...where distraction is the main attraction.

Friday, June 21, 2019

An Elijah Craig Taste Off

This tasting was supposed to be for gits and shiggles, but as all the tasters' notes came in, I started learning things. A narrative or two — and you know there always MUST be narratives — emerged from the bourbon haze. And something remarkable happened. With eyes closed, the tasters could see.


Here the bourbons be, in order of bottling date:

From left to right:
--12 year old, bottled ca. 2001, distilled at the old distillery, before the fire.
--12 year old Small Batch with the red 12 on the front label.
--12 year old Small Batch with the age statement moved to the back label.
--Small Batch, no age statement, previous bottle/label style
--Small Batch, no age statement, current bottle/label style

Again, these are the ECs in order of bottling date. This not the order of the blind samples. Maybe.


Taking a step back and really seeing these five different Elijah Craigs clustered together in the whisky cabinet, I realized a public tasting was in order. I liked Elijah Craig Small Batch enough to gather these bottlings from three states and two countries, but when was I going to have time drinking them all? The idea was to compare them someday, but that's a lot of tempered poison to consume. And if opinions are like livers, wouldn't it better to have 21 of them?

So I recruited 20 other livers tasters. Actually I recruited 16. Five wives joined in to assist their husbands with this terrifying task. Some tasters were bourbon geeks, many were not. I would guess less than a third had tried pre-fire Elijah Craig before. Most of us were innocents before, but now we know.

Everyone received five samples marked A through E. In my case, Kristen shuffled the glasses. Without knowing which was which, we each provided notes, rankings and the occasional guess.

(thank you, Gridley's Redemption)

I'll begin with how the bourbons were ranked, then I'll cover the tasting notes and show the guesses. After that comes the REVEAL(!). With the reveal in mind, we all can go back and look at the rankings and guesswork. Onwards!


21 tasters (20 of y'all, plus me) ranked the five samples in order of preference. Most favoritest to Least Favoritest (words used in a number of replies). As I tallied these up, I assigned points similar to the NCAA Coaches Polls, since no one ever disagrees with those. 5 points for first place, 4 points for second place, down to 1 point for 5th place. That way the winner had the most points. Because America.

First Place
SAMPLE A with 81 points
Its mean was 3.86. In other words it averaged nearly a second place finish.
12 first place votes.
3 last place votes.
Two-thirds of the tasters ranked it first or second.

Second Place (tie!)
SAMPLE E with 64 points
Its mean was 3.05, almost exactly a third place average.
2 first place votes
2 last place votes
It had the smallest standard deviation overall because 80% of the tasters ranked it 2nd, 3rd or 4th.

Second Place (tie!)
SAMPLE C with 64 points
Its mean was 3.05, almost exactly a third place average.
2 first place votes
4 last place votes
Yeah, I can't believe there was a tie, either.

Fourth Place
SAMPLE D with 54 points
Its mean was 2.57.
4 first place votes
5 first place votes
Feelings were all over the place with this one.

Fifth Place
SAMPLE B with 52 points
Its mean was 2.48.
1 first place vote
7 last place votes
More than half of the tasters voted this one fourth or fifth.

Hooray for Sample A! There was quite a gap between first and second place. Even so, some people really didn't like Sample A, while others enjoyed Sample B. I'll try to capture this variety of opinion in this next section...


One of the first things one sees when compiling the notes of 20 tasters is......chaos. I've hosted a number of group tastings, and when several people share their notes aloud their experiences converge to a greater measure than when several people write their notes down secretly. When TWENTY people write their notes down, there are approximately TWENTY different experiences.

I've attempted to group some of the notes together in this section because most of the bourbons had over 100 notes. I don't want to force any similarities that aren't there, but let's see if there are any consistencies.

thank you Mystery Photographer!

SAMPLE A - 81 points, 3.86 avg
Many tasters were confident about this one from the start.

The nose generated similar declarations from 5 different tasters: old bottle effect (twice), dusty profundity, classic dusty aroma and "that nameless smell of old bourbon". Other common descriptors included:
4 mentions each for Oak and Vanilla
3 mentions of Maple (syrup and candies)
2 mentions each of Armagnac and Corn products
There was also tobacco, leather, peach cobbler, hops, iron, fuel and anise cough drops among dozens of other notes.

Seven tasters referenced Oak when describing the palate. Other popular notes were:
4 mentions each for Pepper and Heat
3 mentions for Yeast
2 mentions each for Leather, Caramel and Cloves
They also said it tasted like dill, mole sauce, cotton candy, red wine, chocolate and a dank well.

Oak received 4 mentions in the finish notes.
Good length had 2
Vanilla had 3
Also cloves, rye, maple, mint, tobacco leaf and cellar funk were referenced.

Among the comments, this was the biggest, but also the thinnest of the group. It was delightful, yet unpleasant. A quarter of the reviewers raved about its nose. Others said the whole thing was complex, unique and well-aged.

SAMPLE B - 52 points, 2.48 avg
Though this sample had much lower overall scores than A, it had a wider variety of descriptors. Some drinkers seemed to think it was younger than A as well.

The nose seemed to be about the corn (4x), including "dry corn in an old wood grain bin". Other popular notes were:
3 mentions each for Maple and Peanuts
2 mentions each for Caramel, Bananas and Sweetness
Lots of other sugary stuff including candy apple coating, cake, vanilla frosting, confectioners' sugar and toffee. There were also greener notes such as yeast, mint, vegetables, sunflower seeds and fresh cut grass. A curious lack of "oak" in the descriptions here.

Oak was mentioned 5 times in the palate notes. Other notes include:
4 mentions each for Nuts/Nut products and Cinnamon
3 mentions each for Fruit, Caramel and Bitterness
2 mentions each for Almond products (milk and extract), Sweet, Spicy, Dry and Peanuts
Those notes sound pretty, but then there were notes like: thin, astringent, hot and savory.

The finish received some tough notes like young, raw, craft whiskey, watery and short. Others included:
2 mentions each for Oak, Dry, Medium length
There were also cloves, cinnamon, maple syrup and straw.

Per the comments the whiskey was full of "raw wood, typical of young whiskey", while also having a "lovely uniqueness". It was easy to drink, while also having consistency issues. There were a number of references to its weakness, while one taster compared it to Jim Beam White Label with more age.

SAMPLE C - 64 points, 3.05 avg
This bourbon had the fewest descriptors in all the categories. A lot of oak, though.

Oak tagged 6 notes in the nose. Other notes included:
3 mentions each of Vanilla, Corn products and Quietness
2 mentions each of Citrus, Coconut and Alcohol
Also nut brittle, caramel, candy corn and lemon Pine Sol.

Oak again led the palate with 9 mentions. Sweetness had 5 mentions. Solvent/feints/polish received three. Also:
2 mentions each for Thin, Dry, Simple, Young, Bitter and Caramel
It was thick, tingly, tannic, mineral, floral and grassy.

Three tasters thought the finish was short. Three mentioned oak, and two thought it was dry. It was also watery, bitter and tannic. There was also vanilla, clove and brown sugar.

Comments were limited as well. Tasters though it was "rounded", "not complex but drinkable" and it reminded one taster of Orphan Barrel Barterhouse. There was enough enthusiasm to garner it some good scores, but not a lot of vivid descriptions.

SAMPLE D - 54 points, 2.57 avg
As mentioned above, this one really split the group.

In the nose notes, oak led again with five references. Then:
3 mentions each for Mint and Nuts
2 mentions each for Vegetal, Toasted, Butterscotch and Barn
It was also "weird" and "earthy", with corn, rye, tobacco, lavender, hay, thai curry, indoor pool, Moroccan hair oil and old-books-unopened-for-decades notes.

Leading notes in the palate were:
5 mentions: Oak
4 mentions: Bitter
3 mentions each for Dry and Sweet
2 mentions each for Honey and Heat
The other notes were spread out, like: red wine, maple, grassy, stone fruit, Juicy Fruit gum, biscuits, black tea, yeast, cola, spearmint and a cigar ashtray cleaned with Windex.

Finish notes were concise:
4 mentions: Oak
3 mentions: Short
2 mentions each for Dry, Sweet and Char
Other notes included: fresh cigar wrapper, amaretto, licorice and spice cabinet.

Comments ranged everywhere from "very good" to "horrible". It was the "most complicated" but also "eww poopoo must be NAS" ← Nominee for tasting note of the decade.

SAMPLE E - 64 points, 3.05 avg
A few tasters said they were getting weary by this point, but there were still plenty of notes for this bourbon.

With references to lumber yards and wood chips, oak/wood led the way again with 5 mentions for the nose.
3 mentions for Vanilla
2 mentions each for Honey and Sweetness
Also coconut, tobacco, caramel corn, mint, old leather chair, toffee, corn oil & husks, old grass clippings and pine needles.

NINE different tasters commented on the palate's sweetness. Also:
3 mentions each for Vanilla, Oak and Sugars
2 mentions each for Baking spices, Nuts, Flowers and Heat
Also rye, mint, caramel, wax, smoky, graham crackers, Honey Nut Cheerios and berry pie.

For the finish the notes included:
3 mentions of Oak
2 mentions each for Drying, Short and Sweet
Others included beeswax candy, vanilla, cocoa, lemon juice and heat.

Per further comments, this sweetie needed time to open up, was well-rounded like a Japanese whisky, yet was typical of Heaven Hill bourbon. It was balanced and elegant, with a silky mouthfeel.


The drinkers had the option to guess which sample was which Elijah Craig. It was sort of a dare. But as 15 of the tasters made guesses of one or more of the ECs, this lark wound up resulting in something fascinating...

10 out of 15 guesses were correct.
All 15 guesses got the age statement correct.

7 out of 14 guesses were correct
All 14 guesses got the age statement correct.

4 out of 13 guesses were correct
7 out of 13 guesses got the age statement correct.

4 out of 14 guesses were correct.
11 out of 14 guesses got the age statement correct.

4 out of 13 guesses were correct
8 out of 13 guesses got the age statement correct.

Firstly, look at the results from Samples A & B again. Drink that in.

Secondly, 42% of all guesses were correct. 80% of the guesses at least nailed the age statement.

While there were a handful of big bourbon geeks in the group, the vast majority were not. In fact some of us don't even like bourbon that much. Yet, our senses can sort out the difference between a 12yo and an NAS, to the point of perfection in Samples A & B.


Let me not tarry further.


SAMPLE A was the Pre-Fire 12 year old, bottled ca. 2001

SAMPLE B was the current NAS Small Batch

SAMPLE C was the old NAS Small Batch

SAMPLE D was the 12 year old with the age statement on the back label

SAMPLE E was the 12 year old with the age statement on the front label


First Place
Pre-Fire 12 year old, bottled ca. 2001 with 81 points
10 out of 15 guesses were correct.
All 15 guesses got the age statement correct.

Second Place (tie!)
Front label 12 year old with 64 points
4 out of 13 guesses were correct
8 out of 13 guesses got the age statement correct.

Second Place (tie!)
Old NAS Small Batch with 64 points
4 out of 13 guesses were correct
7 out of 13 guesses got the age statement correct.

Fourth Place
Back label 12 year old with 54 points
4 out of 14 guesses were correct.
11 out of 14 guesses got the age statement correct.

Fifth Place
Current NAS Small Batch with 52 points
7 out of 14 guesses were correct
All 14 guesses got the age statement correct.

While we shouldn't be totally shocked that the oldest and newest Elijah Craigs landed first and last, while also generating very accurate guesses, it's still fascinating that this really played out, almost to an extreme level.

There was also a distinct preference of the old no-age-statement Small Batch over the new one. Meanwhile the old NAS thumped the very 12 year old (back label) it replaced, even though the tasters seemed to know the lower scoring whiskey was a 12yo.

I was surprised the front label 12yo — the bottling that brought many of us to Elijah Craig in the first place — didn't fare that well. It seemed to be a considerable step down from the pre-fire 12, per the group scores.

Speaking of the pre-fire 12, its color was the darkest of the group, with a deep red tint to it. Several tasters also noted its character was different than the other four, which set it apart, which may have led to some correct guesses.

These are all generalizations to some point, since every taster had his or her own relationship with each EC. For instance, there were a few people who didn't like the pre-fire 12 even though they knew/guessed what it was.

I keep coming back to the remarkable guesswork: 42% correct, 80% correct age statement. It even breaks down evenly between the types:
12 year olds - 42.9% correct. 81.0% correct age statement
NASes - 40.7% correct. 77.8% correct age statement

The drinkers knew what they're tasting, even when they're not experts. Our instincts were correct. Even though the 12 year old whiskey doesn't always win out, we seem to know when it's in our glass.


If you haven't gotten enough of this Elijah Craig onslaught, you will be utterly pleased to know that I will be posting my tasting notes from my blind tasting throughout next week.

More importantly, please use the comment section if you have thoughts or inquiries about this taste off. Thank you to all the participants and all the readers!