At this point, I’ve introduced Elijah Craig Barrel Proof reviews or tastings at Paste often enough that almost anything general I’d say about the product will simply be me repeating myself. Suffice to say, here’s the short, short version.
ECBP is the cask strength, 12-year-old version of Heaven Hill’s classic mid-shelf champion Elijah Craig Small Batch, a whiskey that recently was on our list of the best bourbons for under $30. ECBP is beloved in the whiskey sphere for its potent flavors, often soaring proof point and bang-for-your-buck. Unlike so many well-aged, high-proof bourbons that draw rave reviews, it’s fairly accessible thanks to its trio of yearly releases, and its MSRP of around $70 is hard to beat when you compare it with almost all of its direct competition. There’s a reason why so many list it as a perennial favorite, especially if you enjoy Heaven Hill’s distillery house style.
A quick primer on any given ECBP label: This release is “B521,” which simply means the following. “B” means this is the second of three releases for 2021, preceded by “A” and followed by “C.” The “5” means that this is a May release. And the “21” just stands for 2021. The next release will likely be C921, likely followed by A122 next year.
Now, onto this particular release, which is quite a unique one for ECBP. I had commented earlier this year that the A121 batch was fairly unusual in its relatively lower strength, at 123.6 proof. But the B521 batch strides into truly new territory at a level of strength not explored yet by any ECBP release, at a mere 118.2 proof (59.1% ABV). This is still a level that is significantly higher than barrel proof releases from other bourbon distilleries with lower barrel entry proofs, such as Wild Turkey or Maker’s Mark, but it’s genuinely surprising in how low this is for Heaven Hill. In fact, it’s the lowest to date by a pretty wide margin—the previous low point since the series began in 2013 was B519’s 122.2 proof. So yeah, going down to 118.2 is a serious departure from the norm for ECBP, which has occasionally reached the high 130s and even 140 on a few occasions. That’s quite an interval range for your flagship barrel proof bourbon brand.
With that said, though, I was actually pretty excited to see the 118.2 proof point, rather than disappointed. In my personal experience, I have tended to gravitate toward the ECBP releases that fall in the 120 proof range rather than the hotter 130 range, which has led me to believe that the 120s often represent the “sweet spot” for ECBP. This left me quite intrigued to see how B521 would taste at an even gentler proof. So with that said, let’s get to tasting it.
On the nose, this definitely strikes me with the initial Heaven Hill classic bourbon notes—significant nuttiness, clove spice, caramel, some chocolate and brown sugar notes that give the nuttiness a “peanut brittle” sort of vibe. There’s not a whole lot of unique nature jumping out at me, however—it’s definitely familiar as a Heaven Hill/ECBP-type nose, but it’s not a particularly assertive or explosive one. The ethanol is on the milder side, as you would no doubt hope it to be at 118.2 proof, but I’m left looking for some of the more expressively rich or fruity notes that have been present in some of the other ECBP batches in recent memory, such as B520 or C920.
On the palate, B521 seems to lead off with a lot of peppery spice, brown sugar and slightly bitter caramel, into significant oak and subsequent tannic dryness. There are deeply caramelized sugars evocative of something like molasses, but they seem to hold a bitter edge, along with supporting baking spice notes of cinnamon and allspice. In general, this batch seems to finish more dry than some of the other recent offerings, and it’s understandably not quite as assertive in its delivery. Perhaps it has been affected more than usual by the 12 years of oak aging, developing more tannin and drying sensation in the process? Regardless, this is not necessarily my favorite profile for ECBP.
These first tastes had been making me think that B521 might register as something of a disappointment, but subsequent tastes as the bourbon sat in my glass were improved—with time, more dark fruit jam makes itself apparent, and the brown sugar sweetness seems to gain strength while the bitterness and oak fades out somewhat. Ultimately, this release grows on you with more time in the glass, but the takeaway, I think, is that ECBP may have found a level of strength that is actually too low, rather than too hot. I’ll be interested to continue tasting this one, to see if perhaps the tannins/bitterness fade with time and a bit of oxygen, as they did in my glass, but I have a feeling that this 118.2 proof batch of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof may be seen in the years to follow as a not-as-fondly loved departure from the series norm. It’s still quality bourbon, and still the strong value it always is at this price point, but I think most whiskey geeks would agree that this one likely suffers in comparison to a stellar release like last year’s B520.
Distillery: Heaven Hill
City: Bardstown, KY
Style: Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 59.1% (118.2 proof)
Availability: Limited, 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.