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Elijah Craig Single Barrel 21: Review and Tasting Notes

Elijah Craig Single Barrel 21: Review and Tasting Notes

Elijah Craig 21 Single Barrel

Just in case you’ve been living in a cave, especially a cave without any liquor stores in it, I have news for you – super aged bourbons are increasingly hard to find and even more increasingly pricey. Want a bottle of Pappy 20? You’ll need a whole lot of luck and just as much money in your wallet. Jefferson’s came out with a limited release of 21 year old bourbon (that they purchased from an unknown distiller) earlier this year, sating some of the demand, and actually their retail price was pretty reasonable at around $120 (and up). Now Elijah Craig has their own 21 year old, too.

A year or so ago, Heaven Hill decided to do away with their year-round 18 year old Elijah Craig, in favor of limited releases of 20 plus year old stuff. Given the fervor for limited releases of older bourbon, that was probably a good business move, especially given the retail price difference between their 18 year old ($45 or so last year) and the new 21 year old release ($140).

Elijah Craig 21 Single BarrelThat said, Elijah Craig was priced attractively at 18 years old, and it’s priced attractively for a 21 year old bourbon of this quality as well. Word is that 22 year old and 23 year old releases are already in the works. The increasing rate of evaporation as bourbon ages means that every year of additional age makes what’s left in the barrel increasingly precious, so it will be interesting to see where the 22 and 23 year old prices land. Based on demand, they can probably go a good deal higher. But how about based on the merits of the 21 year old Elijah Craig?

I should admit something right here – I’ve personally always preferred the 12 year old Elijah Craig to its 18 year old brother, mainly because the 18 just felt too wood heavy, too “over-oaked” in wine parlance. And the recently released 12 year old barrel proof Elijah Craig is a knockout of a bourbon, especially at roughly $40-$45 per bottle.

So, while I’m a big Elijah Craig fan, I was hopeful but not expecting to be blown away by the 21 year old. And the result? Read on.

Elijah Craig 21 Single BarrelElijah Craig Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Aged 21 Years
Barrel #4032, barreled on 04-20-90
90 Proof
Approx. $140 Retail
Tasting Dates: August 16-September 1, 2013

This old boy packs a punch to the nose – think sawdust baking in the summer heat in an old wooden barn. While you’re at it, imagine rum raisin mixed with a bit of purple grape. They work together surprisingly well. There are hints of rye spice underneath, but it’s not at all sharp or green. And the color is a moderately deep amber, clear and bright.

This 21 year old has a strong and persistent burn on the tongue, not unpleasant, but… strong for 90 proof. It manages to be full and thick without feeling syrupy, with a mouth-coating presence that seeks out every nook and cranny.  There’s an almost-burnt-caramel quality to it, but it doesn’t comes across as sweet since the wood and clove-like baking spices are there tackling the sugar. This may not help to say, but it feels old in a way that is neither astonishing (as in the Pappy 23 year old) nor upsetting (as in prior Elijah Craig bottlings).

A sip of water before the bourbon brings out the velvety caramel notes and pushes the cinnamon forward more prominently as well. It rounds out in the mouth, not as powerful, not as assertive, but certainly more integrated. I think it benefits the bourbon greatly.

With a cube of ice, the brute strength on the nose is dialed back, the fruity grape and cinnamon pear-like notes come through more. The ice, though, does make this Elijah Craig feel less… old. It takes away some of that aged patina. That’s not to say that it peels away the years, just that the presence of ice dulls some of the dusty character that’s just so hard to find. My preference is neat, with water as a companion – to keep the evident age of the bourbon but also help pull it together into a more harmonious whole.

Thirsty South Rating: Excellent*
Elijah delivers here, avoiding the overly woody character of some of its well-aged forebears. If you want to experience an older bourbon, this is a great place to start – IF you can get your hands on a bottle. Do I like it better than the 12 year old barrel proof? No. Even if they were priced the same, I’d personally choose the 12 year old. But experiencing those additional nine years in the barrel makes this 21 year old a worthy exploration for those seeking an older whiskey. Also, please note that there WILL be variation from barrel to barrel – thus is the nature of single barrel bottlings.

An aside: I hardly ever comment on the bottle itself – but I really like the elegant design on the glass here, a nice touch to elevate this from the other Elijah Craigs. Ain’t it pretty?

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* 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

Full Disclosure: Tasting sample provided by Heaven Hill.

Best Value Bourbons

Best Value Bourbons

 

Over the past year, I’ve had several friends ask for my favorite bourbon recommendations at different price points. America is blessed to have a bounty of great bourbon under $30 a bottle (by the way, there are some great ryes and Tennessee whiskeys, too – notice the Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond in the photo above? –  but for today’s post, we’re sticking with bourbon). You could stay under $30 and have an almost endless variety of fabulous bourbons in your bar, but who can resist the opportunity to buy a bourbon that delivers a drinking experience far greater than its price would suggest?

That said, finding the bourbons that deliver value really comes down to personal taste, to determining what’s a good value for YOU. Do you like something easy drinking, or do you yearn for complexity? Is sweet your thing, or do you like the spice that a rye-heavy mashbill will bring? Do you tend to mix your bourbon into cocktails, or do you enjoy sipping it slowly and neat? All these things provide direction on which bottle you should pick up at the liquor store. But since you’re here, reading this, I’d like to share a few bourbons that simply deliver exceptional bang for the buck and are worth a try for any whiskey lover. Not everyone will find these to be the BEST value for them individually, but they are all worth the investment for anyone eager to tackle the depths of American whiskey. Here they are:

(Caveat: prices quoted are in Atlanta, Georgia, and will vary state to state. Also, please chime in with your favorite bourbons that you think deliver a great value – at any price.)

Under $20
There are a LOT of inexpensive bourbons out there – just go to your local liquor store and you’ll see probably half the shelf space dedicated to the low end of the price spectrum. Evan Williams does a fine job for entry level bourbon around $13, as does Very Old Barton 100 proof. But a step up from that, at around $16 (or, even better, $24 for 1.75l!), there’s one bourbon that really stands out from the rest in the under $20 price range, both in its character and in the value it delivers, and this is the Four Roses “Yellow Label.” Four Roses Yellow is just plain elegant, with floral notes that befit its name (and label color) weaving in and out of light baking spices and a bit of vanilla. This is a bourbon that is light and lively, but it’s this lightness and elegance that really separates Four Roses Yellow from other bourbons at the low end of the price spectrum that can be a bit rough around the edges.

By the way… here’s a great drink idea I picked up at the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival – try topping off a flute of  Champagne (or sparkling wine) with a splash or two of Four Roses for a surprisingly great drink (called “The Longnecker”).

Under $30
Once you step up above $20, there are two very different bourbons that stand out in my mind for tremendous value. The first is Elijah Craig 12 year old at $22. Let me repeat that – 12 years old, 22 dollars. I’m not saying that age and quality rise in direct proportion to each other (in fact, I prefer the 12 year old Elijah Craig to its pricier, older, oakier 18 year old brother – which, incidentally, was recently discontinued in favor of limited releases of 20 and 21 year old Elijah Craig), but to get an aged beauty like this under $30 is a steal. Now, Elijah Craig 12 is basically at the opposite end of the bourbon spectrum from Four Roses Yellow – deep and strong rather than light and elegant. The age in the barrel brings loads of brown sugar, dark fruit, vanilla and oak, all those things you look for as time works its magic on the whiskey in the wood. Crazy value – Elijah Craig 12 tastes like many bourbons that go for three times the price.

The other bourbon value in this ballpark is simply one of the most enjoyable bourbons out there, again very different.  Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel, at about $28, is like liquid caramel popcorn, in a very good way. There are plenty of other interesting layers of flavor here, but it’s the caramel popcorn that can’t be ignored, and the fact that this bourbon is just so dang delicious and melodious.

There are plenty of runners up in this category that will make you happy, but I don’t think they quite match the value of the Elijah 12 or Elmer T. Lee: Buffalo Trace ($20), Evan Williams Single Barrel ($22), Eagle Rare 10 year old ($28), and Four Roses Small Batch ($28) all come to mind.

Under $100
Once you get past $30, you first enter a fertile area of single barreled, small batched, and/or well-aged bourbons that tend to fall between $35 and $55. There are plenty of very good bourbons here in this range, but the trouble is that I don’t think any of them deliver the kind of bang for the buck that Elijah Craig 12 or Elmer T. Lee do. Don’t get me wrong, there are several here I really like (including Wathen’s Single Barrel at $32, Four Roses Single Barrel at $38, Old Rip Van Winkle 10 year old 107 proof at $40, Baker’s Small Batch at $41, or Blanton’s and the red label Black Maple Hill at around $50), but I have a hard time saying that any of them knock it out of the park vs. other bourbons at their price range.

Thus, the jump in this category from $30 up to $100. Once you get to the $60-$80 range, you enter the land of special releases and severely limited allocations, bottles that are typically hard to find and even harder on the wallet.  I hate to keep riding the Pappy bandwagon, but once you’re above $50, I find it really hard to argue against Pappy Van Winkle 15 year old. Sure, it’s overhyped. Yes, the switch form the old Stitzel-Weller juice to the newer Buffalo Trace production stock is a bit controversial. Even still, Pappy 15 is simply one of the greatest bourbons you will ever drink. And that’s a great value. (see prior tasting notes)

Other recent bottles that I haven’t regretted at similar price points to Pappy 15 include the Four Roses 2012 Single Barrel Ltd. Edition (barrel strength), which is a darn good bottle at $70, and the annual release of George T. Stagg or William Larue Weller from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, also barrel strength beauty/beasts at around the same price.

That’s my take on the best value bourbons out there. What’s yours?

For a fun little follow-up to this post, see my (tongue in cheek) formula for computing bourbon value over on Creative Loafing Atlanta. Which led to reviews of Old Charter 8 and W.L. Weller Special Reserve, both under 10 at my local store!