Bourbon lovers from around the world breathed a collective sigh of disappointment as our suspicions were confirmed last week: Heaven Hill would be dropping the age statement from Elijah Craig Small Batch. It’s hard not be bummed by this news. One of the last high-quality bargain bourbons, relegated to the ranks of the non-age-statement offerings. Oh well. What are you gonna do, drive around to all the local liquor stores in search of some remaining age statement bottles for the bunker? Yep! That’s precisely what I did yesterday, and I was shocked to find the NAS version on the shelf of the first store I visited. Already? Really?!?! I didn’t think it would happen so soon after hearing the news, but I was clearly wrong. Even though I planned to continue searching for some 12-year bottles (I found some, don’t worry), I couldn’t help but wonder how the NAS bottle would compare to its predecessor. Let’s find out, shall we?
For anyone keeping their finger on the pulse of the bourbon market, it was hard to miss the first sign that this NAS replacement was on its way. Over the summer we received our first bit of bad news on this front. Heaven Hill was planning to remove the big red “12” from the front of the bottle. The only mention of age would be in the fine print on the back label. It was still a 12-year-old bourbon, but we all knew what was coming next. At the time I did the same thing that I did yesterday. I headed to my local store and scooped up a few bottles of Big Red for my bunker, and I’m glad I did. I never cracked any of those bottles. Instead I’ve been drinking the back-label-12, as it was still readily available. What can I say? It’s the collector side of me that feels the need to hold on to some of those Big Reds. I’m sure I’m not alone in that sentiment. So, for my tasting, I poured from a back-label-12 bottle and from the new NAS bottle. By the way, with regards to the photo above, you might be wondering why the NAS bottle is drained more than it should be for that first pour. Good eye! That’s because I second-guessed myself after pouring, thinking I might have poured two from the NAS bottle by mistake. I must have been on auto-pilot and zoned out. Just to be on the safe side, I set the first two pours aside (to be enjoyed later) and poured two more for the tasting. It’d be classic if I did a side-by-side tasting from the same bottle. Doh!
Ok, so now for the tastings. I’m going to do you all a favor and keep this short and sweet. Instead of giving detailed notes for each pour, I’m going to jump straight to my conclusion. The reason why? These two batches are almost identical as far as I can tell. I can’t detect any difference in color. Both have nice long legs, appearing to be almost identical in viscosity. Now you know why I second-guessed myself on those first two pours that I set aside. Both have that classic EC nose, with lots of vanilla and caramel and a bit of citrus and a hint of charred oak, all of which follow through on the palate. Both have a somewhat hefty mouthfeel and finish about the same. I did detect some very subtle differences in the nose and palate. The 12-year seemed a little more rounded out with a tad less citrus and slightly more brown-sugar richness. The NAS pour had a slightly brighter nose with a bit more citrus. However, as I sat down the write this post, I started to think about the fact that I first cracked the 12-year about a week ago, but I didn’t crack the NAS until minutes before the tasting. I thought that might be contributing to the subtle differences I was picking up, so I decided to do another tasting after letting the NAS bottle breathe overnight. I’m glad I did. I think it’s a more accurate comparison, and I can hardly detect any differences between the two now.
Well, in summary, it’s my opinion that this first batch of NAS Elijah Craig is nearly identical to the 12-year bottle. I’m clearly not a bourbon sommelier (yet!!), and perhaps someone with a more refined palate might disagree, but I think that when it comes to quality, we’re still in good hands with Heaven Hill. However, based on what I’ve heard, Heaven Hill stated that the youngest juice could range from 8 to 12 years old. That’s a big range, relatively speaking. My semi-educated guess is that Heaven Hill knows that the bourbon community is bummed about them dropping the age statement, and they don’t want to completely let down EC fans and critics overnight. I’m assuming that this first batch is probably very close to, if not 12-years-old. Removing the age statement gives them the flexibility to work with younger stocks, but I’m sure they’re smart enough to not release a first batch that’s markedly different than the 12-year-old batches we’re accustomed to. They must know that nerds like me will do side-by-side comparisons. Let’s just hope that they don’t gradually ease us into a product that is drastically different (and inferior to) the Elijah Craig that we know and love. We’re trusting you, Heaven Hill. Please don’t let us down.