Review: Elijah Craig 23 Year Old Single Barrel Whiskey

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Elijah Craig 23 Year Old Bourbon Whiskey
Elijah Craig 23 Year Old Bourbon Whiskey

With the American Whiskey craze in full force, any time a distillery puts out something rare or old, there’s a going to be a great deal of expectation and frenzy surrounding it. Heaven Hill is sure to stoke those frenzy fires with their release of Elijah Craig 23 Year Old Single Barrel Bourbon. Heaven Hill has seen strong success releasing older, single barrel Elijah Craig whiskeys, first with their 20 year old Elijah Craig release in 2012 and then again with a 21 year old release last fall (which sold out extremely fast). One of the major issues with releases in this space is that American whiskey doesn’t age very well past 12 years. There are, of course, a few rare and notable exceptions to this, but they are indeed the exceptions. After about 9-12 years, most American whiskeys lose the battle with the barrel they are aged in and become overly oaked, unbalanced, and sometimes even downright unpalatable.

This reality hasn’t stopped whiskey collectors and enthusiasts from snapping up any and everything they can find that’s old. Part of this irrational consumption comes out the misconception that these whiskeys are going to be “worth a fortune” someday, that somehow older whiskey is better whiskey, and the seemingly undeniable pleasure some have of owning something other people don’t or can’t. It’s hard to fault whiskey companies from putting products out in a space with such fervent consumers, and for the most part Heaven Hill has done a pretty good job finding older whiskey that manages to maintain some sort of balance and deliver a pleasant taste experience.

Watch our video: Understanding Aged Bourbon with Larry Kass of Heaven Hill Distilleries for a good explanation of how the rare barrel can defy aging gravity and age differently than others.

Elijah Craig 23 Year Old Single Barrel Whiskey (45% ABV / 90 Proof, $199) is one of the oldest whiskeys that Heaven Hill has released under the Elijah Craig brand (although they’ve previously released a 25 year old under the Rittenhouse brand, as well as a 27 year old bourbon under the Parker’s Heritage Collection line). This release is two years older than last year’s release with a slight increase in price, now hitting the $200 mark. Since it’s a single barrel product, taste, character, and flavor notes may vary from barrel to barrel, but we’re confident that Heaven Hill has selected a range of casks with similar character (our bottle comes from barrel number 26 which was barreled on 2/26/90).

Deep amber in color, this whiskey is consistent in color with the extreme age of this whiskey. Oak is definitely the lead aroma out of the glass and it reads as dusty old oak with a touch of varnish. On the nose, Elijah Craig 23 Year Old isn’t just an oak bomb: beyond the oak there’s cinnamon, shortbread cookie, marzipan, and dried orange peel. On the entry, this whiskey also has a little more to offer beyond oak with vanilla, caramel, and cinnamon. The oak spice does ramp up pretty quickly, though, and by the time we get to the midpalate, it’s become undeniably strong oak. As with the nose, the midpalate features some counterpoint flavors which try desperately to balance out the oak, including clove, coconut, caramel, dark cherry, and orange peel, but you really have to break through the strong oak to get to them.  The finish for Elijah Craig 23 Year Old whiskey is slightly long and oaky with a touch of heat and touch of dark chocolate. It’s not as dry as you’d expect with all this age, but it’s oaky and deeply tannic.

As with their other older releases, Heaven Hill has found barrels of the old stuff that are interesting in some way beyond just being an oak bomb, and there’s a real effort here to create some sort of balance, especially with the the proofing. The problem, though, is that this whiskey is past its prime, and there’s just no denying the reality of age.

There’s no doubt that like its predecessor, the Elijah Craig 23 year old single barrel will be quickly snapped up by whiskey collectors and folks who try to chase age in their spirits. At $200, it’s well out of reach of the average whiskey consumer, and that’s just fine. There are far better whiskeys out there (including many from Heaven Hill) at much lower prices. Elijah Craig 23 year old single barrel isn’t designed for the everyday consumer, and odds are the folks who will end up buying this release won’t care how good or bad it really is, just that they managed to get their hands on some old rare stuff that no one else will get. That’s what the whiskey market has come to these days, and for the rest of us, we’ll enjoy such gems as Heaven Hill’s Evan William’s Single Barrel, which sells at literally 1/10th of the price. 89 points.

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89
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+Geoff Kleinman, is the founder, and managing editor of DrinkSpirits.com. He is a nationally recognized spirits columnist and staff reviewer for Whisky Advocate Magazine. Geoff's work has appeared in dozens of major magazines including Playboy Magazine, Black Book, and Mixology Magazine. He is a current sitting judge for the Ultimate Spirits Challenge, the founder of the Society of Modern Journalists, holds BAR certification from the Beverage Alcohol Resource Group, is a Certified Cognac Educator, and a Kentucky Colonel