“A Toast!” – Dr. Frank-N-Furter
Of course, any whiskey will do when it’s time for a toast. However, it seems only appropriate to get toasted with the current toast of the town. I’ll probably follow this by having a piece of toast and toasting some marshmallows over a toasty fire.
In case you couldn’t tell by reading that painful paragraph, today I’ll be reviewing a toasted barrel expression. You may have heard of these; they’re all the rage at the moment, for reasons I’ll soon explain.
Michter’s has perhaps the best-known of the toasted bunch, as the actual name of the whiskey is “Toasted Barrel Finish.” However, the “Double Oaked” expression from Woodford Reserve also utilizes a toasted barrel for finishing. Craft distiller Koval released a quintet of whiskeys matured in 30 gallon toasted barrels. Buffalo Trace had a “Hot Box Toasted Barrel” as part of their Experimental Series. Brown-Forman has played with toasting as part of its Cooper’s Craft range, as well as in the case of the Jack Daniel’s Heritage Barrel. TTB filings indicate that the next entry in Wild Turkey’s Master’s Keep range, “ONE,” will feature a “toasted oak finish.” The Scottish have even gotten in on the act, with Deanston’s Toasted Oak whisky.
One of the newer distilleries to hop on the toasted bandwagon is Heaven Hill, which has given us Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel, the subject of today’s review. Released in July of 2020, this is your standard Elijah Craig Small Batch, finished in a second, “custom toasted new oak barrel” from Independent Stave Company.
ISC’s own site has an excellent primer on the toasting process, with yet more detail provided in the announcement of the addition of four types of toasted barrels to the company’s “Small Batch Series.” To summarize: toasting is a precursor step to charring, in which the new barrel is heated at a lower temperature to create the “red layer” in which lignin and hemicellulose are broken down. The resultant chemical compounds in this red layer are responsible for imparting the flavors (vanilla and caramel) that we associate with bourbon whiskey; the char layer (created by actually burning the wood) acts as a filter to remove impurities but does not add flavor.
The hope, in using a deeply-toasted but lightly-charred barrel for finishing, is that the flavors will be turbocharged. The appeal, from the distillers’ perspective, is an obvious one: a bit of finishing and you’ve got something that, if not in fact qualitatively superior, at least has a unique selling proposition. To go a yet-more-cynical step further: how better to dress up and move the lesser barrels in the rickhouse than by using a quick finish to inject a shot of flavor?
Suppressing my more skeptical impulses: I’m going into this expecting a depth and intensity of aromas and tastes surpassing that of the baseline Elijah Craig Small Batch, which isn’t a particularly high bar to clear. While I’ve enjoyed the Barrel Proof expressions and have had a few standout Private Barrel picks, I’m pretty “meh” on the standard Elijah Craig bottling.
This Toasted Barrel comes to us at 94 proof, identical to the Small Batch and the Private Barrels. SRP for this is $50, compared with the $30 to $35 for which the Small Batch retails. This was available via SharedPour for $26.99 but is currently unavailable. A crude linear extrapolation based on price alone would demand that this be 66.67% more flavorful than the Small Batch. While I’m not sure that my sensory equipment is calibrated to two decimal places of precision, some rough math translates this to an 8/10 on Malt’s scoring framework (based on my 5/10 score for the Small Batch). That’s an aspirational bogey and, if this whiskey can hit it, I’m able to assure you I’ll be buying up every last bottle I can find. For now, though, let’s start with the single bottle I have in hand. [raises glass] To your health!
Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel – Review
Color: Medium-dark auburn.
On the nose: Indeed, this presents a richer aromatic profile at the fore. There’s a subtle topnote of Meyer lemon, but the majority of the scents are in the lower, autumnal part of the register. Dried leaves underfoot and firewood meet some sweeter notes of salted caramel and hot cocoa. There’s a meaty note of honey-baked ham that appears faintly, but mostly this is anchored in the aforementioned woodsy and sweet zone.
In the mouth: This opens with a hard-to-place note that sits somewhere between woody and smoky and roasty, and it seems only appropriate to dub that flavor “toasty.” It’s also the high point of the palate, which thins out noticeably as it moves toward the middle of the mouth. A vaguely woody note with a mild accent of caramelized sugar is about the only discernible characteristic at midpalate. This improves through the finish, with a note that oscillates between bittersweet cocoa powder and the more pert mineralic flavor of limestone, which lingers for half a minute after the last sip.
Overall, this tacks more toward the leaner Small Batch than it does the sumptuous Barrel Proof. I like this better than the Small Batch, so I’m adding a point. However, this falls well short of the overwhelming sensory experience that is the Barrel Proof, one of the better whiskeys I have tasted in the past year. The toasted barrel finish has added some pleasant aspects that are most evident on the nose. In the mouth, though, this degenerates into a muddle of flavors that – while enjoyable enough in their totality – are not individually noteworthy in a way that compels attentive tasting.
To reflect the fact that I have a generally favorable impression and that this performs reasonably for the price, I am awarding a score a tick above average. I won’t be making good on my aforementioned threat to stockpile bottles, but this is certainly a decent value at SRP and is an amusing digression for the Elijah Craig fans out there. Here’s a toast to the memory of the late Reverend Craig and, indeed, to your good self. Cheers!
Photograph kindly provided by the distillery and there is a commission link within this article to keep Malt looking slick.
Another excellent article and review. Thank you, Taylor! While I primarily use the Small Batch in cocktails like whisky sours and old fashioneds, you have inspired me to go out and hunt down a Barrel Proof for sipping and discussing. This Toasted Barrel Finish seems to not be worth the extra $$ they are asking for it.
Beks, thanks so much for the kind words! I’ll be interested to hear your impressions of the Barrel Proof expression. While it’s better than the Tasted Barrel, I should say that this was a favorite of myself and friends for easy sipping over several snowed-in nights this winter. Best regards as always and cheers!