Is redemption at hand?
Bourbon “batchspotters” like myself enjoy the comparison between superficially similar iterations from a single distillery. It’s fun to note both the commonalities as well as the differences between what are, on paper, otherwise indistinguishable bottles. The releases of new batches provide a regular cadence of novel data points that succeed in holding my interest more than, say, repeated tastings of the same mainstay expression.
There are varying degrees of consistency in these products, depending on the distillery and brand. I have found Maker’s Mark Cask Strength batches to fluctuate only moderately in terms of the drinking experience delivered over time. On the other hand, the quality of Booker’s has seemed to march steadily downward, with prior years’ batches exceeding the more recent releases.
Sometimes there’s an obvious culprit. Booker’s critics point to the declining age relative to where the batches used to be released. There have even been some quality control issues which scuttled an entire planned batch of Booker’s; it’s impossible to say whether this was an unfortunate one-off accident or indicative of more pervasive issues at Jim Beam.
Proof is also fingered on occasion. Though there’s far from a conclusive link between the strength at which a whiskey exits the barrel and the resultant flavors, bourbon fans fixate on these numerical indicators as justification for the better or worse impression left by the whiskey.
Other times there’s no obvious reason why one batch would be any different from its predecessors… and yet, they are. This has been my recent experience with Elijah Craig Barrel Proof. It’s an expression I fell in love with from my first sip of batch A120. However, I was let down by batch B521; based on comments I have read from others, I wasn’t alone.
It should be noted that there was nothing conspicuously wrong with B521, in terms of having glaring flaws or unpleasant flavors. However, it seemed like a leaner, drier version in a way that did not leave a positive impression. Compared to more fulsome batches, the B521 felt like a desiccated husk of a barrel proof bourbon, lacking many of the prior batches’ most pleasing attributes.
The age hadn’t dropped; that “12 Years Old” statement still adorns the side label in the type of perilously small font that has cynics and conspiracy theorists speculating that Heaven Hill is on the verge of eliminating it, as they did with the old Elijah Craig Small Batch. Is it the 118.2 proof (lowest among the 28 batches to date) that’s to blame? Again, I’m not ready to assert confidently that proof and flavor correlate strongly enough to single out this variable as the reason for the batch’s underperformance.
Being a cautious fellow, I typically buy all the bottles of “ECBP” I can find. Do I believe that the age statement is going away, or that Heaven Hill might possibly increase the price given ambient inflation and the higher SRP of competing products from the likes of Jim Beam? Let’s put it this way: I don’t not un-disbelieve that they might be thinking about considering talking about maybe changing it. The value for money is simply too good right now, and it would be easy to understand if Heaven Hill’s owners felt like they were leaving profits on the table currently.
With those nagging concerns in the back of my brain, I had assembled half dozen bottles of B521 prior to tasting it. After my first few sips I ruefully began giving them away as gifts to friends, as well as parceling out the remaining ounces of my open bottle as samples. Feedback confirmed my opinion that this was perhaps the worst batch of ECBP in recent memory. Again: not awful whiskey on an absolute basis, but not as tasty as what I’d become accustomed to.
Thus, I paused for a moment when I saw bottles of this most recent batch (A122) on the shelf. I was torn between habitually buying them all and passing on them completely; my tendency toward extremes ruled out the purchase of a single bottle. Blame it on curiosity or financial incontinence, but I left the store with an armful of bottles to add to the growing pile in my basement.
Has the gamble paid off? I’m approaching this in the hopes that, if not one of the all-time great ECBP batches, this will at least represent a return to form. A bang average batch of ECBP is still very good bourbon indeed, particularly in comparison to the dwindling options available with any regularity.
This comes to us at 120.8 proof (60.4% ABV). That’s toward the lower end of the historical range, but I’m putting it aside in my consideration of this whiskey’s merits. I paid $70 for a 750 ml bottle.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Batch A122 – Review
Color: Ruddy medium-brownish orange.
On the nose: A big, juicy, delicious whiff of ripe cherry promises good things from the start. Concentrating more, there’s the sense of a gooey milk chocolate dipping sauce for said cherry, which mutates into a heaping dollop of French vanilla ice cream. Spicy accents of cinnamon turn into more piquant scents of lemongrass, turmeric, and cardamom. Withdrawing the nose and smelling again, I get a dusty aroma of charcoal, the herbaceous whiff of pine needles, and a dry, chalky stone scent. It’s nearly impossible to stop nosing this given the diversity of aromas, but I’m ready for my first sip.
In the mouth: The first little sip greets the tongue with the citric sweetness of orange juice, combined with a drying minerality that puckers the lips and marches steadily up the tongue. At the middle of the mouth this takes on an effervescent texture, as the alcohol prickles the tongue and the roof of the mouth. This is augmented by a resurgence of the orange sweetness; combined with the mouthfeel, the sensation is akin to sipping orange soda. There’s another cherry nuance in here, but this time of a more tart, underripe form. The flavors thin out momentarily as this reaches the finish, but there the whiskey is redeemed by a return to the many spicy elements of the nose, with the addition of a bittersweet nip of cacao. The dry stoniness lingers as a residual flavor and feeling that moves back toward the front of the mouth.
This is on the leaner side, but in a totally different way to batch B521. Whereas that latter batch felt like the fruity soul of the bourbon had been sucked out and replaced with tannic, bitter wood, this A122 is far more elegant. There is more of the plump fruitiness on the nose than the palate, but there are a few moments of full-bodied pleasure in the mouth as well. The dryness comes from stone rather than wood; this is reminiscent of a long-distance runner with chiseled muscles that don’t bulge, yet do not lack for power.
Overall, this is a pleasing return to form for one of my favorite bourbon whiskeys. I’ll feel no hesitancy picking up batches B522 and beyond, if and when I can find them.