News broke on July 23rd that the Non-Distiller Producer (NDP) “Last Drop” had announced their third bourbon release coming from the Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Producing only 20 bottles from a barrel that was filled in 1983, this is the definition of a limited release. No, the whiskey isn’t just shy of 40 years old, instead, it was put into stainless steel when it was about 19 years old effectively ending its aging process.
The price for this 90 proof bourbon will surely be in the thousands of dollars and only go up from there.
Meanwhile, a little over 50 miles away, Heaven Hill continues to harvest 18 year old barrels like it ain’t no thang to put inside bottles of Elijah Craig 18 Year Bourbon (commonly referred to as EC18).
Elijah Craig 18 Year Bourbon
That label, which has continuously been released year after year for many years now, is also bottled at 90 proof and is priced anywhere from $130 to $200 depending on where you find it.
Talking about both of these releases in the same sentence represents one of the great mysteries of “bourbon value.”
When we talk about comparing values of whiskey bottles these days, there’s probably no truer statement than one from Oscar Wilde.
He once lamented that “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” It is true that we all know the price that Last Drop will charge for a bourbon that is more or less the same on paper as the Elijah Craig 18 year, but why aren’t they valued the same?
This brings up another question altogether which is “why isn’t Elijah Craig 18 year valued highly at all?”
If you’ve spent anytime on the secondary market, you’ll notice that virtually all bottles have increased in price over the years.
Even bottles that have no right to have a secondary value (like High West’s Yippie Ki Yay) are now going for twice the price that they were at retail. But the lone outlier is EC18 which has virtually no secondary value.
The problem begins at the point of sale where Heaven Hill suggests that the retail price be around $130, but in reality most retailers charge around $200 per bottle. That’s actually normal.
But on the secondary, I have rarely ever seen a bottle of EC18 fetch more than $230 and even then the buyer was probably new to bourbon. Trades involving EC18 are outright denied too.
And while I can’t affirmatively say that “no seasoned bourbon drinker truly values EC18,” it really feels like that’s the case every time I see one pop up for sale.
So why is this? Why is EC18 so undervalued when it has an age statement and SRP that make it a better value than many similarly priced bottles?
Before I look any further, I’m going to take a look and see if it’s the actual whiskey itself before making any more judgement on it. So with that in mind, my friend Robert loaned me a bottle so that I could find out for myself.
I sampled this neat in a glencairn.
Nose: Very rich caramel meets a lighter note of chocolate. Surprisingly, I’m finding some fruit scents that I typically don’t on Heaven Hill Bourbon (even blueberry, which I get with old, dusty National Distillers Bourbon).
Cinnamon, lots of oak and vanilla round out the nose to give you all of the characteristics that you’d expect, only much deeper and richer.
The vanilla in particular is a note that only gets better as the session goes on.
Palate: More of the same from the nose, only this time translated to your taste buds. Notes of caramel, chocolate and a slight nuttiness leads the way.
Spiced applesauce and vanilla pudding add depth while large notes of wood such as drying oak and wood varnish shine through.
A hint of fruity flavors like plum and cherry are unexpected yet nice while a bit of barrel char and some dry tobacco leaf continue along the drying theme.
The strangest thing is how much peppery spice comes through. The mouthfeel is light to moderately viscous throughout.
Finish: The oak notes are still somewhat dry along with the tobacco, but it’s still pretty pleasant. A touch of toffee and creme brulee rounds it out nicely but the finish is on the short side ending too quickly.
This particular barrel of Elijah Craig 18 Year was much better than I was anticipating. It has a lot of great traits and it all starts with a fantastic nose. The Finish is somewhat short and one dimensional though.
As with many bourbons I review these days, I find myself contemplating the bigger picture by first admitting that no bourbon exists in a vacuum.
The reason why I mention this is because to the casual or inexperienced drinker, EC18 is top notch bourbon.
It gives you something that most bourbon on the shelf can’t: ultra-aged oak notes. There’s something about those oak notes, even when they’re proofed down and chill filtered (EC18 is both) that give you a taste that can only come from all that time in a barrel.
But EC18 is not the ONLY very good bourbon out there. Many drinkers are quick to find other bourbon options in the same price (or less!) that just annihilate EC18 in blind tastings or side-by-side comparisons.
So many other bourbons at this price quickly surpass EC18 in terms of intensity, flavors and uniqueness. A huge reason for this is the paltry 90 proof that EC18 gets bottled at.
Why 90 proof though? My guess is that as Heaven Hill’s tasters sort through the large stocks of extra-aged bourbon they have in their warehouses, they will routinely run across 18+ year old barrels that taste as if they’ve stayed in the barrel too long.
The only way to salvage the expense it took to let those barrels age for that long is to proof it down and chill filter it. Those processes are standard practice among every distillery that needs a remedy to bourbon that has become over-oaked and too bitter.
So what about the 18+ year old barrels that Heaven Hill decides to release that are actually good right out of the barrel? They likely end up in more premium products like William Heaven Hill, Heaven Hill Select Stock and Evan Williams 23 Year bottles.
Releases like that require the best barrels and the reality is not every barrel that reaches that age will become exceptional.
Knowing this explains why EC18 not only exists today but will continue to exist for years to come. There will never be a shortage of these barrels.
Having said all of this, I am not advocating for EC18 to go away by any means. I also do not think that $130 is *that bad* of a price for it.
But when people start paying more for it simply because they think it’s special, that’s where I draw the line.
EC18 is just not a special bottle and more people need to realize that. And if you find yourself agreeing with this assessment but own a bottle anyway, then I’ll tell you what to do with it.
Blend it in to a bottle of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon. Why? Because the “Old Label” Elijah Craig Barrel Proof batches are known to contain bourbon that was much older than the 12 year bourbon on the label and that’s what made them so much better compared to the modern day “New Label” batches.
What? You didn’t know about these old label ECBPs? Then stay tuned for future reviews and prepare to have your mind blown. Cheers!
1 | Disgusting | Drain pour (Example: Jeffers Creek)
2 | Poor | Forced myself to drink it
3 | Bad | Flawed (AD Laws 4 Grain BiB, Clyde Mays anything)
4 | Sub-par | Many things I’d rather have (Tincup 10 year)
5 | Good | Good, solid, ordinary (Larceny, Sazerac Rye)
6 | Very Good | Better than average (Buffalo Trace, OGD BiB)
7 | Great | Well above average (Old Ezra Barrel Proof, Old Weller Antique)
8 | Excellent | Exceptional (Michter’s Barrel Proof Rye, Four Roses Barrel Strength)
9 | Incredible | Extraordinary (GTS, 13 Year MGP or Canadian Rye)
10 | Insurpassable | Nothing Else Comes Close (William Larue Weller)
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