How bourbon came to be aged in charred barrels.
The Reverend Elijah Craig generally gets credit for inventing bourbon. I’m guessing that he would be pleased to know that more than two centuries later, a couple of the best examples of that liquor he may (or may not) have invented bear his name.
According to local lore, the Rev. Craig suffered a fire in the 1780s that fried his whisky barrels, and was too cheap to get new casks. That made him the first in the country to age corn-based whisky in charred oak casks, and it turned out to be the right call – the casks gave the drink the golden brown color it has today, as well as the undercurrent of smoke, caramel, and vanilla flavors that many taste in bourbon (or pretend to, after a few too many cause the senses to deteriorate).
Now, if you are a Kentucky historian or writing a book about the history of alcoholic beverages, you are probably skeptical at the evidence for that claim and treat it with the same respect as the tales of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. That is why you do not work in marketing. At any rate, this possibly tall tale was enough to get Heaven Hill Distilleries to name some pretty good stuff after him, and it makes for entertaining reading when you’re sipping a bourbon on a summer night. Heaven Hill also makes the Evan Williams line of bourbons, named after the man recognized as Kentucky’s First Distiller, and if that wasn’t impressive enough to complete the name-dropping the Master Distillers at Heaven Hill are the father-son tandem of Parker and Craig Beam, from perhaps the most famous last name in the industry. If you ever do anything to revolutionize the bourbon industry, expect Heaven Hill to name something after you as well.
Elijah Craig 18 and 12 year old varieties. The 18 year old is a top shelf item and often stores shelf it that way. Both bottle are 750ml.
12 year old 94 proof
18 year old 90 proof single barrel
Enough with the history lesson. There are two Elijah Craig bourbons on the market, and both are worth your attention. The first is the Elijah Craig 18-Year-Old Single Barrel. As the name suggests, it has been aged for 18 years and is hand-selected by the Beam Brothers. Watch for a 20 year old variety to replace the 18 year old.
The Elijah Craig 18-Year-Old Single Barrel is not only old enough to vote and serve in the army, it’s a 90-proof masterpiece that’s got a character that’s hard to match. Not many other bourbons get this much of a chance to age, so a bottle is a rarified experience that should be savored and enjoyed.
Please, for the love of all things sacred, do not denigrate this drink by mixing it with anything. Maybe – maybe! – a couple of ice cubes if that’s how you generally take your bourbon, but it is a waste to do anything to disguise the taste and texture that is there. You want to sip it, preferably slowly.
I’m not kidding on the sipping part, especially if you aren’t typically a single-barrel person. Its flavor is a bit more intense – more to the point, it has a flavor, rather than the smooth but blander bourbons you sometimes get with those blended from multiple barrels. Don’t use it to make your mint juleps for the Kentucky Derby; it is a waste of perfectly excellent bourbon, and there’s a greater risk that the flavors will clash. (Just be like everyone else and use Maker’s Mark).
Of course, to get a bottle that’s aged as long as this one has will cost you. You can expect to pay somewhere between $2.50 and $3 per aged year to get a bottle, since 750ml will cost somewhere around 50 bucks.
For those of us on a budget who still want something quality to drink, there is also the Elijah Craig 12-Year-Old. A 750ml bottle will set you back less than $20 in many places, and offers a premium drinking experience at a price that makes it suitable for something besides special occasions.
Everything about the Elijah Craig 12-Year-Old is inviting. It has a rich, reddish-brown color that looks good in the glass, and the bouquet has a nice scent of vanilla to cure any fears that this will burn on the way down. It’s nice to let it sit for a few minutes before taking that first sip, to let the flavors settle a bit, but the result is a smooth-drinking bourbon that goes down easily. And as a 94-proof bourbon, it has a little more kick to it than some of its rivals.
There’s a lot of depth to the flavor here, thanks both to the age and the fact that it results from a dumping of 70 or fewer bottles. This is a true small batch. In fact, Heaven Hill would like you to know that it was “small batch” before “small batch” was even a word, because their copywriters apparently write the dictionary in their spare time, but that clever bit of knowledge might win you a game of bar trivia some day or impress your friends if they’ve had too much to drink and can be impressed by bourbon-related factoids.
For you, the discerning bourbon drinker, the Elijah Craig 12-Year-Old is a nice, every-day drink. You don’t have to wait for company to dust off the bottle, since the combination of taste and price makes it a great choice for the house bourbon in any home.
Moreover, if you have any friends who are less into the bourbon genre, or were scared off by a bad experience with some cut-rate blend, this is a perfect gateway bourbon to get them to look towards Kentucky for their drinking pleasure. It is a bourbon that tastes good without being overpowering, bitter, or cloyingly sweet, and if those people still take a sip from a glass of Elijah Craig 12-Year-Old and make a face, there’s probably no hope for them. It also works better as a mixer than its older rival, though it is certainly not a drink that needs its flavor disguised and is excellent neat, with a splash of water, or on the rocks.
And finally, the Elijah Craig brands are a great way to judge the quality of drinking establishments. Nearly everywhere you go will have the usual suspects prominently displayed on the bar, like Knob Creek and Maker’s Mark. But if you walk up to the bartender and ask for an Elijah Craig and they say “12 years or 18?” you know you’re in a place where a good bourbon is appreciated, and a place like that is worth the cost of many a bottle.