Heaven Hill Distillery in Kentucky (distilling in Louisville, warehouse aging and bottling in Bardstown) is primarily known for two brands that are named after pioneers in the field of Bourbon, Evan Williams (touted as Kentucky’s first commercial distiller starting in 1783) and Elijah Craig (“The Father of Bourbon”). As the story (some history and some legend) goes, Kentuckians had been making corn whiskey for a while, then shipping it down the Ohio and MIssissippi Rivers to New Orleans where it was consumed. This trip took up to six months and the White Dog did well in oak barrels when it reached Nola...but it was still essentially moonshine. Craig was a Baptist minister as well as a distiller (can’t see that happening in today’s Baptist churches) and very frugal. There was apparently a barn fire where he kept his barrels and they got charred but not significantly damaged so he decided to use them for a batch of whiskey. By the time they reached the end of the river journey the whiskey had sat in the charred barrels for months and was transformed into something smoother and must tastier than the customers normally got. Since the barrels were stamped with “Bourbon County” on the sides the buyers started asking for “more of that Bourbon County stuff” or just “more Bourbon.” Through close to a century and a half, the name stuck, even if the exact specifications of bourbon have changed a bit. As noted before, parts of this story are legend...maybe true...maybe not...and we’ll never know.
I picked up a bottle of Elijah Craig on my recent trip up to Kentucky. I can’t remember if I have had the 12 year before, but I feel like I must have at some point. What I don’t remember is it being so flavorful...but I’m getting ahead of myself. Today’s whiskey is made using a special yeast strain that has been in the Beam family (yes, that Beam family...turns out the makers of this are relatives of Jim Beam) in for decades, and it is touted as as “a true ‘Small Batch’ Bourbon before the term even existed.”
Pouring the Elijah Craig into my glass, I noticed it has a nice, dark amber color. It may not be the absolute darkest Bourbon I’ve seen, but it has to be close. Bourbon must by law age for 2 years in charred oak barrels; 12 years allows for a much richer color. Giving it a sniff, I picked up a rich vanilla note with plenty of oakiness underneath, and no real hint of graininess or yeastiness you experience with some younger whiskeys. Taking a sip, I noticed how full bodied and rich this liquor seems when held at the front of the mouth, again with an amazing amount of the vanilla, but also a tremendous sweetness and just a hint of corn. Letting it slip back, the bourbon quickly creates a menthol-like coolness on the tongue as it quickly evaporates and and warm tingle as it heads down toward the belly. Can you tell I like this one? Yes, I like this bourbon a lot!
As I have found with many bourbons, the inherent sweetness and flavor profile lends itself to pairing very well with a variety of cigars. I honestly can’t remember what I’ve paired it with in the time it took to get through half a bottle, but for the purposes of today’s review I decided to pair it with a Grimalkin by Emilio Cigars.
The Grimlakin is a Nicaraguan puro and runner-up for Cigar of the Year for me last year. It is medium to full in body and very full in flavor. (As a side note, if you’ve not had the Grimalkin, you may not be able to find them much longer; do not despair, though, as Emilio Cigars is simply renaming the cigar La Musa, and it will continue to be the same cigar as before.) I found this pairing to be remarkably good; neither cigar nor whiskey overpowered the other and the sweet notes of both came through very well.