Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon (Batch B524) Review

Drink Reviews whiskey
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon (Batch B524) Review

By this point, even those whiskey drinkers who haven’t been paying particularly close attention should have heard about the changes that were instituted in Heaven Hill’s iconic Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon brand last year. Starting with the second batch of the year (B523), the company announced they were removing the long-associated 12 year age statement as they had years earlier for Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon, instead indicating that the age statement would become a fluctuating mark for each batch. Since that point, we have had batches as young as 10 years, 9 months (A124) and as old as 13 years, 7 months in last year’s spectacular C923 batch. Said batches have perfectly illustrated the fluctuation that is now inherent to ECBP, a product that had long been known for its rock-solid consistency. Unsurprisingly, this change from the status quo has garnered no small amount of criticism for Heaven Hill, but now a year into the new ECBP era we find ourselves at Elijah Craig Barrel Proof B524.

The specs of this batch are interesting, and stand out in a few specific ways. It’s a touch older than the first batch of the year, at 11 years, 2 months, though surely one would think that a few months overall is a negligible difference for this series. What really stands out is the strength of this expression: At 65.3% ABV (130.6 proof), this is one of the strongest batches of ECBP in recent memory. In fact, if you set aside last year’s extra-aged and critically acclaimed C923 batch, this becomes the strongest batch of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof since 2020, which was the last time that 130 proof expressions in the series were frequent.

It really makes me extremely curious about the thought process and rationalization that is going into creating each of the three yearly batches of ECBP at this point. Are they basing their goals entirely around flavor? Will there always be one batch per year that matches or exceeds the previous 12 year age statement, or will that be an even rarer event? Will there be at least one 130 proof batch each year, specifically targeted toward those proof hounds? Are these things purposeful, or simply side effects of blending for a specific profile? An in-depth interview on the philosophy of this series is something I would very much like to write one day.

Regardless: What we have here is an 11+ year old, particularly strong batch of ECBP. So without further ado, let’s get to tasting it.

On the nose, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof B524 initially seems a little bit muted to me, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that some of the notes seem to be having a harder time fighting past the assertiveness of the ethanol. I’m definitely getting a classic Heaven Hill peanut brittle-type character, along with juicy cherry, caramel, warm oak and a little cinnamon. There’s a slightly musty character to the oak here, just a hint of rickhouse funk, with perhaps a little butterscotch as well. Individual notes are a little harder to parse than in some of the previous batches, however, owing to ethanol that stings a little with each pass. I wish the nose here was a bit easier to access, though this may be one of those cases where a bottle benefits from a few weeks of being open.

On the palate, the initial impressions here are warm caramel, peppery rye and chile-like heat and spice. There’s a significant caramelized sugar component for sure, veering from brown sugar to a kiss of wet oak and some charred cinnamon stick. There’s also pretty significant toasted elements, with toasted wood and a little marshmallow, vanilla cream and perhaps orange citrus. The ethanol, though, is really amping up the impressions of heat and spice, which feels like it’s undercutting the mouthfeel of this to me on some level–it’s harder to appreciate the viscosity when it’s tingling with this type of heat. A little water might actually be warranted here.

This batch, to me, feels like it’s on the verge of breaking through into more compelling territory, either by becoming a big, bold flavor bomb or showcasing deeper complexity, but it then stops just short of reaching that next level. At the same time, however, it’s still better than a lot of what I sample each month, so judging this becomes difficult. Does every ECBP batch need a direct comparison to the likes of C923? How different are they, really?

Wanting to answer that question, at least for my own edification, I poured a little bit of C923 to sample it alongside the new B524. And the differences are absolutely apparent–this new expression begins down the same path, but it’s missing the deeper layers of flavor, be it in the form of barrel char, baking spice, leather or earthier tones. At the very least, it validates my previous assessment that C923 was an incredible bottle.

That brings us to the awkward conclusion that has now developed around ECBP, which is the fact that it’s become difficult for the company to rationalize the same price point for each and every batch in this series. But therein lies the rub: If ECBP were to adopt a fluctuating price point to go with its moving age statements, ‘ala Heaven Hill’s own Old Fitzgerald series, it almost certainly wouldn’t be in order to REDUCE the price of a release like Batch B524. Instead, the point of fluctuating pricing would no doubt be to increase the cost of a batch like C923 accordingly. And customers of course would complain about this, so any sort of change of that nature is something Heaven Hill would have to slowly ease their way into.

At the end of the day, the awkward dynamic is here to stay, at least for now–some batches of ECBP are just going to be very likely to be viewed as “lesser” ones, regardless of whether they deserve it. As for B524, it strikes me as a powerful expression, but a somewhat indelicate one. Proof hounds will want to take note of one of the only 130+ proof ECBP batches of the last four years, but those looking for more nuance may find it a bit harder to find.

Distillery: Heaven Hill
City: Bardstown, KY
Style: Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 65.3% (130.6 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $75 MSRP

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.

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