There’s a particular whiskey geek right of passage wherein you realize that not only do you have a lot of whiskey in your home, but you have multiple bottles of the same brand—enough to taste batch-vs-batch side by side. With some brands, those batch-to-batch differences are small enough to be rendered insignificant, but with others, they’re barside arguments waiting to happen. And few brands afford such an easy source of batch-vs-batch comparisons as Elijah Craig Barrel Proof.
Let it be known: I love ECBP. Hell, I’ve written whole paeans of praise toward that particular brand before. I love it for a lot of reasons, many of them sensory (it’s delicious), but in particular because it’s also so relatively accessible. Finding batches of each ECBP isn’t all that difficult, and the three-per-year release schedule means that every calendar year invites comparison between the “A,” “B” and “C” batches. But it’s also one of the safest pure picks in terms of value for your dollar, at roughly $65-75 at most bottle shops, because no ECBP batch is ever “bad”—in my experience they’re all just varying shades of good, ranging from merely “pretty damn good” to “mother of god.” Barrel-proof bourbon is never going to be truly “cheap,” but at $65 for a 12-year, age-stated, reliably excellent, 130 proof-plus expression, it’s easy to justify that particular splurge. Or certainly, far easier than rolling the dice on most newer barrel-proof brands.
Which brings us to ECBP A120, Heaven Hill’s first batch of 2020. If you’re unfamiliar with the batch name system, it’s actually more simple than it looks—the “A” designates this as the first release of the year, while the “1” means it was technically “released” in January, even though it’s just hitting store shelves now. The remaining digits, “20,” are simply this year. Therefore, the next release will be “B_20,” etc, depending on what month it’s released. Strength, meanwhile, can vary quite a bit, from as low as last year’s B519 (122.2 proof) to the high point of 140.2 proof, which was set way back in 2014. The last two batches, however, have been closer to the top of the range, at 136.8 and 136.6 for A120.
Now that we’ve explained the technicals, let’s get to tasting, yeah? I happen to have some of the previous C919 batch as well, so I’ll also include how the two seem to compare to each other.
On the nose, the A120 is very rich—a real caramelized sugar bomb, with sticky caramel/molasses cookie and lots of vanilla, along with plenty of oak. I should note that these barrel-proof releases sometimes open up on the nose after sitting in the glass for a while, so you may want to pour it in advance to let some of that booziness dissipate, if you’re not planning on adding at least a little water. Regardless, this batch is full of classic bourbon tones on the nose, but amped up in the richness department.
On the palate, A120 is also very rich, even compared to previous ECBP batches I’ve sampled. Huge caramel sauce/brown sugar/baking spice notes are present right off the bat, with a very viscous and oily texture. It then segues into tons of old oak, which brings a tannic dryness and a bit of bitterness that brings this bourbon back down to earth, in the direction of balance, although it doesn’t really get there—not that you would probably want it to get there. I get a little bit of plummy dark fruit character as well, but it’s really driven by caramelized sugar and oak, with a long, long vanilla bean/cocoa finish. It seems somewhat less spicy to me than some of the other ECBP batches I’ve sampled, and a bit more desserty, although the tannic qualities and mild oaky bitterness stop it from going too far in that direction. With a splash of water, more sweetness opens up and I get a lot more citrus (orange peels) in particular, along with sweet cinnamon sugar.
In terms of alcohol, I find this less overtly hot than the C919 despite the similar proofs, and honestly frighteningly easy to drink neat, at least for the 136.6 proof. By way of comparison, the C919 seems more spicy to me, with more of a rye presence and more mint, and perhaps a bit less caramel/brown sugar. Your taste will likely be dictated by which of those profiles seems better to you.
All in all … well, it’s excellent, as these batches reliably are. I don’t know if this is the absolute best ECBP I’ve had to date, but it’s certainly not too far off. And for $65? Pull that trigger.
Distillery: Heaven Hill
City: Bardstown, KY
ABV: 68.3% (136.6 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $70 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.