The Elusive Elijah Craig Barrel Proof

Elijah Craig 12 Barrel Proof Bourbon

When I first heard that Heaven Hill would be putting out a special small batch release of Elijah Craig 12 year old at barrel proof, I was excited. Why? Well, Elijah Craig 12 year old is a darn good whiskey, especially for the price. But I also had the privilege of tasting a barrel proof Elijah Craig 12 not too long ago, and my tasting notes wrapped with, “This is a prototypical/textbook great bourbon. Very impressed.” When I heard that the price for this new release would be around $40, I was even more eager to give it a shot.

The thing is, Heaven Hill did not bottle much of this stuff – at least for now. The stores I talked to that had actually managed to get ANY of it got only 3 bottles. Not 3 cases. 3 bottles. It was gone in the blink of an eye, and I missed it. (Rumor is that they will continue to make new batches of this off their 12 year old stock, making it an ongoing product rather than a “special release” per se. The first batch was apparently about 75 barrels – not much for a national release. But more will hopefully be on the way.) Now, I’m not one to relentlessly chase down hard to find bottles of whiskey, but I did make some phone calls, all to no avail. Oh well.

Six weeks or so later, imagine my surprise to walk into a liquor store attached to a Costco (but run independently) and find… one bottle of Elijah Craig barrel proof! They had gotten their 3 bottles that same day. Two of them were gone. One was left. It was mine. Well, almost.

The cashier and I started chatting about how hard to find this was, how lucky I was to walk in at this moment, how great the Elijah Craig special bottlings can be. He put my bottle in a bag, then grabbed a bottle of wine I was also purchasing. As he placed the bottle of wine into the bag, I heard a noise, then a slow, pained,”Oh no,” from the cashier. The deep aroma of bourbon filled the air. The dark stain of brown liquid spread on the paper bag. He had cracked my Elijah Craig.

The bottle and the break
The bottle and the break

Despite this horrible turn of events, my luck wasn’t totally lost. A large chunk of glass had come off the top shoulder of the bottle, leaving about 3/4 of the whiskey inside. That was MY whiskey, and I wasn’t about to let some broken glass get in the way of it coming home with me. We brainstormed a bit, the manager came over, then went to the back room to look for an empty bottle, something to pour the bourbon into. Eventually they found a bottle of Charter 101 that they dumped out and used for the remaining Elijah Craig. I still had to pay them for the Elijah Craig (the manager said something about liquor laws and that they couldn’t legally give it to me), but he gave me a reduced price and threw in a few samples of single barrel Evan Williams that the store was considering since he felt so bad. No matter, cheap plastic bottle and all, I was happy to have my Elijah Craig. When I got home, I gave it a quick run through a fine strainer to make sure no glass was left, and Elijah was good to go.

Tasting notes:
Elijah Craig, Barrel Proof, 12 year old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
134.2 Proof
Approx. $40-$45 Retail (if you can find it)
Tasting Dates: May 23-26, 2013

What I first noticed there in the store, and when I got it home, was that this stuff is dark. Some of the darkest bourbon I’ve seen in a while, an impressive deep amber mahogany. Apparently Heaven Hill uses barrels from the uppermost reaches of their rickhouses for these special releases – meaning they’ve had more temperature variation, more interaction between the wood and the whiskey. Also, per Heaven Hill, this special batch was not chill filtered, which may not have deepened the color, but certainly impacted the flavor. Actually, the lack of chill filtering makes this cloud up considerably when poured over ice – turning from that clear mahogany to a cloudy apple cider hue.

At full strength, 134.2 proof, this stuff is understandably powerful. You get a strong blast of dark brown sugar, dark wood, and the kind of heat you can see rising off the desert in waves. You feel that heat on the tongue, too, in a very visceral way. Your mouth letting you know that this is probably not safe to drink in large volumes. That said, it does hold its heat well, with a pleasant dark caramel taste, a kind of mellow cinnamon, and a bit of dark chocolate-covered orange peel bitterness. Dang, that’s good stuff.

I like this Elijah Craig best with a few cubes of ice, letting the ice melt slowly into the whiskey over time. Even after a few minutes, the touch of the ice brings a much fuller mouthfeel, taking away the alcohol edge. The dark sugars round out into soft caramel. The orange notes come out more substantially. Almond notes emerge prominently – at first I was thinking of those dark cocoa powder-dusted almonds, but then realized it’s more like freshly baked almond cookies. It’s still full and deep, but not at all standoffish – balanced and embracing. You can play with adding water, but I found that a little bit goes a long way. Taking this down to something more like 90 proof by adding water does it a great disservice.

Thirsty South Rating: Excellent*
While this is not quite the WOW that I found in my other recent bottle of Elijah Craig barrel proof (single barrel, from their gift store in Kentucky, for $75), it’s still a great bourbon. And tremendous for the $40 retail price (I’ve heard of some price gouging out there, though.) With a cube or two of ice, you can linger over a small pour for a good hour, letting it evolve in the glass. If you get lucky like I did and stumble upon a bottle of this Elijah Craig barrel proof, snap it up. Just make sure the cashier handles it carefully.


* Thirsty South Rating Scale:

Wow – among the very best: knock-your-socks-off, profound, complex liquid gold!
Excellent – exceptional in quality and character, worth seeking out, highly recommended
Good Stuff – solid expression of its type/varietal, enjoyable and recommended
Fair – fairly standard or exhibiting obvious though minor flaws
Avoid – move away folks, nothing to see here, a trainwreck

10 Replies to “The Elusive Elijah Craig Barrel Proof”

  1. Great story, I recently got to try this thanks to our local bartender. I have to say it borders on WOW for me, excellent for sure. Deep rich and awesome. I’m looking forward to getting a bottle for myself.

  2. As a Swede living in Sweden, one never get to try these rare stuff. I was therefore extremely happy to unexpectedly find it in an UK online shop. Unfortunately a bit overpriced since they add Swedish alcohol taxes, which are very high, but I still felt i really needed to get thanks to reading this review a few weeks earlier. Really looking forward to tasting this…! Think I ended up paying over $100.

  3. I am sitting here sipping four bourbons. One is the Elijah Craig 21 year from Barrel 7 barreled on May 24, 1990 I just picked up from ….I won’t say. The EC21 is clearly one of the top I have tried this year, but I have not tried many at this price other than Pappy 20 and 23. It is very complex, and very oaky. It is sufficiently pleasurable, different and interesting to not want to share it with others. The other three…. I will share.

Comments welcome, y'all!