Whiskey Advocate named Elijah Craig Barrel Proof B517 as its “2017 Whiskey of the Year.” That’s right, a $65 bourbon, touted by many as simply a consistently great “budget” barrel proof bourbon, ran away with the magazine’s top award.
So, given this distinction, it seemed a proper time to revisit Elijah Craig Barrel Proof.
Making its debut in 1986, Heaven Hill claims that its Elijah Craig Small Batch brand was introduced at a time when the term “small batch” had not yet become part of the whiskey market’s lexicon (see our reviews of Elijah Craig Small Batch 12-year and NAS here).
At some point, Heaven Hill began selling a barrel strength version of Elijah Craig Small Batch 12-year in its gift shop. Then, in March 2013, the barrel strength bottles were released to the open market.
From 2013 through 2016, three “batches” were released each year.
The following table shows each release of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, with the corresponding proof and ABV.
In early 2016, Heaven Hill began to roll out two major changes to its Elijah Craig brand.
First, and much to the chagrin of its consumers, Heaven Hill dropped the 12-year age statement on its line of Elijah Craig Small Batch. The company had previously moved the age statement to the back of the bottle, a not-so-subtle hint that this move was soon to come.
Second, the brand began to undergo changes to its labeling and bottle design.
The silver lining was that, although Elijah Craig Barrel Proof would also undergo changes to its label and bottle design, it would remain a 12-year age stated bourbon.
And despite some purists who miss the short and squatty bottle design, the newer bottle and label offered some added benefit. Before 2017, the only way to know which “batch” a particular Elijah Craig Barrel Proof bottle belonged to was to compare it to a table like the one above and match the bottle’s proof with the particular release number.
Starting in 2017, the label on each bottle of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof would signify a simpler way to reference which release it was – so long as you knew how to decipher the code.
From 2017 onward, each bottle of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof contains a letter and series of numbers to designate the particular batch. The letter signifies the order of that year’s release (“A” then “B” then “C”). The number following the letter is the month of that year’s release. Then, the last two digits are the year.
So, B517 was 2017’s second release, which came out in May of that year.
What is it about Elijah Craig Barrel Proof B517 that stood out amongst the crowd? With the diverse range of whiskeys considered by Whiskey Advocate, who really knows. But, to better understand it, we thought it was worth comparing to the two preceding releases of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof B517 (12 Years, 124.2 Proof)
Nose: A heavy dose of peanut butter chocolate pie, with even the smell of the buttery crust coming through; light charred oak, light rubber, purple grape skin, and some very subtle herbs/mint; the high proof is apparent, but not overpowering or stinging. 3.5/5
Palate: Creamy and chewy, the mouthfeel is very substantive; the chocolate is stronger than the peanut butter, with some caramel and light black cherry and grape soda; the proof results in a spicy, as opposed to hot, palate; very tasty. 4/5
Finish: Medium-long; vanilla emerges alongside the dark chocolate backbone that is present throughout, resulting in almost a vanilla Coke flavor; tobacco and charred oak; that light minty note reappears at the tail end of the finish. 4/5
Overall: A terrific, robust, and flavorful pour. The balance of the sweets, spice, and tobacco make for a very pleasant dram. The 12 years add enough oak to make it feel mature, but not overlooked or bitter. The proof is high, but not so much so that it masks the flavors. 4/5
Value: For $65, it’s difficult to find a better value considering proof and age. Heaven Hill is forthcoming about its mission to produce quality products at a reasonable value. But it may have outdone itself with this one. 4.5/5
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Batch 11 (12 Years, 139.4 Proof)
Nose: Highest proof – but you’d never know it by the nose; much more caramel than the other two, with more rye spice than the other two as well; the oak is prominent, but does not completely dominate; some black peppercorns and light basil. 3.5/5
Palate: There’s that higher proof. The spicy burn sets in immediately at the front of the palate. It’s rounded out by dark chocolate, charred oak, purple grapes, cola, orange zest and caramel. 3.5/5
Finish: Long – a mixture of oak, dark chocolate, and orange peel linger for quite some time. A bit more tannic and dry than the other two. 3.5/5
Overall: Some barrel proof bourbons can be palatable even for bourbon drinkers who prefer something lower proof. This is not one of them. It is robust, but lacks the complexity of the other two. Nevertheless, its quality is undeniable and its flavors are right in line with the familiar Elijah Craig profile. 3.5/5
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Batch 12 (12 Years, 136 Proof)
Nose: The “oakiest” of the three, for those who like a good oak-bomb, this certainly delivers; molasses, light caramel, and cocoa nibs. 3/5
Palate: The oak bomb continues; cola; bitter dark chocolate; molasses and caramel; some light orange peel; tobacco leaf. 3.5/5
Finish: Long; this slowly crescendos in a way the others do not. The tobacco and dark chocolate intertwine with the oak for quite awhile. A very nice finish. 4/5
Overall: The back end of the palate and finish are the highlight of this pour. The nose is fine, but not as inviting as the other two. That being said, this is a quality product that will leave any fan of barrel proof bourbon satisfied. 3.5/5
Stephen is a regular writer at FlightClubICT.com