Elijah Craig Barrel Proof is easily one of bourbon’s worst kept secrets. Whenever there’s a “best bourbon for the money” discussion, you’re all but guaranteed to see Heaven Hill’s triannual flagship pop up. After all, we’re talking about an uncut, unfiltered 12-year bourbon with an MSRP of around $60-$70. It’s a peak example of the stats speaking for themselves. Depending on where you live, however, the word is out and sellers are responding accordingly with tags exceeding the $100 price point (B520 went for $130 at one local store).
Since Elijah Craig Barrel Proof sees three releases per year, there’s an expected discussion for which batches reign supreme. 2019’s final batch was a popular bottle for many reviewers, either cracking or outright topping certain Best of 2019 lists. C919 was also my first exposure to the product line. Given its eye-popping 136.8 bottle proof, you can probably imagine what my first impressions were like. Now we’re about to give the batch my final impressions, since it has become one of my most recently killed bottles.
Nose: Earth, oak, and corn syrup. Toffee roasted almonds, molasses, some dark caramel and yeast notes, and a little ethanol. One of those “Southern county fair” noses. Brown sugar, peanuts, and fresh warm Cracker Jacks. Get a slight to moderate vegetal essence. Heavily honeyed black tea. Vanilla with toasted and candied walnuts.
Palate: Moderately dense and hot on the back. Earth and fruits. Red grapes, dark brown sugar, and oak. Dark caramel and butterscotch. Fresh butter pecan. Earthy charred oak personality that barely avoids feeling heavy-handed. Has some alcohol—not too much, but enough to note.
Finish: Lengthy. Corn syrup, caramel, and candied nuts (butter pecan coating). Oak, burnt caramel, and brown sugar with enough sweetness retained. Think cornbread, nuts, syrup, and oak.
Calling this apex Heaven Hill is something of an obvious statement, yet it’s precisely what comes to mind when sitting down with a pour. The nose alone evokes the thought of a rickhouse and Southern state fair combined, complete with all the greasy treats the latter plays host to. To that end, this is a sensory bourbon to a fault with loads to uncover if you dig deep and long enough. What’s most important, however, is how enjoyable I found the bottle, which is what’s made reviewing C919 particularly difficult.
Some nights I would pour this and it was exactly what I’d want: Quality barrel proof whiskey with tons of rich, defining bourbon characteristics taken to the nth degree. Other nights, however, it stuck me as either overdone or somewhat off, with oddly musty and vegetal characteristics that came on rather strongly for my tastes. Unfortunately, the latter seemed to be the more common and impression-forming scenario, which left me regarding C919 as a stellar release that didn’t quite captivate me as much as I’d like it to. Or at least, as consistently as I would’ve liked it to.