Note: TalkTails, the actual real-world gathering of whiskey fans and cocktail curious alike, has finally resumed at Number Ten (Great Barrington, MA), where I’m bar manager. During the shutdown and slow re-opening of society I’d been lazy, or maybe uninspired, or maybe just plain gob smacked enough not to attend to my blog.
I’m back, baby.
The bar has a large American Whiskey list—I’m sure we’re the king of the Berkshires in this category and maybe quite a way beyond—but the Number Ten American Whiskey List has been expanding, and on Monday, April 11, we sampled some of the new arrivals and talked about why they were selected and checked out how these selections taste.
The selections of the four whiskeys centered on age statements, with three 12-Year bourbons and one 10-Year Tennessee whiskey (which is still a bourbon, don’t you know). Of the four from the several dozen new American Whiskeys added to the Number Ten American Whiskey Book (Spring 2022), the first of the re-started TalkTails concluded with Knob Creek 12 Year Kentucky Straight Reserve Bourbon as the clear favorite: delicious and complex, but balanced, and a wonderful sipper even at 100 proof.
I wanted to look at how much high age is a guarantee of great whiskey, but I also included some excerpts of various whiskey review blogs for one of the selections, and mainly because I wanted to show the variation and spread in perception across even such whiskey aficionados, as well as to show how bizarre and baroque the tasting language can be.
Since one of the selections was a barrel proof expression, I figured we might also discuss various participants’ views on what is with the barrel proof craze these days. I also wanted to know the various takes of the participants on the targeted whiskey compared with American Whiskey aficionados’ reviews.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Producer: Heaven Hill
Mashbill: Corn: 78%; Rye: 10%; Barley: 12%
Age Statement: 12 Year
Tasting Notes: Nose starts with notes of apple, apricot, caramel; Palate presents a heavy body with cinnamon, cardamom, and pepper spices, with leather and brown sugar and oak balanced with sweet; Finish is long and warm, continuing the spicy/sweet Palate profile, with leather, tobacco, and oak lingering.
Retail: MSRP $70.00
Knob Creek 12 Year Reserve Bourbon
Producer: Jim Beam, Suntory
Mashbill: Corn: 75%; Rye: 13%; Barley: 12%
Age Statement: 12 Year
Tasting Notes: Nose has sweet notes, followed by apple and spice, cream, baked apple, charred oak, licorice, and tobacco; Palate has sweet caramel, vanilla and brown sugar, plus oak and hint of nut, turning toward bitter with oak, chocolate, coffee, and tobacco.; Finish is sweet, with end turning drier spice from apple, dried orange, and licorice.
Old Medley 12 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Producer: Charles Medley Distillery (bottler; sourced)
Mashbill: Corn: 77%; Rye: 10%; Malted Barley: 13%
Age Statement: 12 Year
Tasting Notes: Nose: sweet vanilla, with oak, and with hints of grain and leather, slight ethanol; Palate: aged vanilla and caramel sweetness, and milk chocolate notes, before rye spice emerges, with both oak and alcohol gently noticeable; Finish: medium-short and sweet, but also alcohol taste immediately hits warm, but then quickly fades with spice finish.
The Clover 10 Year Single Barrel Tennessee Whiskey
Producer: The Bobby Jones Collection (Piedmont Distillers)
Mashbill: N/A (Sourced)
Age Statement: 10 Year
Tasting Notes: Nose offers new oak, frosting, vanilla, clove, butter, nuts/peanut brittle, and hints of tobacco; Palate presents caramel apple sweetness, burnt sugar, and almond pastry with other baking spices, balanced by coriander and slight floral notes, with tobacco and leather emerging; Finish has stone fruit initially dominate, and the medium and smooth finish that ends with leather and tobacco.
Opinions, Consensus, Tastes: Who Liked What
Of course I was going to be an outlier, wouldn’t you know, something along the lines of I. S. Cook School playground politics and getting picked next to last.
My vote for best whiskey among the four tasted was actually pretty well-shared among the tasters—Knob Creek 12 Year Reserve Bourbon—but from there opinions diverged. Overall, the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof 12 Year went in too hot, and at 123.6 proof that shouldn’t have surprised anyone, but with a bit of ice cooling down the bourbon with a bit of water melt, the flavor opened up and most tasters identified individual flavor elements notes, and about half the group took this up as the second ranking. The other half—well, excepting me and one other—settled on Old Medley 12 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, which I was secretly calling “Old Mediocre” while voting for The Clover 10 Year Single Barrel Tennessee Whiskey. I and one other participant found The Clover surprisingly and delightfully sweet on the front palate but complex enough on the back palate to add interest and more than just the one note.
The tasters (well, except me and the kid who got picked last—You know who you are!) otherwise put The Clover at the bottom, which is where I put Old Medley, with the Barrel Proof Elijah Craig in third place, which the majority ran in second place. As much as I really want to like Elijah Craig, I’m not a big fan, although the opening complexity of the barrel proof was an improvement on the regular expression. Well, a matter of taste, right?
An interesting point was raised toward the end of the session, which was to wonder if moving from high proof to other whiskeys (also high proof or not) could make it hard to arrive at an accurate assessment for the subsequent samples. We took our time between tastes, and I did more or less successfully prevail upon the others to drink some water in between, but the point is commonly raised in tastings and I don’t know what I think about this.
I’ll have to keep sampling, I guess.
Anatomy of a Whiskey Review
In my opinion, there is something very weird about whiskey reviews and I wanted to learn if this view was shared by other participants in this TalkTails session.
Mind you, I do find such reviews helpful, especially through the triangulation of multiple reviews to draw out what is consensus and what views may be outliers. Over the years I’ve come to favor some whiskey reviewers and their blogs more than others, although I keep trying new sources, too. Some day I write a post about such sites, but probably by the time I get around to it some sites will be defunct, and one or two subscription-based, but that’s the life of content on the net.
Some of these blogs are impressive in the research the author(s) undertake, and some are intentionally amusing in their writing style, and some are both, and some can be a bit funny, and probably unintentionally so. Descriptive language in the review of the whiskey of the moment is almost always amusing. You can get into the action, too: look at the descriptive language used to describe a whiskey’s smell (“nose”), it’s taste and mouthfeel (“palate”) and its it’s aftertaste (“finish”). I excerpted the nose/palate/finish comments from three such reviews of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof for illustrative purpose. There is plenty of value in these works, but you should forgive yourself if you find your rolling your eyes once in a while.
One thing to note is that with many higher-end whiskeys these days, one reviewer’s bottle may not be another’s, especially in short-run batches are small or are single barrel expressions that by definition differ one from another even when they are the same brand and name. In the case of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof we’d tasted on April 11, there are distinct batches that differ from the batches covered by two of the reviewers quoted below. There is Batch A122 (first of three batches release in 2021, from January), Batch B521 (released in May 2021), and Batch C921 (September 2021). Elijah Craig has been releasing multiple batches since at least 2017.
After the excerpts from three reviews below, you’ll find a long excerpt from a GoBourbon.com article that ranks the three 2021 batches of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof.
One more interesting item included in the second review excerpt below is a graphic of a WHISKEY TRAITS, FLAVOR NOTES AND PROFILE GRAPH, alongside a graphical representation of the major whiskey notes the reviewer finds in his B521 review, and this sort of thing strikes me as weirdly wonderful, whatever its actual usefulness may be.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof (Batch C921)
Nick, October 25, 2021
NOSE: Barrel char | Musty aged oak funk | Chewing tobacco | Nutmeg | Baking spice | Really nice and complex | Shows its age
PALATE: Seasoned aged oak | Rye spice | Caramel chews | Butterscotch | Nice intensity that highlights oak notes but drinks lower than its proof
FINISH: Burst of spice | Funky seasoned oak | Cigar box | Spice lingers against a sweet caramel note | Warm and long, with tapering dryness
OVERALL: Back for its third and final batch of the year, C921 is another relatively low proof Elijah Craig Barrel Proof release clocking in just a little higher than Batch B521 at 120.2 proof. Batch C921 is notably better than B521, but doesn’t reach the same height as some of the brand’s best batches, such as B520…. It does, however, offer something no other batch has quite matched – a flavor profile reminiscent of the old standard “big red 12” age stated Small Batch Bourbon. Highlighting a complex combination of aged oak notes, and drinking lower than its proof, the bourbon trades more typical spice and sweet notes for oak notes, which includes a pleasing funky seasoned oak note that showcases the bourbon’s age. For those who enjoy an oak-focused bourbon, Batch C921 will be your jam.
Brian’s Elijah Craig Barrel Proof B521 Bourbon Review: MY RATING: 87/100
Brian Dawson, 21-September-2021
NOSE: ECBP B521 has a wonderful nose. There is no burn whatsoever, which belies its high proof. The whiskey is slightly herbal, with notes of roasted sweet corn and dried grains. Still, fruit dominates the aroma. I sense subtle berry nectar, prepared apples for pie, apricots, Maraschino cherries, plums, and a satisfying hint of fresh citrus. Sprinkled over these fruits are spices of cinnamon, white pepper, and rye along with a bit of sweet vanilla which for me is more reminiscent of taffy than the extract. Other sweets tempting the nose include brown and maple sugar. Any woodiness is fleeting and can be sensed as slivered almonds taken from an oak snacking bowl. B521 is light and gentle and is without the tingle other high proof bourbons often have.
PALATE: The first sip of ECBP B521 has a touch of heat but my mouth acclimates quickly and whiskey can be easily held because the mouth acclimates quickly. Herbal, roasted sweet corn mix with berry nectar, faint notes of cherry, and ripe juicy plums. B521’s spices of cinnamon, candied ginger, and black pepper mingle with light vanilla, and sweets of simple syrup, brown sugar caramel, honey and a trace of pecan. What little wood can be sensed on the comes in as drying oak staves waiting to be fit into barrels. This bourbon sips much softer than one might expect from a 118.2 Proof whiskey.
FINISH: The back of my throat feels almost hot after each sip. The finish is the only reminder Elijah Craig Small Batch Barrel Proof B521 is a high proof bourbon. Faint notes of cherry mingle with spices of cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, and rye in the heat. And sweets of light vanilla, simple syrup, and the remembrance of pecans fade into hazy barrels of this dram’s simple finish. As the Glencairn is empties, light and faint drying oak treats the nose.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon (Batch A122) Review
Jim Vorel, January 20, 2022
NOSE: On the nose, this immediately strikes me as a very classic, “down the middle” Heaven Hill bourbon expression—I’m getting lots of nuttiness, evocative of peanut brittle, with more subtly spicy hints of anise seed and rye spice. I’m also getting some background citrus, some vanilla that plays well with it, and elements of musty oak/rickhouse. All in all, it’s not the most explosive ECBP nose I’ve had recently, but it’s also not overtly hot or boozy. It feels pretty familiar, not that this is a bad thing. Very much in the distillery’s classic wheelhouse of notes.
PALATE: On the palate, I’m getting more of the same—a balanced profile of classic Heaven Hill notes, although one that leans a bit more toward the hot and spicy side, rather than the sweetly decadent one. I’m getting molasses here, along with honey roasted peanuts, spicy ginger, anise and brown sugar, along with oak that reads as both spicy and musty/earthy. Residual sweetness is moderate, seeming to grow a bit over time, while the fruitiness evokes something more like crisp apple with a twist of vanilla than the darker fruit you sometimes get in these. It actually does read as a tad hot for the proof, although that is of course relative in a series with as much fluctuation as ECBP—regardless, the ethanol makes itself felt and merges with the spice notes.
OVERALL: At the end of the day, this strikes me as a pretty “standard” Elijah Craig Barrel Proof release, which is thankfully quite a high standard. There’s not a lot that stands out to me as instantly unique, but perhaps that will change when I revisit this bottle. As ever, it does stand out as one of the best values in the bourbon world, when you take proof, age and boldness all into consideration.
The 2021 Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Batches: Ranked and Explained
Clay Whittaker, January 14, 2022
#3 B521 – 118.2 proof
The third best batch of 2021 was batch B. The lowest proof point for the range, Batch B made up for the lack of alcoholic power with its detonation—it’s an absolute baking spice bomb, with a dry, lip-smacking texture and structured sugars on the finish.
But then the spices. The rye spice on the palate delivers an extra punch in this batch, which sort of double bounces cinnamon note over everything. It just gets a bit messy, like the last minute or so of “1812 Overture.” And that’s a beautiful piece of music, but not every song calls for a cannon.
#2 C921 – 120.2 proof
In the middle of this year’s field, we had Batch C. Batch C was Elijah Craig Barrel Proof spaghetti western in a bottle. Re-read that.
An inky leather chewer of a whiskey, Batch C clings to your teeth with oak spices, wood sugars, and a smacking dryness. Everything—the whole of this whiskey—is filtered through those dark, antiqued layers of age flavor—like a tea made from a bag of leather and oak chips.
Deep, nutty cola flavors resonate darkly though this whiskey—and save it from causing you to pucker your mouth like it’s full of Warhead-infused sour beer.
Thankfully, this one knew when to stop, and did so on a dime.
#1 A121 – 123.6 proof
Call me a sweet tooth drinker, but the best batch of 2021 was Batch A, which happened to be dessert in a glass.
Gorgeous, sweet vanilla pops on the palate, before they throw malted milk chocolate notes at us. This is followed by a caramel-corn taffy pull of a finish, highlighted by the softest, steaming-fresh yellow cake note.
It’s decadent. It’s delicious. It’s unquestionably the best of the year. It accomplishes everything by doing the opposite of what we expect from Elijah Craig—it’s not the spiciest or the oldest.
Ironically, though, Batch A is what you want to find every year, in every collection—and it’s a good sign of the work going on at Heaven Hill right now. Let’s hope for more like these in 2022’s ECBP crop.
Further And Additional Review Links
Knob Creek 12 Year Bourbon Review
Old Medley 12 Year Bourbon
The Clover 10 Year Single Barrel Tennessee Whiskey Review