As many of us look to put the hardships and low points of 2020 behind us, hoping that 2021 will provide at least somewhat smoother sailing, whiskey fans can at least be thankful for a trifecta of scintillating cask strength bourbon releases in the form of this year’s three Elijah Craig Barrel Proof batches. Heaven Hill’s venerable cask strength brand is predictable as the seasons; one of the few cask strength limited releases on the market that can claim to be widely available, decently priced ($70-80), and still have enough eclecticism from batch to batch to make them interesting to seek out. And now that all batches for 2020 are out in the wild, with Batch C920 hitting shelves recently, it’s a great time to revisit all three of the 2020 releases and determine which we like best.
If you’re new to ECBP, here’s a brief primer.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof is produced by Kentucky bourbon stalwarts Heaven Hill, in the Elijah Craig brand—the distillery’s more premiumized line in comparison with something like Evan Williams. The Elijah Craig line tends to imply extra aging in particular, and ECBP still carries the 12-year age statement that has become increasingly rare in cask-strength Kentucky bourbons in more recent years.
ECBP is released three times every year, with bottled-on dates that are typically January, May and September. Consumers can tell which batch they have by decoding the simple batch label, where “A,” “B” or “C” correlates to the first, second or third batch of the year, the second digit correlates to the month, and the last two digits correlate to the year. A batch labeled as “A118,” therefore, was released in January of 2018 as the first batch of the year, while the new “C920” was released in September of 2020. All are presented at cask strength, but that level of proof varies substantially from batch to batch, from as low as 122 to as high as 139 in the last few years.
Note: I have increasingly seen whiskey geeks pushing a false narrative in the last year or two that the “A,” “B” and “C” batches of ECBP somehow adhere to specific flavor profiles, as if “A” batches are meant to taste one way, while “B” batches are meant to highlight a different aspect of the Heaven Hill flavor profile. Suffice to say, this is simply seeing patterns where there are none—each batch of ECBP is distinct in its own ways, but the letter simply represents what order they were released in. There is no specific “A” profile, or “C” profile, so don’t let armchair whiskey experts try to convince you this is a thing.
With all that said, let’s revisit each of the three releases from 2020: A120, B520 and C920.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon A120
My love for the first of these releases, A120, seems to run hot and cold. It’s the strongest of the 2020 batches by a substantial degree, and it’s a true flavor bomb, but it’s also the most difficult to approach and the most hamstrung by the negative aspects of the ethanol. I love its flavors, but it can be harder to access them without scorching the palate.
On the nose, I get caramel apples on this one, along with substantial oak and both cocoa and citrus. On the palate, meanwhile, it attacks with a big rush of alcohol and spice. There’s brown sugar here, and Twizzler-like red fruit, along with caramel apples, hints of the trademark Heaven Hill nuttiness, and no shortage of wet oak. There’s some woody tannin to the finish, although not quite as much as I recall on last year’s C919 batch. That combination of tannin and heat does dry out the palate a bit over time, however. On the plus side, this is a very spicy entry, with loads of baking spice notes and pleasant hints of red fruit. It’s undeniably the hottest and most aggressive of the three, however, and the alcohol attacks in a way on this one that it doesn’t in either of the other two 2020 batches.
All in all, A120 is a batch best for those who know what they’re getting into when it comes to barrel proof bourbon. You’ve got to want the alcoholic heat on this one, although of course you can always add a splash of water as well. I do find myself adding at least a moderate amount of dilution to A120 when I revisit it.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon B520
The middle release of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof for 2020 is the (relatively) lower proof batch of the series, and I think its flavors respond quite nicely to this particular proof point. In fact, my more recent ECBP samplings have made me wonder whether batches in the 120s are the true sweet spot for the series.
On the nose, B520 features some darker fruit impressions—real dark, like blackberry or currant—along with more nutty notes, lots of caramel, vanilla and fudge. This is a more pronounced nuttiness than either of the other two batches, with hints of sweetened peanut butter and butter pecan on the palate, along with ribbons of vanilla, chocolate and old oak. This one reads as fairly decadent, full of sweetness, toffee and more vanilla bean than either of the other batches, and I think that of the three it possesses the best blend of different types of elements—it doesn’t throw itself into one element such as spice (A120) or fruitiness (C920) as strongly as the others. It’s very rich, but also diverse.
Also, in comparison to A120, I feel no need to dilute this one—the 127.2 proof drinks nicely all on its own. To my own personal taste, that makes B520 my favorite of the three ECBP batches for 2020.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon C920
The newest ECBP batch, C920, falls in-between the two others in terms of proof, but packs some very intriguing flavors that make it distinct from either. Where A120 and B520 feel somewhat of a kind in terms of their flavor profiles, albeit separated by intensity and proof points, C920 strikes me as one that is sort of doing its own thing.
On the nose, I first get some rich, caramelized sugars that read as maple and then cocoa, but the interesting transition then throws a LOT of fruitiness my way—especially red fruit. This has a whole lot of cherry or raspberry-like fruitiness on the palate, amplified by ethanol, and there’s a slightly vinous character to it that is modified by nuttiness (almond, peanut) and old oak the point that it takes on a slightly sherry-like flair. There’s chocolate here as well, and the proof eventually rears its head with some fiery heat, not unlike A120. The lasting impression, however, is fruitiness, with a lingering note that makes me think of cherry and blackberry jam.
All in all, this is an interesting batch, and considering that I only opened this bottle the other day, I’ll be curious to see how it evolves with a little time and air.
If B520 is my favorite batch of this year, then even after tasting I’m note entirely sure what my #2 batch would be—it feels like a scenario where my answer would change with my mood, from day to day. A120 is an intense rush of brown sugar, oak and spice, while C920 offers a slightly more reined in and fruitier expression. If you love barrel proof bourbon, however, they’re all likely worth taking the plunge.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.