What do you want to bring home from a distillery?
I can tell you my answer: whiskey. Specifically: special whiskey. Whiskey that is exclusive to the distillery, that I wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else. Ideally, there’d be a rotating set of full proof single barrel bottlings that would incentivize repeat visits, with the ongoing promise of novel delights to be had for those bothering to make the trek.
You know what else I’d like to bring home from a distillery? Not a damn thing.
In comparison to some, I am a whiskey minimalist. OK, that’s not entirely fair; I have a collection of bottles that would probably seem excessive to many, even those as enthusiastic about the spirit as the average Malt reader. However, to make room for said bottles (and also to avoid testing the patience of my fastidious better half) I eschew any other type of whiskey paraphernalia. No branded glassware, no bar mats or towels, no apparel, no challenge coins, no decorative objects, staves, barrel heads… you name it. If it’s whiskey-adjacent bric-a-brac you’re after, you’ve come to the wrong place.
Regrettably, my recent visit to Heaven Hill’s Bardstown campus offered more of the latter and less of the former. Oh, I can’t really complain; I was there to pick a barrel of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, easily in my top three of more-or-less-readily-available bourbons. I’ll be opening and enjoying as many bottles as I’m entitled to as soon as Heaven Hill resolves their labor disputes and gets them off to us.
In the meantime, I was hoping for something to bring home that day as a liquid memento of my visit. Tops on my wish list was the Evan Williams 23 Years Old though, as you can imagine, bottles don’t tend to hang around long. Speaking of bottles not hanging around: the dozen or so folks lined up in lawn chairs more than an hour before the shop opened (anticipating that day’s release of a limited quantity of Elijah Craig 18 Years Old) illustrated that a visitor’s “competition” for desired releases includes not just fellow tourists, but also tipped-off locals. Several of these folks had friends or family in tow, presumably in order to abide by the letter (if not the spirit) of the “one bottle per person” rule.
As luck would have it, the last of the 18 Years Old bottles was sold to the person in line ahead of me. I had to content myself with the subject of today’s review, known as a “grenade,” so-called because it is packaged in a barrel-shaped bottle roughly the dimensions of a hand grenade.
The contents of this grenade, while not necessarily explosive, certainly pack a punch: Elijah Craig bourbon of unstated age, bottled at Heaven Hill’s barrel-entry proof of 125 (62.5% ABV). Though there’s no specific information about it on either the bottle or on the Heaven Hill or Elijah Craig websites, the name “Barrel Select” would seem to nod at this being a single barrel bottling. It is an exclusive to the gift shop at the Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience.
Before I jump on the grenade, however, I will admit to violating my own policy regarding bourbon derivative products. While waiting in line, I spied smallish-looking Elijah Craig bottles filled with brown liquids of various shades. These turned out to be consumables of an entirely different variety: maple syrup and hot sauce! Being a fan of flavors both sweet and spicy, I grabbed a pair as consolation prizes and added them to my haul. I’ll now be reviewing them for you.
Starting with the maple syrup: the label indicates that this syrup is aged in Elijah Craig barrels, though it does not carry an age statement (for either the whiskey or the syrup). Some Googling of the address on the back of the bottle points me toward “Because Life is Short,” (BLiS) a Kentwood, Michigan-based purveyor of gourmet foods. I paid $16 for a 12.7 ounce bottle.
Elijah Craig Barrel Aged Kentucky Bourbon Maple Syrup – Review
Color: Medium-dark burnt sienna.
On the nose: Perhaps the best smelling maple syrup I have ever sniffed. There’s an incredible depth of sugar that has a caramelized, nearly smoky aspect to it. The aromas have all been ramped into overdrive by the bourbon barrel, with the overlay of some meaty and woodland scents to add complexity.
In the mouth: A slightly sulfurous and smoky note of freshly struck match dissipates in an instant, as this moves toward a reprise of the nose’s caramelized sugar note. Texturally this is all-enveloping, creeping out beyond the tongue to find its way between the teeth and all over the gums. The flavor lingers with a subtly metallic stoniness and a gently woody nuance.
Awesome stuff. My only regret is that I got only one bottle. I’ll be saving this for special occasion pancakes and waffles. I strongly recommend grabbing a bottle of this if you happen to visit Heaven Hill.
The syrup has set a surprisingly high bar. Let’s see if the Hot Sauce can clear it? As before, this comes from BLiS. Interestingly, the ingredients list includes “BLiS Barrel Aged Maple Syrup” as a component of this secret sauce. I paid $12 for the same size bottle, 12.7 oz.
Elijah Craig Barrel Aged Kentucky Bourbon Hot Sauce – Review
Color: Opaque reddish-brown.
On the nose: Equal parts smoky pepper and ripe tomato, though the latter is not listed as an ingredient. There’s a citric sourness to this that I quite like, as well as a savory, meaty note reminiscent of barbacoa.
In the mouth: That tartness again greets the tip of the tongue momentarily before transitioning to a super ripe tomato, accented by a very piquant nip of chili pepper. The acidic, citric notes persist up through the top of the mouth and into the finish, where the heat transitions from red-hot chili to a more smoldering, smoky spiciness of chipotle.
Though the bourbon barrel influence here is not as apparent as it was with the maple syrup, this is still plenty tasty. Perhaps it’s not outstandingly delicious enough to warrant schlepping a bottle back from Bardstown, but I’m not consumed with regret at my purchase, by any means.
That was all fine and good, but we all know what we’re here for. Let’s see if this grenade will go off with a bang, or blow up in my face? It’s worth noting that this is not an inexpensive souvenir; I paid $32 for a 200 ml bottle, implying the equivalent of $120 for a 750 ml bottle. I’ll be scoring this using that price which, a priori, is quite a high ask for a bottle of bourbon about which the only known parameter is the distillery and ABV. Here goes…
Elijah Craig Barrel Select – Review
Color: Medium yellow-gold.
On the nose: Classic Heaven Hill profile, with orange citrus fruit notes intertwined with metallic elements, all softened by a creamy note of oak. With time in the glass, peppermint candy and a green, herbal scent of oregano begin to emerge. The high ABV is evident in a slightly hot, spirit-y feel inside the nostrils. Not the most endlessly layered nose on a Heaven Hill bourbon, but everything here is clearly delineated and well-balanced.
In the mouth: Extremely tightly wound to start, this has the sour and bitter flavors of underripe citrus fruit mingling with a very stern, drying note of stone. An off-sweet nip of dark chocolate sings out for a nanosecond before the middle of the tongue is coated in the resinous flavor and sticky texture of pine sap. Caramelized brown sugar and some fudge brownies bring this back from the brink with much needed sweetness as this moves toward the finish. At the back of the mouth, there’s a slightly acrid, synthetic woodiness that borders on chemical. An off-bitter, gently nutty aftertaste of almonds sticks to the top and sides of the mouth, which tingle from the heat of the alcohol.
The “grenade” moniker is appropriate because I’d like to throw this bottle far away and watch it explode. To me, this has more in common with the Evan Williams family of bourbons than it does with any of the Elijah Craig expressions you might be familiar with. Perhaps that’s a tell regarding the relative youth of the whiskey inside this bottle.
Considering that even a hefty markup to SRP on a bottle of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof (with its 12 year age statement) would run you only, say, $80, this bourbon doesn’t come close to justifying the expense. Even at half the price, I would score this below average based on the several off notes on the palate.
These might be limited to the specific single barrel that comprises this bottling, if that is the case. Again, without details it’s hard to say. However, based on this example, I’d be reluctant to pick up another bottle; I would advise you to do the same, should you find yourself in Bardstown. By all means, though: try the maple syrup!
Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience photo courtesy of Heaven Hill. Other photos author’s own.