I figured it was high time I posted a proper bourbon review. And what better bourbon to start with than the Elijah Craig 12yo – a popular favourite, and one that has received a lot of press lately. As you might expect, the recent decision by distiller Heaven Hill to discontinue the 12yo in favour of a new NAS (no-age-statement) version has generally not been well received.
Leaving the transition issue aside, bourbons as a class can be challenging to review. If only it was as simple as those immortal words of U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens of Justified: “Bourbon is easy to understand. Tastes like a warm summer day.” I’ve always found it a bit more complicated than that. 😉
By law, American bourbon is made from at least 51% corn, distilled to no more that 160 proof (80% ABV), and aged in new charred oak barrels – among other requirements. As a result, the distillation method (and composition of the mashbill) has a great effect on what the final flavour tastes like. Indeed, one characteristic that is commonly used to differentiate bourbons is the proportion of rye grain in the mashbill (i.e., high rye vs. low rye bourbons).
As a class, I find bourbons tend to have a sweeter corn-syrup flavour than you will find in most whiskies. This sweetness can be further enhanced by the new oak aging – at least for relatively young bourbons. Most bourbons are indeed fairly young, with 6-8 years being considered the typical length for mid-range products (the lower-end stuff is younger, of course). Longer aged expressions can pick up some bitterness and other “woody” characteristics from the oak barrels, and this is often seen as less desirable. There are of course exceptions – such as Elijah Craig, which offers very popular 12yo, 18yo and 21yo expressions.
If you are curious to learn more, I find the /r/bourbon guide on Reddit provides a very clear overview of the main categories of bourbon – with helpful examples of the standard brands in each group.
Let’s see how the more popular mid-range bourbon offerings available here at the LCBO (i.e, $40-50 CAD) compare in the Meta-critic database:
1792 Ridgemont Reserve: 8.75 ± 0.33 on 12 reviews
Buffalo Trace: 8.59 ± 0.46 on 17 reviews
Bulleit 10yo: 8.76 ± 0.19 on 6 reviews
Eagle Rare 10yo: 8.54 ± 0.39 on 14 reviews
Elijah Craig 12yo: 8.74 ± 0.32 on 15 reviews
Four Roses Small Batch: 8.49 ± 0.46 on 10 reviews
Jack Daniel’s Gentleman Jack: 7.86 ± 0.45 on 11 reviews
Knob Creek Small Batch 9yo: 8.64 ± 0.43 on 18 reviews
Maker’s Mark: 8.25 ± 0.43 on 18 reviews
Woodford Reserve bourbon: 8.38 ± 0.37 on 14 reviews
As you can see, Elijah Craig 12yo is one of the highest ranking bourbons in this price group.
Here is what I find in the glass:
Nose: Smells like a banana split with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, and a cherry on top! There is also a strong presence of caramel and toffee notes from the oak wood. Something slightly charred but sweet, like toasted marshmallows. Beyond some additional sweet fruits, I get a bit of zesty citrus (mainly orange). It’s a great nose, and I am happy to come back and enjoy it between sips.
Palate: The creaminess continues here, with a slightly oily mouthfeel. Up front I get sweet and juicy stewed fruits and toffee/caramels – but it has a lot more spicy kick than I expected from the nose. This prickle is there throughout, and doesn’t attenuate on further sipping. Think of it as cherry cough syrup that actually makes you feel more like coughing as you drink. It is a full body, with definite baking spices coming in towards the end.
Finish: A bit of bitterness shows up here, and lingers through the finish – but it remains very well-balanced by the sweetness. This is one of my favourite things about the EC 12, as I find most bourbons overwhelm on the sweetness, which can turn cloying on the way out. The EC 12 is also not as woody as I expected, given the extended barrel aging.
The Elijah Craig 12yo tends to get reviewed fairly favourably by the panel of international reviewers – see for example Jason at WhiskyWon, Ruben at WhiskyNotes, and Serge at WhiskyFun. I find most American reviewers tend to be a bit tougher on it – but I expect that’s because they have access to better top-shelf bourbons than we do. See Nathan at the ScotchNoob and John and Richard at the WhiskeyReviewer for some balanced examples.
Note that before doing away with the age statement all-together, Heaven Hill moved it from the front label to the back of the bottle last year (with no apparent change in the formulation at that time). Oddly though, the original Elijah Craig 12yo bottles (pictured on the right) are still commonly available at the LCBO. Pick it up while you can!
P.S.: As an aside, if you haven’t seen it, Justified was a great TV show. Bourbon featured in it quite prominently, as the personalities of the various characters were illustrated by their bourbon preferences. I’ve heard it said that bourbon was the sour-mash heart of the show. 🙂