I’ve mentioned my recent adventure in bourbon country and the tasing I did at the Heaven Hill Distillery in the past couple of articles. It’s where I first had a taste of brands like Five Brothers and Henry McKenna. It also featured two different varieties of Elijah Craig: Toasted Barrel and Barrel Proof. While I haven’t found either of these bottles at my local bottle shop (which is a shame, as the barrel proof was really good), I did find a bottle of 18 year. Now, the Elijah Craig Small Batch did not impress Nick in a past review — but maybe some time in a barrel will be a differentiating factor.
The eponymous Elijah Craig was a Baptist preacher living in Kentucky between 1738 and 1808. Sometime around 1789, he founded a distillery and started doing things a little differently. According to some accounts, Craig was the first person to try out what has since become the standard process for the production of bourbon: putting a corn-based distillate in charred oak barrels.
Around two hundred years later, in 1986, the Heaven Hill company would start producing a line of bourbon from their distillery named in his honor.
Established in 1935, shortly after the end of prohibition, Old Heavenhill Springs Distillery was founded by a group of investors in Bardstown, Kentucky. They were gambling on the idea that alcohol production would be a booming business and invested heavily in being one of the first companies to stand up and service that market. One of those investors was well known distiller Joseph L. Beam (first cousin to Jim Beam) who would also become the first master distiller of the facility.
As the years went on, the five Shapira brothers bought out all of the other investors to become the sole owner of the business and changed the name to “Heaven Hill Distillery”, which was a typo on the paperwork from the original Heavenhill distillery. Despite being bought out, the descendants of Joseph Beam remain the master distillers of the facility to this day.
Their primary distilling facility burned down in 1996, destroying 90,000 barrels of whiskey and lighting the creek that feeds the distillery on fire for nearly two miles downstream. According to our tour guide on my recent trip there, the fire melted five fire trucks and burned for nearly four days. That said… she also said that “the truth is agreed upon fiction”, so take that last anecdote as you will.
The business survived and they purchased a new distillery in Bernheim from Diageo in 1999 where production now takes place, but all aging still takes place at the original Bardstown facility.
The 1935 bet has paid off — big time. Heaven Hill Distillery is currently the biggest family-owned distillery in the United States and the second largest holder of bourbon whiskey inventory in the world. Their flagship brands include Deep Eddy vodka and Elijah Craig, and their facility hosts the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival.
- Learn More: What Is Bourbon Whiskey?
As a Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, this is required to start with a grain bill of at least 51% corn. According to a 2021 press release announcing the release of the bourbon, we know that this uses the traditional heaven hill mashbill of 78% corn, 12% malted barley, and 10% rye. The next step, as always, is that the grains are milled, cooked, and fermented to create a mildly alcoholic distillers beer.
After that, the grains are distilled which ramps up the alcohol content and selectively captures the components and flavors of the spirit that the distiller wants, resulting in raw “white” whiskey. That newly made whiskey is then placed into new charred oak barrels for a period of no less than two years (as required for the designation of a Kentucky Straight Bourbon).
For this version, every drop of whiskey in this bottle has been living together in that single barrel for at least 18 years. The only change is that after being pumped out of the barrel, the spirit is then proofed down to 90 proof (45% ABV). According to the Heaven Hill description, “this expression of Elijah Craig is the pinnacle of Bourbon craftsmanship. Bold, robust, and incredibly complex, 18-Year-Old presents a rare and unique opportunity to sip some of the oldest Bourbon in Kentucky”.
Most of the Elijah Craig line is packaged in the same bottle, but the 18-year product is the one exception — and for good reason. If you are going to wait 18 years to bottle a product, it should stand out. And this bottle meets that standard.
The primary shape is a tall oval that is rounded at the base and shoulders. The labeling is minimalistic, which allows the dark umber bourbon to show through. The mouth of the bottle has a wide flat lip that encourages a consistent pour (don’t want to spill a drop), and a wood and cork stopper that fits perfectly on the wide lip.
The font and color scheme is consistent with the rest of the Elijah Craig line, and the name and type of the whiskey is printed in a yellow gold color directly on the bottle. The only variation on the label is a sticker that calls out the bottle date, barrel number, and the age statement.
Overall, it’s a clean and minimalistic bottle for a higher end product. It stands out without forgetting that it’s an Elijah Craig product.
The first thing that I notice with this whiskey is a very oaky aroma, which is not surprising given that this spirit spent 18 years in a charred oak barrel. And by “oak”, I don’t mean some fancy shmancy combination of components — I mean actual literal wood. (Oak to be specific.) That’s not all, though; there are also mild hints of vanilla, nutmeg, and clove.
The aroma carries over to the flavor profile. Oak is the primary flavor — seriously, this has an incredibly woody taste. Imagine putting some bark in a blender and hitting the liquify button… but in a rich and flavorful way.
There are other earthy notes of mushroom and tobacco beneath the heavy oak. You also get some sweetness in the form of vanilla and honey, and there is a very mild pepper on the finish (but it’s barely recognizable).
You can tell this whiskey has spent a long time in the barrel. The flavors have mellowed out, leaving behind a rich and complex flavor profile that drinks remarkably smooth.
After pouring this over a large ice sphere, the oakiness has mellowed. It’s still one of the most prevalent flavors, but it’s no longer like drinking a bark-shake.
Instead, the other flavors are now more prominent. Much of the sweetness comes in the form of vanilla, with the earthy tobacco and mushroom able to come to the front.
If possible, this has become more balanced and smooth. There is still a peppery finish, but the black pepper has been replaced with more of the nutmeg and clove that were originally on the nose. For as good as this whiskey was neat, it might be even better on the rocks.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
The best way to describe this old fashioned is hedonistic. Let’s be honest, there is no reason to use an 18-year whiskey in a cocktail… but that does not stop us here at Thirty One Whiskey from doing it anyway just so we can tell you about it.
The primary flavor does not drastically change. This is a very earthy spirit, and follows that it makes a rich earthy cocktail. Where we see things change is in the complementary flavors — the sugar seems to enhance the vanilla flavor, while the clove and nutmeg get a similar boost from the angostura bitters. The orange peel adds just enough citrus effervescence to complete the package.
Like I said, this is a fantastic cocktail, but only you can decide if it’s the right way to use an 18-year whiskey.
I do not think a good Kentucky Mule has to be made with great bourbon. It just has to be made with one that has enough flavor profile that will stand up to the brightness of the ginger beer. And the rich earthy backbone of this bottle does the job.
It is clear that when used for a mule, this bourbon has more than enough to stand up for itself. The earthiness is the primary flavor, but the ginger beer pairs well with the baking spices and the lime gives it a nice finish, in the same way the orange finishes off the old fashioned.
This might be one of the better mules that I’ve ever had. But my bank account (and my respect for an 18-year whiskey) will prevent me from repeating this experience in the future.
This ranks in the top bourbons that I have ever tasted. It’s got a great flavor, is incredibly smooth, and surprisingly versatile. But, while the cocktails were great, I will most likely be enjoying the rest of this bottle neat or on the rocks. Putting such a rare whiskey in a cocktail just felt like blasphemy.
It’s bit pricey at $175, but well worth it in my opinion. If you ever have a chance (and/or the budget) to buy a bottle, just do it.
|Elijah Craig 18 Year Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Kentucky, United States
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: 18 Years
Proof: 45% ABV
Price: $174.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 5/5
A rare bottle of bourbon that is well worth the splurge.