It’s interesting to consider not only the “how” aspect of a new spirit’s creation, but also the “why.”
Why create a brand extension for an iconic bourbon brand, 35 years after it was first created? Why create a product that essentially competes with one already produced by your company? How does one introduce enough differentiation for multiple, similar products to stand alone?
These are some of the questions I can only imagine that Heaven Hill must have considered as it conceived and designed its new Elijah Craig Straight Rye Whiskey. It’s the first rye whiskey extension to the much-loved Elijah Craig bourbon line, which has existed since 1986 and is currently available in Small Batch, Barrel Proof, 18- and 23-year expressions. Sure, there are still some whiskey geeks out there with long memories holding a grudge about the old Elijah Craig 12-Year’s transition into the non-age-stated Small Batch, but almost all whiskey drinkers recognize the Heaven Hill brand as one of the most reliable, best values in mid-shelf bourbon. For a lot of folks—myself included—Elijah Craig tends to be one of the whiskeys we use as a template for classic American bourbon.
An Elijah Craig rye whiskey, though, is a significantly different beast, especially after all these decades—particularly because Heaven Hill is also the company that produces one of the standard-bearers of the rye whiskey low-to-mid shelf (and winner of our blind tasting ), Rittenhouse Rye. At an average price point that has crept up to around $25 in the years since the rye whiskey/craft cocktail boom, Rittenhouse is still very popular, but not quite the extreme value pick it once represented. Elijah Craig Straight Rye, on the other hand, will occupy similar territory with a $29.99 MSRP, trading a few points of proof (94, vs. Rittenhouse’s 100) in exchange for the promise of a few more years of aging, despite the fact that it’s NAS. The obvious question, then, is whether these two releases are really distinct enough to reach separate markets, or whether the new Elijah Craig Rye would be stealing away consumers from its own Rittenhouse.
I can’t really make a prediction there, but what I can say after tasting the new Elijah Craig Rye is that it’s as solid a product as you would likely expect from the EC banner. While still remaining affordable, it’s another product helping to greatly expand the breadth of the non-premiumized rye whiskey segment, which has seen some exciting new entries recently. I’m certainly heartened by seeing more cheap, quality rye appearing in the market.
In terms of recipe, Elijah Craig Straight Rye is very much in the classic Kentucky rye style (same as Rittenhouse), with a mash bill that is 51% rye (just over the federal definition), 35% corn and 14% malted barley—the higher-than-usual proportion of barley being an EC signature. This Kentucky style of “just more than 50% rye” whiskey has in recent years seemed a bit more antiquated to some drinkers in the face of a flood of 95% rye out of MGP in Indiana and the popularity of 100% rye whiskeys from the likes of WhistlePig, and I confess I am often not a fan of these types of ryes when delivered from companies like Beam. In the hands of Heaven Hill, however, it seems to work much better.
Of note: EC Straight Rye is packaged with green trim, conforming to the “green = rye” visual marketing that has dominated the entire industry in recent years, presumably as a response to the success of Bulleit Rye.
With all that said, let’s finally get to tasting.
On the nose, EC Straight Rye reads like classic Kentucky bourbon, with an added punch of rye, which sounds exactly like what they were probably going for. Caramel and vanilla bean give it a sense of warmth and richness, but it’s also extra spicy on the nose, with lots of pepper and rye spice. It certainly doesn’t smell like younger bourbon, presumably thanks to portions of extra-aged spirit in the final blend.
On the palate, I immediately noted the smooth and slightly oily mouthfeel, which coats the palate first in a corny sweetness, the slightest hint of peanut butter, and into rich caramel and vanilla, before segueing hard into the rye spice, which leads to a long-lasting mint note on the finish. There are some fruit elements as well, with a slight apricot-like stone fruit and a more prominent “apple pie” spiciness, like caramelized Granny Smiths with cinnamon sugar, and a bit of barrel char. There’s a good amount of caramelization overall—sweeter, certainly, than some of the MGP ryes I’ve sampled more recently like Heaven’s Door Rye, but almost as spicy at the same time. It is, in short, very well balanced between elements one tends to associate with both bourbon and rye whiskey.
As much as I hate the word and its overuse by drinkers who lack descriptive language for spirits, one of the things I couldn’t help but think while drinking Elijah Craig Straight Rye was that it was very “smooth” indeed. Alcohol heat is gently integrated and it’s never lacking for character, while displaying the composure of a rye with a bit more age and refinement than some of the other affordable ryes on the market. At $30, this strikes me as an excellent value, all-purpose rye that is great for neat drinking, but also isn’t so expensive that you’d feel like you were wasting it in classic cocktails. In short: I can see this coming into my regular rotation immediately.
I do wish, however, that I happened to have some Rittenhouse on hand to sample them side by side. Between the slight differences in proof, age and pricing (only a $5 difference), it’s difficult to say which is the immediate winner in terms of quality and value. But from a gut reaction? I’m leaning toward the Elijah Craig, which is high praise indeed.
Distillery: Heaven Hill
City: Bardstown, KY
Style: Straight rye whiskey
ABV: 47% (94 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $29.99 MSRP, limited markets
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.