Friday, July 12, 2019

Elijah Craig's Shift to NAS: A Decline? The Krav Organizes An Empirical Test

A fascinating vertical tasting of Elijah Craig 12 & NAS bottlings.
Photo by Michael Kravitz of Diving for Pearls blog.
The bottles above as blind samples poured and ready to go on my table.
Elijah Craig was one of my favorite daily pours back in the day.  It was good Bourbon and, perhaps coincidentally - or perhaps not, it was a 12 years old age-stated product.  Then a familiar pattern unfolded: popularity drove the product towards scarcity and Heaven Hill opted to remove the age statement so they could goose the production volume to keep it from becoming an allocated item like so many other brands which lose out because they can't deliver enough product to meet market demand.  You gotta hand it to Heaven Hill, they have managed to keep the product on the shelves even while the boom has boomed.  But the Bourbon-Skeptical people notice a different facet of the decision first: it's higher profit margin to sell younger whiskey so dropping the age statement is just "straight up corporate greed".  What's the real story?

And, who cares?  Is younger whiskey necessarily worse?   It's one of those "truisms" of whiskey which need to be punctured and deflated: that older whiskey is necessarily better.  Experienced whiskey-lovers all have tales of old whiskeys which were over-oaked and flabbier than powerful, vibrant younger whiskeys can be.  I've had my mind blown by young whiskey that, tasted blind, had the complexity and deliciousness of much more mature stuff.  Prominent examples include Balcones, Amrut, Westland, Kavalan, and Koval.  I remember one night when Josh Hatton poured a Single Cask Nation 7 year old Glen Moray which drank like a 20 year old BenRiach with phenols and everything.  So you can't simply be dogmatic about "older whiskey is better".  But like many stereotypes, there is a core of truth.  A given whiskey, all else being equal, gains in complexity and richness as it matures in wood up to a certain point, and then it declines.  There's still not any way around that.  Cherry picking active-cask outliers scores rhetorical points, but doesn't alter the basic physics of the equation.  (Although the physics is definitely altered in tropical climates like India, Taiwan, and Texas).  It seems almost not worth calling out or testing, on its face.  Yet, Diving for Pearl's rigorous blind tasting really puts this question to an empirical test.

Michael Kravitz is a thoughtful drinker, a whisky blogger of wide experience, and an articulate and intelligent drinking companion.  When he asked if I wanted to participate in a blind tasting he was organizing for Diving For Pearls blog where we would taste a ladder of Elijah Craig expressions ranging from a pre-fire Heaven Hill (DSP-KY-31) EC12 from around 2001, to the current NAS in the new taller slender bottle, I jumped.  The flight took us through the evolution from a new Bernheim DSP-KY-1 EC12 age stated on the front from around 2015, to the transitional EC12 with the age statement tucked away in the block of text on the back circa 2016, to the old style bottle NAS EC circa 2017, to the new bottle design NAS of today.  This would cut across the transition period of NAS implementation and then a few years in, so we can see, empirically, whether a shift to NAS actually matters to the quality of the whiskey.  Or, as the distillery's argument goes, "by having the freedom to choose the best barrels regardless of age, we can get as close as we can to the flavor profile, so the NAS version should get even better - not worse.".  I know everyone "knows" the answer going in.  But, by doing the tasting blind, and in a group of 20 people, we'd get to see whether i) people can taste the difference when the age statement is dropped, and, more importantly, ii) I could find out whether I, personally, could tell the difference.

Read Michael Kravitz's blog post about his blind tasting.  It is chock full of convincing statistics that show a plurality of people found more or less as I did in the notes that follow... or did they?
Then, bless his heart, Krav gives us a separate post with full tasting notes for each expression (links are at the bottom of this post).  He's good.  What follows isn't that - but it's my personal experience of that shift to NAS evolution..

When I sat down to the blind tasting, the first sample was clearly the odd man out.  It had a darker color and much clearer, stronger, flavor than any of the others.  Because I knew in advance that we'd have a single sample from pre-fire Heaven Hill dsp-ky-31 (thanks for the correction, Steve Urey.  I had previously erroneously called it "Old Bernheim" which was the previous generation of the distillery Heaven Hill moved to after the fire, eventually), and four samples from new Bernheim dsp-ky-1, I had a pretty good idea what the odd man out was.  I had never tasted EC12 from the old Heaven Hill distillery before, so the flavor signature was somewhat new to me, but it had a constellation of the features I associate with old Bourbon: dank sweetness, richness, darkness, and a funky untidy quality.  I have come to prize those features highly.  But what of the other four?  While they all shared a bunch of flavor signature aspects: peanuts and corn oil and a grassy sweetness; there was one of the four which was head and shoulders above the rest.  And those other three were mediocre and pretty similar to each other.  How to proceed?

I made a snap decision: I would forget about all of the iconoclastic honey-barrel cherry-picked challenges to conventional wisdom and I would just go with the stereotype: richer flavor means older whiskey and thinner hotter flavor means younger whiskey.  Then I added the assumption that Heaven Hill's evolution of Elijah Craig was a straight-up linear growth in demand with a somewhat fixed supply of aging stocks and a growing premium market, so there would be a linear decline in quality as the expressions moved through time.  In the 2001 bottling, some (most) of the whiskey was probably much older than 12.  By the time Heaven Hill was planning to ditch the age statement, by hiding it on the back, they were probably already pulling out the honey barrels for higher-priced premium bottlings, and then in the NAS era, they were free (or forced) to use younger and younger whiskey so that the flavor slope should be a one way decline.

So I ranked my tastings by score and preference and assigned identifications in a straight linear by date arrangement.  This approach turned out to be correct and I nailed all of the identifications.  Furthermore, I wasn't the only one.  Florin (@whiskystat on Twitter) also nailed all the identifications (and he's a man who seems to know Bourbon quite well).  He said in the comments below The Krav's first post on the tasting that he was guided by the same simplistic assumption that I was: that Elijah Craig was just going to simply decline in quality over time.  To his great credit, Michael Kravitz stuck with what he knew and didn't quite say so on any of his blog posts on the topic (even while holding Heaven Hill's feet to the fire regularly in his review of their contemporary whiskey products).

I'm a huge fan of Heaven Hill, but there's no denying the evidence I was experiencing first hand here.  I found that the quality of Elijah Craig declined dramatically when the age statement was dropped.  Furthermore, I found that the current version of the product scores about the same as the next brand down in their line up - Evan Williams.  My tasting notes are as follows, as submitted as guesses to the Krav for his blind tasting.  All my identifications are guesses - and you can see, I'm pretty cocky in my confidence:

Sample A - Ranked #1. 12 year old, bottled ca. 2001, distilled at the old distillery, before the fire.
N- Pecans, hops, iron (ketchup), marigolds, brown sugar buttercream and a hint of Kentucky tobacco That nameless smell of old mature Bourbon
P- Honeyed, nutty, notes of brown sugar, leather, mint and beery hops. Richer mouth-feel and clearly more mature. Herbal and mossy with some dank well notes on the turn and in the long finish. Nice rich bourbon with the old-school brown sugar and vegetal mossy and hoppy notes,.

Score: 87

This one stands head and shoulders above the rest in quality, and clearly has a different flavor profile, which is consistent with it being the only one of these made at a different distillery than the others.  Different water, different washbacks, different stills.  It's also the end of the glut so this batch would probably have included barrels far older than the stated age.  Also, fewer special editions had drained out the honey barrels.  Not to mention a couple of decades of bottle maturation.

Sample B - Ranked #5. Small Batch, no age statement, current bottle/label style
N- linseed oil - solventy, sunflower seeds, daisies and clover, earthy loam
P- Thin, hot, lightly floral, spicy

Corn oil note. A little bitter on the finish. Not unpleasant but clearly thinner than the rest.

Score: 76

The weakest of the bunch and I’m assuming it’s the most recent of the bottlings and that there is a linear progression of decline in the richness of Elijah Craig as it gets sold younger as a consequence of its popularity. I also wonder if more selectivity in the barrel management is routing more honey barrels elsewhere

Sample C - Ranked #4 Small Batch, no age statement, previous bottle/label style
N- very shy on the nose. But what there is: Corn oil, Unroasted peanuts and pecan. Nut brittle (candied). With air some coconut and peach notes emerge.
P- Thin again. Nutty grassy and young. A bit of bitterness. Some bitter orange. A bit of solvent.

Score: 79

Not great, perhaps just a hair better than Evan Williams - and also noticeably a hair better than sample B. Why would a label change correlate with a flavor change? Maybe it’s just a bit of random variation. Or maybe Elijah Craig continues to get younger as time progresses as a result of rising sales?

Sample D - Ranked #2. 12 year old Small Batch with the red 12 on the front label.
N- Honeyed Pecans, barn dirt, glove leather, hints of tobacco and a bit of distant lavender and mint
P- Big, sweet, grassy, notes of honey, cooked , stonefruit, juicyfruit gum, and oak and char on the finish.


The real stuff, from the New Bernheim distillery. It’s good. But I can’t help but notice that tasted blind it is smoked by the stuff from the Old Heaven Hill distillery. (If my guesses are correct). I wonder if the old stuff had older barrels because they were still working through glut stocks in that era? In any case, this is good, but it’s not in the same league. Still, it’s better than any subsequent expression.

Sample E- Ranked #3.  12 year old Small Batch with the age statement moved to the back label.
N- Corn oil leading, linseed oil (solvent), corn husks, cream, daisies, and sun-dried oak
P- Nutty, grassy. Hot at mid-palate with more grassy sweetness, some marigold florals, but a tad bitter on the finish. Things open up slowly and it gets a tad richer and sweeter with more time.


This is the mysterious one. Still age-stated 12 years old, why is it noticeably less tasty than the stuff with the age statement on the front? I don’t think it’s just the location of the age statement ink. I suspect that barrel management “improved” and that more honey barrels were removed for use in single barrel private, or premium distillery-only “Select” releases.

Control: Evan Williams BiB WOL Cut glass
N- Corn oil, earth oak
P- Grassy sweet and thin, hints of honey but also a solvent note. Opens into grassy sweetness


Evan Williams is the less expensive expression from Heaven Hill, and it’s clearly an expression of the same distillery. It’s amazingly good for such a bargain basement price (the 86 proof Black goes for around $14-18, and the BiB, although rarer, is only a few dollars more) and, amidst the blind, is clearly as good as at least two of the Elijah Craig bottlings. Eye opening.

Bottom line, it's yet another sad tale of dropped age statements leading to younger whiskey which, I'm so sorry to say, just doesn't taste as good. Period. I mourn Elijah Craig's long slow decline. We all know Heaven Hill makes good whiskey. If they can mature this stuff a bit more, Elijah Craig can return to tasting less like Evan Williams and more like Elijah Craig once again.  It's almost enough to make one wish for the end of the Bourbon Boom.  I know... bite your tongue.

Again: read Michael Kravitz's blog post about his blind tasting.  Great stuff.

Then read his subsequent posts with tasting notes for each of the expressions: