Last week, we more or less broke the news that Heaven Hill’s beloved Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon would be undergoing something of an evolution in the near future, starting with the just-released Batch B523 (which means May 2023, second batch of the year). The long and short of it is this: The fixed 12-year age statement on ECBP is going away, replaced by a variable age statement that will reportedly contain releases both younger and older than the former 12 year baseline. As the brand put it in a release to writers:
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof will now be barreled in small batches with varying age statements. Each batch of ECBP will have its own unique taste profile and proof, as in years past, and now a unique age statement that will retain the extra-aged characteristic the brand is known for. All other qualities of the series remain the same–non-chill-filtered and uncut to preserve all the natural esters and taste components from the barrels to the bottle. The variance in proof, and now age, from batch to batch is an exercise for true whiskey aficionados to experience the consistency in quality across the series while allowing for the unique intricacies of each batch to pull forward.
I knew when writing up this announcement that the news was going to cause some ruffled feathers and consternation in the whiskey geek community. Bourbon geeks like brands to stay static and dependable, especially ones that have long been bastions of value in an increasingly overpriced scene, such as ECBP. There just aren’t any other brands one can turn to for a 12-year-old, cask strength, quality bourbon expression with an MSRP of $70, so any change to Elijah Craig Barrel Proof was destined to be received with conspiracy theorizing and general apprehension from the public. That was an inevitability.
And to be certain, it’s logical to be at least somewhat concerned here, especially when one sees that the first new batch of ECBP, May’s B523, now bears an age statement on its front label of 11 years, 5 months. This decrease itself is small enough to not likely be detrimental to the flavor profile that drinkers expect from ECBP, but how much of a slippery slope is being created here? With many ECBP single barrel store picks at package stores now found at 8-11 years old, is this news just a pretext to gradually decreasing the average Elijah Craig Barrel Proof age statement over the next few years? It’s certainly a possibility. And what of the MSRP? It’s not as if Heaven Hill hasn’t used age statements to toy with MSRP before, given that the company’s bottled in bond bourbon went from being a 6-year-old, $20 bottle to a 7-year-old, $50 bottle. I can understand the distrust that many drinkers no doubt feel here.
But at the moment, it’s all just conjecture. Heaven Hill has stated that batches of ECBP will be both older and younger than 12 years in the future, and more or less confirmed to journalists that this year’s third batch C923 will carry an age statement of 13 years or beyond. With such a small sample size, it’s impossible to tell how big the age range will ultimately be for these bottles going forward, but Heaven Hill should know that releases of 11 years or younger will no doubt be heavily scrutinized by the bourbon community. No doubt they’re prepared for this eventuality.
So with that said, let’s actually get to tasting Batch B523, which weighs in at 62.1% (124.2 proof), and the aforementioned 11 years, 5 months of age.
On the nose, B523 is full of deep, dark caramelized sugar notes–I’m getting both caramel candied and deeper molasses, along with floral vanilla and no shortage of slightly musty oak. Dark chocolate is present as well–80% cacao chocolate bar vibes–along with black cherry syrup and pralines, with that impression of glazed nuts increasing over time. There are more savory and herbal notes here as well, though, with more than a little rye spice and hints of tobacco. Ethanol is quite gentle for the proof, and all in all it just smells like delightful, very mature bourbon–pretty much what you expect from ECBP. Overall, I quite like the nose.
On the palate, this is immediately fairly sweet, with bombastic notes of cinnamon brown sugar, gingerbread and some rye spice, tempered by old, musty oak. There’s heavy caramel and some more bitter molasses, but also no shortage of oak, with mild bitterness that feels oak derived, and some drying tannin. The oak is also quite spicy in character in this batch, and I’m getting a lot of cola spice, blending with rye and ginger snaps to create an overall impression of sweet-and-spicy. The heat shows up more here than it does on the nose, with spicy tingling pepper on the palate and throat, quickly progressing into the chest with a Kentucky hug.
All in all, this still definitely tastes like Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, and with only a relatively modest change to the age statement in this first batch it’s not like I really would have expected anything different. If the labels had been unchanged, I think it’s safe to say that at least in this batch, few consumers would have noted that anything had changed. With that said, the folks at Heaven Hill obviously aren’t fools, and they would surely have gone out of their way to ensure that the first batch of the changed ECBP conforms to the flavor profile that people expect. It will be interesting to see if future batches deviate from those expectations in more dramatic ways, and if we’ll look back at B523 as the beginning of some historic departure. For the moment, though, it’s still comfortably familiar.
Distillery: Heaven Hill
City: Bardstown, KY
Style: Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 62.1% (124.2 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $70 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.