By Richard Thomas
The most recent batch, B523/May 2023, of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof brought with it two interconnected changes. Whereas prior labels (see left) have proof, ABV and batch number printed on them, the current version has proof, age statement and batch number instead. That first alteration underscores the second change: the age statement, which had previously been 12 years, is now 11 years, five months.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about that last change is how little comment it has inspired. In writing about this for The Robb Report, Jonah Flicker quipped about the gasps of 1,000 whiskey nerds. For my part, I think they croak like frogs, but I was surprised not to hear the noise all the same. Excepting for a couple of blogs and the usual chatter on Reddit, I have seen none of the outrage that would have attached itself to such a thing several years ago. The question there is whether the most passionate enthusiasts haven’t noticed yet or have they grown out of blowing a gasket at the slightest change made to a beloved product, because I don’t believe nobody actually cares. The stuff sells too well.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof has been regarded as the last vestige of what many regard as the original small batch bourbon: Elijah Craig 12 Year Old. This brand was introduced in the mid-1980s, a forerunner of the attempt to claw the industry out of the doldrums that followed the great whiskey bust of the 1970s. In this respect, it was a peer to the marketing efforts of Maker’s Mark and the creation of Blanton’s as the first single barrel bourbon. The brand retained the 12 year age statement until 2016, when it was converted into a no age statement whiskey with an age reportedly in the 8 to 10 year range.
After said conversion, the 12 year formulation continued to appear in the Barrel Proof version, as well as in single barrel bottlings. Thus, purists continued to point to Elijah Craig Barrel Proof as the way to access the real (I prefer the term “original”) Elijah Craig, hence my surprise as to the lack of furor. Those guys must really be falling asleep at their keyboards.
Or maybe they read the fine print. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof is not necessarily being turned into a younger whiskey. While the change obviously means that maker Heaven Hill can now draw on younger stocks of bourbon in creating a new batch, it does not necessarily follow that every batch released from now on will now be under 12 years of age. The next batch is slated as a 13 year old, and it’s a good guess that future batches will cross back and forth across the old 12 year line. In that respect, the move brings the brand into line with similar offerings like Booker’s and Barrell Bourbon, which are also cask strength and have unique age statements for every batch.
The wiser and more mature enthusiasts will also realize that a seven month cut in the minimum age of bourbons used in the batch may not actually make that much of a difference in the end product, and I can tell you with certainty that it does not. I opened up all the Barrel Proof batches I had on hand to test the proposition, and my blind tasting told me the difference between all batches used was within the realm of variance one would assign to single barrel expressions. Cask strength expressions tend to show that kind of range, as they are rarely blended with an eye on consistency. The result is certainly less noticeable than was the case when Elijah Craig 12 Year Old became Elijah Craig Small Batch (NAS).
For the time being, I don’t know if the age statement change matters. That depends on where Heaven Hill decides to take it. And as a result, maybe that noise of a thousand whiskey nerds gasping or croaking in unison is yet to come, but at least for now, they aren’t. That is a good thing, because this time the occasion offers so little to croak about.