Twice-barreled whiskeys have been a popular trend for limited releases in the bourbon and rye world for a while now, to the extent that we’ve tasted lineups of them in the past, but that doesn’t mean every distillery has already jumped on that particular bandwagon. Nor is there only one way to finish whiskey in a second barrel. In fact, as time goes by it’s only become more clear that the choices a distillery makes in selecting its finishing barrels can impart very different characteristics in their twice-barreled whiskeys.
Heaven Hill is one of those distilleries that had to date resisted the impetus to jump on this particular trend, but they’ve now dropped their first bourbon of this nature, in the venerable Elijah Craig family tree. Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel Bourbon is essentially an extension of the flagship Elijah Craig Small Batch, being made from that same non-age-stated distillate that then undergoes secondary aging in a proprietary toasted barrel developed by Heaven Hill. They describe it thusly:
Made with 18-month air dried oak, the finishing barrel is first toasted and then flash-charred using a moderate toast temperature and toast time. An extensive research and development process resulted in a final barrel toast profile bringing forward dark sugar flavors within the wood to create a balance of smokiness and sweetness after months of finishing. The resulting taste is big, rich and complex with spice and pepper notes that fade into milk chocolate with a hint of smoke as the finish lingers with chocolate and baking spices.
Note that “toasted” and “charred” barrels are indeed different things, as “toasting” involves longer periods of heating at lower temperatures, and brings a different flavor profile out of the wood—often said to accentuate spice notes in particular. Some distilleries universally toast all of their barrels before applying the bourbon industry’s typical #3 or #4 char, while others do not. In this case, Heaven Hill has developed its own proprietary toasting process, and then given the barrel a very light #1 char in order to finish it before the second round of aging. They’ve then bottled this new bourbon at the same 94 standard for Elijah Craig Small Batch, at an MSRP of $50—roughly $20 more than the $30 that is typical for Small Batch.
So let’s get to tasting, and see how Elijah Craig’s first foray into toasted barrels compares to the usual Small Batch.
Immediately, a few of the differences between the two are fairly clear. EC Toasted Barrel visually looks a shade or two darker in color, which isn’t surprising, and on the nose it’s significantly more oak forward, with notes of butterscotch, toasted bread, marshmallow and clove. Contrasting with the standard EC Small Batch, Toasted Barrel has less of the slightly “nutty” Heaven Hill house style present, and less of a fruit (citrus, maraschino cherry) character, having segued more in the direction of oak and spice.
On the palate, the transformation is much the same. This bourbon has acquired a specific type of spice character that I often think of as “French oak spice,” which is a combination of dark toasted oak and baking spice notes—allspice, ginger and lots of black pepper. It reads on the palate as significantly less sweet than the regular EC Small Batch, as the additional oak dries it out a bit, with less orange/brown sugar notes. Instead, it’s a more complex spice and oak profile, although one wonders if there’s more tannin and slight bitterness here than the distillery desired. Likewise, this reads as significantly hotter on the palate than the standard EC Small Batch, with a longer finish of tingling spice and pepper that many drinkers would probably mistake for a higher proof, or a higher rye content. Depending on your taste, you might see that as an advantage or a disadvantage.
This is an interesting contrast to many double-barreled whiskeys that deliver versions that are richer, sweet and more awash in caramelized sugar notes, because EC Toasted Barrel really doesn’t do that. Don’t expect a sweeter or richer version of EC Small Batch here—instead, it delivers a more complex oak and spice profile, with a finish that touches on cocoa and slightly bitter, tannic oak.
As it stands, the standard EC Small Batch no doubt represents the better pure “value” of the two, but at $50 the EC Toasted Barrel is still quite accessible to most drinkers, especially those who are curious to experience how a toasted barrel affects the liquid within. It will be interesting to see if time and aeration in this bottle tamps down the oak presence a little—to my own palate, it could stand to become slightly more harmonious, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up in a good place the next time I revisit it.
Distillery: Heaven Hill
City: Bardstown, KY
Style: Straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 47% (94 proof)
Availability: Allocated, 750 ml bottles, $50 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.