It feels great to get a second chance.
The subject of today’s review is a bottle that I was sure had passed me by. A narrow window of opportunity and some bad luck conspired to keep it out of my hands. However, I should not have discounted the generosity of the bourbon community, which has resulted in this chance to try it without prostrating or impoverishing myself.
Stepping back: there are more bottles of bourbon out there positioned as “rare” and “limited” than there are truly scarce whiskeys in actual short supply. Part of the process of developing connoisseurship (in whiskey or anything else) is being able to discern the diamonds from the duds. A few experiences overpaying for undistinguished product in deceptive packaging usually teach the harsh lessons that manifest themselves in the form of a healthy cynicism.
I’ve been through this process myself. It’s why I roll my eyes at sourced bourbon in baroque bottles and imposing boxes with a triple-digit price tag. Even setting aside the NDPs with luxury aspirations (and there is no shortage of them in the year 2022), there are ample examples available to us from the distilleries themselves. I try to never say never, but I am comfortable telling you that I will never purchase one of the Woodford Reserve Master’s Selection bottlings.
That said, there are other bottles that are hard to come by for good reason. Generally speaking, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection has a well-deserved reputation for excellence. The better Wild Turkey Master’s Keep bottlings are worth every buck of SRP and would even be tempting at a reasonable premium.
While not all of Heaven Hill’s limited editions have been home runs in my experience, the better ones have kept me searching for others their ilk. Top of my list are the extra aged Elijah Craig single barrel offerings. The oldest of the pair is a 23-year-old bourbon, but I am equally intrigued by this 18-year-old. It’s been on my mental shopping list since I learned of its existence.
Repeat readers might remember that, on my first visit to Heaven Hill, folks were camped out early in the morning to snag bottles being released that day. Though Heaven Hill had marked up its own bottles of “EC18” to $220 (presumably to cut out some of the profit for those looking to flip them), my curiosity and the romance of the day still had me eager to lay hands on it. Regrettably, the final available bottle was purchased by the fellow in line ahead of me, leaving me to return home with the regrettable Elijah Craig Grenade and some very tasty maple syrup.
My salvation came in the form of Kerry, who shared a sample of his own bottle with me. This signifies another important milestone in my own bourbon journey, and hopefully that of others: the realization that it’s about the people and the relationships, not the whiskey. I spend my time cultivating good friendships rather than hunting for good whiskey, and the whiskey always finds its way to me. My sincere thanks to Kerry (and all my other friends) for their ongoing generosity.
Before I dive into this very kind gift, a few specifics: this is from barrel #5262, bottled on 12/28/2020 at the age of 18 years. Coming to us at a strength of 90 proof (45% ABV), the suggested retail price for this is $150, which I’ll be using for evaluation. As noted above, Heaven Hill is selling this directly for $220.
Elijah Craig Single Barrel 18 Years Old – Review
Color: Medium orange-brown.
On the nose: Starts with a wonderfully woody, spicy, and nutty mix that shouts “richness.” Spring flowers, mint leaves, and chalky candies impart some lightness, but at the core of this there is a nearly impenetrable density. Butterscotch, dried fruit (raisins and dates) and apricot marmalade are fixed centrally, with accents of cedar and cinnamon adding intrigue. With some time in the glass a dry note of firewood emerges, nodding to the long maturation. There’s also an estery aspect to this whiskey that, if I nosed it blind, would have me guessing at a proof well above 90.
In the mouth: Vague wood and a piquant nip of pepper greet the tongue at first. The bourbon develops slightly as it moves toward the center of the mouth, with another floral note (this time rosewater) and some ephemeral, airy tastes of cherry that are exceedingly subtle. This tips over into an astringent, tannic bitterness as it moves toward the finish. The wood influence here imparts a mouth puckeringly sour texture that is reminiscent of chewing on underripe green grapes. From front to back, the mouthfeel is dilute in a way that drowns out all but the most shrilly woody notes, leaving a mostly unpleasant impression.
The nose is distinctly Heaven Hill in profile, though it feels zoomed in on a very particular part of the flavor spectrum. That represents the pinnacle of the experience; the rest heads downhill (get it?) with increasing velocity. All the delightful aromatic nuance that emerged during nearly two decades in the barrel is obliterated in the mouth, where the overall sensation is of sucking on a damp stave. I’m equal parts disappointed in this bourbon and relieved that I was not able to procure my own bottle. In light of this, and reflecting the high price, I’m docking two points off of average.
On the one hand this was a letdown; I didn’t enjoy this whiskey very much on an absolute basis, and certainly would have regretted a purchase at SRP or above. On the other hand, this has served to remind me of some very important lessons.
First, as mentioned above, is the primacy of relationships in my enjoyment of bourbon. Without them the whiskey just doesn’t taste as good, whether it’s a mainstay expression from the supermarket shelf, or a limited edition like this one.
The second lesson is that there are no sure things in bourbon. On paper, this bottle ticked many boxes that should have put it firmly in my sweet spot: it is a long-aged bourbon from a mash bill I prefer, made at a distillery that is among my personal favorites. This applies to all whiskey, of course, but the value-for-money risk/reward is more perilous when the asking price is in the multiple hundreds of dollars.
The final lesson points to the importance of letting reason govern passion. I could have made a fuss about missing the final bottle of this bourbon, embarrassing myself and my companions in the process. I could have decided to petulantly pursue any available bottle at whatever price was asked, perhaps paying a premium to one of those eager beavers camped out in front of the gift shop at Heaven Hill. Or, I could have just stewed about my bad luck, savoring a resentment as bitter as the woody notes on this whiskey.
That I did none of this – and still got to taste the damned bourbon anyway! – is indicative of where I am in my voyage. If you’re among the many folks I have heard from who are becoming disillusioned at the difficulty in obtaining your most desired bottles, I’d urge you to refocus your energies. Don’t beat yourself up over lost bottles; you never know when you’ll get a second chance!
Lead image courtesy of Heaven Hill.