At this point, I’ve introduced Elijah Craig Barrel Proof reviews or tastings at Paste often enough that almost anything general I’d say about the product will simply be me repeating myself. Suffice to say, here’s the short, short version.
ECBP is the cask strength, 12-year-old version of Heaven Hill’s classic mid-shelf champion Elijah Craig Small Batch, a whiskey that recently was on our list of the best bourbons for under $30. ECBP is beloved in the whiskey sphere for its potent flavors, often soaring proof point and bang-for-your-buck. Unlike so many well-aged, high-proof bourbons that draw rave reviews, it’s fairly accessible thanks to its trio of yearly releases, and its MSRP of around $70 is hard to beat when you compare it with almost all of its direct competition. There’s a reason why so many list it as a perennial favorite, especially if you enjoy Heaven Hill’s distillery house style.
A quick primer on any given ECBP label: This release is “A121,” which simply means the following. “A” means this is the first of three releases for 2021, to be followed by “B” and “C.” The “1” means that this is technically a January release, although it just seems to be arriving in most places now. And the “21” just stands for 2021. The next release will likely be B521, followed by C921, following the schedule from last year.
Now, onto this particular release. A121 has one factor that makes it somewhat unusual among ECBP releases: Its proof of 123.6 (61.8% ABV) is actually one of the lowest ever for the series. In fact, the only ECBP release that has ever been lower was B519, which rang in at only 122.2. All the others have typically sit in the higher 120s and 130s, with a few releases breaking the truly high octane 140 mark. In general, ECBP is simply a very high-proof series, thanks to Heaven Hill’s use of a high barrel entry proof.
Personally, I’m all for the lower relative proof point when it comes to ECBP. In fact, I think the best (or my favorite) releases in this series have usually been the ones in the 120s, such as last year’s B520 release, which was 127.2. Although the hardcore bourbon geeks are likely to chase the highest proof ECBP batches, the 120s simply feel like the sweet spot of this series as far as I’m concerned.
So with all that said, let’s get to tasting ECBP A121.
On the nose, this is a bold and aromatic bourbon, with lots of orange zest, Tootsie roll-like chocolate, cherry and tons of caramelized sugar character. Chocolate is definitely a major player on the nose, along with old oak. Over time, I’m getting more toffee and vanilla bean, along with pecan praline, giving the nose a decidedly desserty vibe. As you might expect with the relatively lower proof for this series, the ethanol is present on the nose, but not too aggressive. It smells like one of the richer or sweeter ECBP releases of recent years, although maybe not quite as decadent as some.
On the palate, I’m getting sweet orange, caramel and cinnamon dust right off the bat, along with a nuttiness that is more like sweet almond paste. Caramel and toffee are here in a big way, along with vanilla bean, into a back end that has plenty of cinnamon, cardamom and sweet clove. All in all, I’d characterize this as both sweet and rich, although not cloying, and not quite as sweet as some ECBP releases can be. It has desserty-type notes, but not quite the desserty type sweetness when all is said and done that the nose might have you expecting. It’s really quite balanced in fact, with none of its dimensions poking out too strongly. That includes alcoholic heat, which is appropriate and certainly on the lower side in comparison with batches I found to be more fiery, like C919 or A120.
All in all, A121 offers a pretty delicious balance that is close to the center of the bullseye for the series, although it’s not quite as bombastic as some of the other releases. It has a quality of being close to a platonic ideal—not quite as nutty as some batches, not as fruity as some, not as sweet or spicy as some. And yet all of those elements are indeed present. It’s the delicious bourbon we expect from Heaven Hill in this series, and those dipping a toe into barrel proof bourbon may be especially interested, given that this is one ECBP you can probably drink without any ice or dilution.
It’s a winner, which is almost a given with these releases, but I’m sure it’s always nice to be vindicated one more time.
Distillery: Heaven Hill
City: Bardstown, KY
Style: Straight bourbon
ABV: 61.8% (123.6 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $70 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.