Thursday, March 1, 2012

Bourbon Review: Elijah Craig 18 Year Old Single Barrel

Continuing this week's Heaven Hill Series

Elijah Craig 18 Year Old Single Barrel - 90 Proof; Aged 18 years; Distilled at Heaven Hill Distilleries; Price ~$48

Preface: A single barrel bourbon, made from a barrel selected from the absolute middle of Heaven Hill's warehouse, this is probably the most affordable 18 year old whiskey of any sort you can buy.  66% of the volume in these barrels is evaporated away by the time this is bottled.  Meaning that for every barrel they mature this long, they only get 1/3 of a barrel's worth of bourbon.  Usually when bourbon is aged this long the oak turns it a bit bitter.  To avoid this, the barrels that were in the most stable temperature area were selected this, so that the bourbon didn't go as deeply into the oak as it would in an area where the temperature swings were more extreme.  Essentially three things happen when bourbon is aged: 1) Alcohol is evaporated off 2) water is evaporated off and 3) the bourbon draws more of the barrel flavors.  The primary flavors that are drawn from the barrel are caramelized sugar, from the charring of the sap; vanilla from a mix of the wood and non caramelized sap; and oaky-ness, from, well, the oak.

The surface of the inside of the barrel is where you get most of your caramel taste, so bourbon doesn't have to deep soak for that as much, even relatively young bourbons quickly pick up a nice caramel flavor.  The layer right past that is where you get the vanilla flavor, you can get this flavor from either large temperature swings or long aging.  Oaky-ness is the deepest layer and usually requires long aging and at least moderate temperature swings.

When whiskey evaporates, the two things that evaporate off are usually alcohol and water.  Especially water.  Thus, as a bourbon ages, it tends to have its flavors intensified.  It will also see a mild increase in its proof, since water evaporates faster than alcohol.  What typically doesn't evaporate are those caramelized sugars.

Putting this all together, what you will typically have from an older bourbon is a more intense bourbon, with more concentrated flavors.  Usually a powerful caramel flavor, with very present hints of vanilla and a very full feel in the mouth.  Unfortunately, if the barrels aren't chosen very carefully, a lot of older bourbon can also turn bitter, from the oak flavors.  While a hint of oak can be quite pleasant, when it is in extreme amounts, it isn't particularly good tasting (though some aficionados have convinced themselves to 'appreciate' extreme oaky-ness, most master distillers view it as a deep flaw of poorly made heavily aged bourbons).

Thus, not only does older bourbon lose a lot of its volume while aging, it also must be very heavily monitored or it can end up being a huge waste of money for the distiller.  The high price of older bourbon is only partially a marketing ploy, it really is very expensive to make, in both time and effort.  Sadly, on top of that, a lot of older bourbon simply isn't very good.  We are about to see if Parker Beam's Elijah Craig 18 Year Old Single Barrel can hold up.

Packaging: Lovely bottle, though a tiny bit feminine for my tastes.  Gorgeous mahogany top with a cork.  very soft contour to the bottle.  The label is very simple, but elegant.  the painted on lines are a nice touch, and from the back you can tell they even continue underneath the label.

Appearance: Medium dark amber.  One of the darkest 90 proof bourbons you'll see

Smell: Oak, Vanilla and caramel are all there.  Slightly odd to smell oak pre taste.  Usually that's something you can only pick up on after you've taken a sip or two.

Taste: Caramel is very present yet not overwhelming.  Not nearly as corn syrupy as a lot of heaven hill products are.  Vanilla is there throughout.  After about a second the oak comes in.  Tiny bit of fruitiness comes in as well.  Overall a very balanced, rich taste.  Smooth, without being boring.

Aftertaste: gets a bit spicy at the end, with oak.  The caramel stays for a while and is still there throughout the aftertaste.  Not at all bitter.

Overall: In my mind, this is right up there with the very best, if not the very best.  I prefer this to the other main heavily aged bourbons that are widely available, Jefferson Presidential select and Pappy Van Winkle.  That Heaven Hill was able to get such a complex, full bodied bourbon, without even a hint of oak bitterness really evidences Parker Beam's skill.  A lot of the ultra premium bourbons end up not even tasting like bourbon, as they try to get overly fancy.  That never happens here.  This just tastes like really, really, really great bourbon.  Even though it's not cheap, I'd still call it a bargain, as it clearly blows away most everything in it's price range and even bourbons that are much more expensive.