Thursday 28 April 2011

Elijah Craig 12 (Heaven Hill Distilleries) Longform Review

I'm cheating a little here - posting a review before I tell you exactly what I'm talking about. However, I wanted to get started on the meat of the blog, so expect the full rundown of scores and what nose and finish and all that crap means next time.

Elijah Craig is a good friend of mine. I first heard of the crotchety old minister in the nascent days of my whiskey-drinking, when we chugged Kentucky Tavern* from the handle** or the plastic $2.50 half-pints we kept in our back pocket (or, sometimes, both). Maker’s Mark was for rich people and Jim Beam was a luxury.  A dude named Corey, a skater and, if I remember properly, a good man (lost to me in the sands of time and memory) asked me if I had ever had Elijah Craig 18 year, cuz that was the real fucking shit, the good shit, man. I sure hadn’t but I filed it away (remembering an incorrect year statement and a slightly wrong name). Well, fast forward three or four years and I finally make the acquaintance of the Good Reverend Elijah Craig, in both his 12 and 18 year expressions. Oddly enough, I’m not an enormous fan of the 18 year, but the 12 year was my regular pour up until moving to Toronto. It’s a crying shame that Heaven Hill’s finest son isn’t regularly available up here, but I at least managed to snap up a couple bottles when it came out back in November and relive the memories.

Elijah Craig 12 is a value bourbon (not in the “No-Name Brand” sense but in the ”bang for the buck” sense). In the States, it’s usually a buck or two cheaper than Maker’s. The big thing about EC12 is that it is strongly in the Rye category of bourbons – bourbons are at least half corn, but they draw a lot of flavor from the other grains mixed in, the main two being the spicy rye and the smoother, sweeter wheat. Rye bourbons are the “traditional” bourbon style; spicy and sweet. Wheat bourbons, like Maker’s, tend to be milder and lacking in “bite” (which lets them gain in complexity, which is why some notable long-aged bourbons are wheated). Another interesting phenomena about Elijah Craig is its inconsistency – while Maker’s Mark and Four Roses have entire advertising campaigns based around how consistent their bourbon is and how you’re always guaranteed to have the same drink, Heaven Hill (and a couple of other distilleries, like Buffalo Trace) doesn’t go for that angle. I’ll go into this idea in the future.  Just know that EC12 is sometimes heaven, sometimes good, and sometimes a completely average bourbon. Of the eight or so bottles I’ve drank in the last few years, I’ve only had a bottle I wasn’t impressed with once, so I wouldn’t worry too much about missing out on the “honey” bottles.

As for the review itself:

Elijah Craig will serve as a good benchmark for my bourbon tastings. It doesn’t set the world on fire, but it is one of my favorite regular drinks. It costs around as much as Maker’s (a little less in the States, but a little more here since it’s not a regular release and they can charge a premium), but is a much better example of what makes a bourbon a bourbon, not just because it’s a rye instead of a wheater. It also comes in a simple, iconic bottle with its big cork stopper. It gets a bonus in its intangibles for all of these reasons.

The nose has a lot of sweetness to it – a common characteristic to bourbon, but also a theme carried throughout the bourbon. I get a strong note of brown sugar, vanilla, oak, leather, and a little bit of that good spicy rye at the end.  The downfall to the nose is its harshness – the bourbon itself isn’t very harsh for a 94-proof whiskey, but the alcohol has a quick burn that can cut off the rest of the nose if you’re not careful. The nose is average, if distinctive of the Heaven Hill brand of bourbon.

The sweetness and rye continues into the first taste, with cinnamon and sugar burning the tip of the tongue. The whiskey gets smoother as it slides back along the tongue - the vanilla getting stronger, but is tempered with chili powder at the edges.  I’d rank it slightly above average.

The finish is smooth, sweet, and warm. There is a bit of oak without it being overpowering (a weakness of some older bourbons, including, by my reckoning, the 18-year-old version of this bourbon which hasn’t seen fit to arrive in Ontario yet);  a little bit of char gives It a nice, round taste, and the finish burns out slowly without “coming back” with a heavy nut or oak aftertaste. Quite good. The overall balance is a big advantage – the sweetness found in many Heaven Hill bourbons is present all the way through, while the age of the whiskey tempers and gives it some muscles to flex. It’s not enormously remarkable, but perfectly drinkable.  

While it does make a fine Manhattan, it doesn’t deserve mixing – it’s a perfectly capable sippin’ bourbon; not really complex but still very good, with a strong rye character and lovely finish propping it up over its peers.

*Kentucky Tavern, aka Old Kentucky Nightmare -- a monstrous bottom-shelf bourbon the likes of which I’ll certainly expound upon in the future
**a handle: a big ol’ 2-gallon bottle, usually with a handle on it