We can be a bit oblivious here at MALT.
I mean this in the best of ways. To paraphrase America’s bard: we need no assurances, we are men and women who are preoccupied of our own souls. We write about what we want, when we want, as time and day jobs allow.
In practice, this is both good and bad. On the positive end, our schedules are not dictated by release calendars and sample shipments. That keeps us from becoming a marketing appendage of Big Whiskey. We also don’t jump on trends to chase page views. If you’re reading something here, it’s because the writer had something to say.
To engage in a spot of self-criticism: the other side of this coin is that we sometimes commit errors of omission. A consistent thread through time has been that MALT seeks to be useful to consumers wanting an honest opinion of the whiskies they’ll see in everyday life. These are whiskies on the shelf of every supermarket or local bottle shop. They’re unlimited editions, they don’t confer bragging rights, and they’re definitely more relevant to Joe and Jane Bourbondrinker than all the allocated unicorn trophy whiskies with three-and-four figure price tags.
I’ll confess – not without shameful and guilty feelings – that I sometimes read listicles. You know, those ones. Ones with titles like “Top 10 Whiskies To Try Before You Die” or “The 15 Best Bourbons in America” or the clickbait-y “These are the top 57 whiskies under $40 to buy RIGHT NOW. Number 23 Will Surprise You!” These pieces are typically long on banner advertisements and short on insight. They do, however, point me towards widely-available whiskies that I may have ignored.
On the bourbon listicles, Elijah Craig Small Batch is frequently named as one to try. It’s enjoyed by novice drinkers and experienced critics alike, winning several medals at prestigious competitions (they’re happy to remind you of this with a tag around the bottle’s neck). At around $30, it’s priced accessibly. Yet I had never tried it.
And why not? I’m a fan of the Heaven Hill distillery in Bernheim, KY. Their Evan Williams Black Label is the staple well whiskey of my home bar (read that review if you’re interested in a short history of the distillery and the founding Shapira family). I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that the 2018 release of Pappy Van Winkle 20 year old is comprised of juice from Bernheim. Setting about to whittle away at my ignorance, I purchased a bottle of Elijah Craig Small Batch bourbon for review.
Before we get to that review I’ll provide my customary history lesson, backed up by a bit of skeptical detective work to cross-check the tall tales provided by the distillery.
Like with Evan Williams, Heaven Hill has reached back into the mists of time to claim a namesake that had no direct connection with the Shapira family. Here’s what we do know: Elijah Craig (1738-1808) was a Baptist preacher in Virginia. He moved to Fayette County (then Virginia, now Kentucky) in 1782, and founded a distillery there around 1789.
At this point, the narrative devolves into speculative pseudohistory, as these tales so often do. Heaven Hill has anointed the Rev. Craig as “The Father of Bourbon” and has credited him with originating the use of charred oak barrels. In essence, this would mean that he invented bourbon as we know it today, with its legal stipulation of the use of charred new oak.
The official history on the Elijah Craig bourbon website provides a bit of eye-roll-inducing text that requires direct quotation:
“How did Elijah Craig become credited with pioneering the charring of the oak barrels used to age Bourbon? We’re actually not totally sure. A lot of the history is lost, and there are several versions of the story.”
That’s not “history,” that’s “myth,” and whiskey is already full enough of those, thanks. Professional historians have found primary source materials which seem to indicate that the charring of barrels was a practice originating elsewhere, long after Craig is said to have discovered the innovation. Bourbon’s not an industry that typically lets facts get in the way of a good marketing spiel, however, so Heaven Hill is sticking to their story.
The current Elijah Craig range includes Barrel Proof, 18 year old, and 23 year old expressions, along with this Small Batch. Small Batch was initially released in 1986 and carried a 12 year old age statement until 2016 when it went NAS.
This bourbon is from a mashbill of corn, malted barley, rye, and wheat. A sour mash fermentation is followed by distillation in a 70 foot column still. This is matured in barrels with a #3 char for “8 to 12 years.” Selected barrels (up to 200 of them) are blended into small batches and bottled at 94 proof (47% ABV). I paid $28 for 750 ml. You can purchase this release for £52.75 via the Whisky Exchange, or from Master of Malt for £44.45. Amazon comes in at £38.49 proving its good to shop around.
Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon – Review
Color: Golden brown
On the nose: Dried apricots, cracked black peppercorns, dusty clumps of soil, ripe red apples and some faintly spicy notes of garam masala. There’s plenty of aromatic ester and acetone notes, as well as gradually emergent waves of vanilla.
In the mouth: The mouthfeel is firm at the fore, turning piquant and hard-edged at the beginning of the midpalate. There are notes of lilies and an astringent greenness. This broadens out into richer honeyed fruit for a moment before another intense, almost chemical vanilla note emerges. This finishes with a slightly steely nip at the back of the mouth. Throughout, the mouthfeel is rather lean and thin. It’s somewhat bitter throughout, with the exception of the one sweetly fruity high note.
Not a bad bourbon for just under $30, but also not distinguished in any conspicuous way. This is about as good as Evan Williams Black Label which, at $14 for 750 ml, is nearly half the price. I get the sense that Heaven Hill could be doing more here, with the palate underperforming the relatively promising nose. I’m glad to have tried this for a point of reference, but it’s not in danger of becoming my go-to bourbon.
Lead image courtesy of the Whisky Exchange. There are commission links within this article as well and we’re happy to tell you that.