toward the B517.

On the palate, the B517 has the nicer mouthfeel. Thick and viscous with the sweet notes of the nose in addition to a mild spice swell of black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Sweet corn anchors, along with oak. What it lacks in complexity, it more than makes up for in being thick and rich in sweetness with a velvety mouthfeel.

The A117, while rich in sweetness, offers up a saltiness as well. Dryness on the palate sets in almost immediately, revealing dark berries and caramel corn, cocoa, toasted almonds, toasted char, vanilla, salty toffee, black pepper, cinnamon, burnt brown sugar and  oak. And then the spice swell really starts rolling, numbing the gums, coating the sides of the tongue, the roof of the mouth. When you think it's going to finish as a typically spicy, oak driven bourbon, it's really  just starting to change gears.

The finish on the B517 is medium to slightly long and dominated by toffee, black pepper, oak and a deliciously sweet cornbread with whiffs of cocoa and tea. Very reminiscent of the standard Elijah Craig finish, only with a richness in the notes from the higher ABV. 

The finish with the A117 is where it separates itself from the crowd. Having dried the palate and tingled the gums with spices, a huge Kentucky Hug develops way down deep and flavors start popping that were concealed by the spice swell. Mixed fruits reappear, cotton candy and Jolly Ranchers intermingle with cinnamon from seemingly all over the palate. And the  kicker is how long it lasts. It's as if the slow fade of spices reveal ever increasing amounts of fruity flavors over a period of several minutes. Even 10 minutes later, I get pops of fruit as the pepper wanes until finally settling into a buttered cornbread. I'm not gonna lie, this one wowed me just a little bit.

Color: Not quite Mahogany (both)

Nose: B517
Sweet and rich. Wood, caramel, graham cracker, cream corn, vanilla, cocoa and cola.

Palate: B517
Toffee, brown sugar, cinnamon, oak, black pepper, vanilla, cream corn.

Finish: B517
Medium to long. Toffee, black pepper, cinnamon, oak and sweet corn with cocoa.

Nose: A117
Toasted char and oak, burnt brown sugar, cherry, dark fruitiness, toffee, corn and cola.

Palate: A117
Oak, salty caramel, sweet cornbread, cinnamon, black pepper, berries, almonds, vanilla.
Drying and spicy.

Finish: A117
Extremely long. Pepper spice, cinnamon, oak, transitioning to berry fruits, cotton candy, fruit punch, Jolly Rancher candies, buttered cornbread

Final Thoughts:

I can see each batch appealing to different palate preferences with the B517 offering a more traditional set of flavors and the superior mouthfeel. It's the more approachable of the two and will appeal to fans of the standard release looking for a more full flavored experience of what they already enjoy. I never pass up a bottle when I see them.

The A117 is the more interesting of the two, though the spice swell and dryness on the palate will not appeal to everyone. I found it only a minor distraction and in some ways it provides a contrast to a whole host of developing flavors. I always enjoy whiskies that change gears and surprise me. From the stubborn nose to the extremely long, flavorful finish, this one kept surprising me.

Photos & Reviews By: Monty Whisenhunt