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Toasted Barrel Bourbon Comparison: Elijah Craig vs. Michter’s vs. Down Home

Toasted Barrel Bourbon Comparison: Elijah Craig  vs. Michter’s  vs. Down Home

Barrel finishing treatments have came a long way since Angel’s Envy made it popular in the bourbon scene years ago. 

For the most part, various wine and brandy barrels were the preferred barrel to finish a whiskey in because of their availability and what I imagine to be their cost to obtain (seeing as how they were already used).  But in 2015, Michter’s caught us by surprise with their release of a bourbon that was finished in a brand new barrel that had nothing else done to it other than a toasting process on the inside. 

The toasting process is well known in the wine industry. A heated source is placed inside the barrel, but does not char the wood. 

Instead the heat bakes the wood creating many new compounds inside of it or brings them to the surface.  One of the most noticeable compounds is vanillin, which is the main component extracted from vanilla beans.

Michter’s maintained this exclusive finish for a few years, ultimately trying it on their rye recipe and sour mash whiskey recipe, before others began to catch on. 

Our first wiff that other distillers were also trying their hand at a toasted finish was in 2018 when Blood Oath (a Luxco brand that sources from Heaven Hill) released “Blood Oath Pact 4” which contained a 9 year old bourbon finished in toasted oak barrels.  This would probably serve as a testing bed for the release of Elijah Craig Small Batch finished in Toasted Oak Barrels in mid 2020. 

Even then, a Non-Distiller Producer (NDP) called Down Home released a Kentucky-exclusive bottling of bourbon that was sourced from MGP in Indiana and finished in toasted oak barrels. 

The only difference was that Down Home chose to keep the proof pretty high (110 proof) whereas Michter’s and Elijah Craig bottled theirs much lower.

Most of us are already familiar with the taste profiles of Michter’s, Elijah Craig and MGP, but in a 3-way blind tasting, who would come out on top?  I sat down to find out.  I sampled all of these neat and in a Glencairn.

Glass #1

Nose: A fantastic, complex nose of warm vanilla cupcakes, charred oak, deep caramel and buttered cornbread.  As the tasting goes on, I can smell some additional chocolate sauce notes.  This nose is extremely well put together.

Palate: Vanilla cake batter is the first thing I taste and it surrounds everything else.  There are some well integrated baking spice with a little bit of black pepper heat followed by a nice oaky wood taste that never gets bitter.  The sweetness is reminiscent of toffee and there’s even the faintest cherry juice note that I pick up on.

Finish: The finish is extremely mellow.  Nothing dominates, but everything lasts for longer than expected.  Light baking spices with vanilla custard remind me of sweet treats whereas oak and a hint of tobacco let me know that there is some age to this.  It’s surprisingly well rounded.

Score: 7.5/10

Glass # 2

Nose: This nose is extremely sweet smelling.  There are lots of caramel sauce and vanilla poundcake scents as well as roasted nuts and melted butter.  Every scent I get it enveloped by a sweet and creamy note of some kind.

Palate: Like drinking a glass of melted Werther’s Original Candies, the sweetness is dominating.  Perhaps it’s too much so because although I get notes of shortbread cookies, coffee grounds, ground cinnamon and drying oak, there isn’t as much complexity as the first glass it seems. 

Finish: I’m surprised by how much spice comes on the tail end after a mostly sweet palate.  There finish almost resembles something higher in proof with the spice and heat that follows, but there’s an oaky flavor that kind of quells it.  Overall the finish is nice, but not much to it.

Score: 7.1/10

Glass #3

Nose: A sweet scent of wood, almost like cedar planks, hits first.  There are Yellow Cake batter notes and some cinnamon and clove.  Unlike the first two glasses, I do not really detect much vanilla.

Palate: The taste of this one may be giving away it’s MGP bourbon right off the bat.  First of all, the proof is much hotter than the other 2 glasses but there’s some rye traits that point to a classic MGP bourbon profile. 

There’s molasses cookies, gingerbread, citrus zest and some mulling spices.  It’s all very good, but is missing anything that would have me single out that it has been finished in a toasted barrel.

Finish: The rye spice doesn’t quit on the finish with mint, dill and some ginger root showing off a higher rye component of the mashbill.  There’s even seasoned wood that lingers around and cherry Twizzlers.  The wood notes become more noticeable as the dram goes on, but overall is a very balanced finish.

Score: 7.2/10

Blind Reveal:

Glass #1: Michter’s Toasted Barrel Bourbon

Glass #2: Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel Bourbon

Glass #3: Down Home Toasted Barrel Bourbon

Winner: Michter’s Toasted Barrel Bourbon!

As I was putting this comparison together, I thought it would be the Down Home’s battle to lose.  After all, it did have the highest proof and could’ve won by simply overwhelming the competition. 

I also thought that if it didn’t win, that the Elijah Craig would surely come in as the next best bourbon due to its perceived age superiority of around 9-11 years old (the Michter’s is rumored to be around 5 years old, same with the Down Home). 

But at no time did I expect that the Michter’s, with the lowest proof and age of the group, would finish first.  

As I wrote my notes and finished my drinks, leaving a tiny sip in each glass, I went back through them all at the very end.  It was alarming how much better the Michter’s (Glass #1) got in smell and taste in the end. 

This only further proved to me that the Michter’s was the real deal all along.  I recall in a previous review that I was not too kind to it by itself, but I can really see how nicely put together it was. 

The only sad part is that the Michter’s Toasted Barrel Bourbon easily fetches above $200 on the secondary market these days while the Toasted Barrel Elijah Craig can potentially be found for it’s retail price of around $55. 

The Down Home bottle is not that expensive, coming in at $68 after tax, but it’s only available in Kentucky. It unfortunately proved to be one of the bigger let downs of the tasting. 

I say this because while MGP bourbon may be a favorite of mine, I had high hopes that the higher proof would show off some kind of unique toasted flavors that would overwhelm the others.  This did not happen.  In fact, it almost tastes like it made no difference at all.  

Final Thoughts

As a final thought: the art of toasted barrel finishes always confused me. Why has Michter’s, Heaven Hill and Luxco never released their toasted barrel products at or near cask strength?  I figured if a bourbon that was finished in a toasted barrel was good at ~90 proof, it’d be even better at a higher proof. 

This turns out to be a falsehood as the higher proof made the toasted barrel notes virtually imperceptible.  Moving one step further in thought; maybe this is also why most double-barrel bourbons and ryes do not get bottled at cask strength as well.

The one thing I did learn about the whole toasted barrel experience is that, for me, the juice may not be worth the squeeze… or price. 

The toasted barrel concept will add more sweetness and vanilla notes to your bourbon, but it doesn’t transform it into something that is a hugely unique experience. 

Wine and other spirits barrels are known to transform bourbons and whiskies into liquids that are unique and fascinating to drink, but a toasted barrel just makes a bourbon still taste like a bourbon.  Only with more vanilla.

–> Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel Bourbon

Rating Breakdown

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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