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 “C921,” which simply means the following. “C” means this is the third of three releases for 2021, preceded by “A” and “B.” The “9” means that this is a September release. And the “21” just stands for 2021. The next release will likely be A122 next year, assuming the usual schedule holds.
As for this particular release, the proof point creeps up a bit from this year’s B521, which made history by being the lowest ECBP release to date at “merely” 118.2 proof (59.1% ABV), but it’s still quite low for the ECBP series at a whole, sitting at 120.2 (60.1% ABV). That actually makes it the second lowest proof point for ECBP ever, after the previous one.
This was immediately a little bit concerning to me, because to be frank, I found B521 to be something of a disappointment —still good, but the least passionate I’ve felt about any batch of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof in recent memory. It wasn’t really clear whether this was more a function of proof, or simply flavor profile, but upon seeing the 120.2 proof, I was afraid it might turn out to be the former. Long story short, I needn’t have worried. Batch C921 indicates that exceptional Elijah Craig Barrel Proof bourbon is found at all parts of the proof range, as this proved to easily be one of my favorite ECBP batches in recent history.
So with that said, let’s get to tasting and dive into what makes C921 such a stand-out.
On the nose, every indication is immediately that this is a batch of ECBP that is very much in my personal wheelhouse. It smells extremely decadent, with heady notes of gooey caramel candies and toasted piloncillo sugar, along with freshly scraped vanilla beans, gingerbread, cassia bark and a little clove. Fruit notes of apple pie and dark berry compote are supporting players, with traces of old oak rounding things out, but the nose here is really reveling in various kinds of caramelized sugars and confectionery notes, making this immediately feel like a very rich and desserty dram. This is often true of some of my favorite ECBP releases, ‘ala last year’s wonderful B520, and I’m finding some of the same influences here.
On the palate, this is again wonderfully rich and luxurious in its flavors. It’s quite sweet off the bat, with lots of candied orange, vanilla frosting, and some darker black cherry pie filling. The oodles of caramel present on the nose likewise rush to the forefront, along with huge amounts of cinnamon, which is more of a “cinnamon churro” and less “cinnamon red hots” in presentation. The classic Heaven Hill nuttiness peaks in with pecan pralines, and the ethanol gives it a solid, chest-warming heat that is still fairly gentle on the palate compared to relative bruisers like A120. Oak is more subtle this time around, contributing only hints of tannic dryness to offset all the caramelized sugars and fruit-driven notes. All in all, this is perhaps not the most overall complex ECBP profile I’ve tasted recently, but it’s one of the most purely delicious.
This whiskey reads as a huge crowd-pleaser, although there are some oak-chasers out there who will probably find it to be too sweet or one-dimensional for their taste. As for me, this C921 batch lands very close to the center of my sweet spot for the brand, reminding me of what Elijah Craig Barrel Proof has long been one of my favorite bourbons on Earth. For $70, I really don’t know if you can possibly do better than this. Expect to see it again on year-end lists.
Distillery: Heaven Hill
City: Bardstown, KY
Style: Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 60.1% (120.2 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $70 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.