The British television game show Mastermind has two rounds: specialist subjects and general knowledge. Contestants’ specialist subjects range all the way from James Bond villains, to golfing majors, to English coinage 1066–1662. You can imagine the whisky equivalent, featuring general knowledge questions on distillation, ageing, and bottling, contrasting with specialist subject questions on Brora 1972 bottlings, Wild Turkey rickhouse variations, and weekend yeast activity. It’s levels to this ish.
While we might not all compete to be Whiskymind champion, we do all have whisky topics we know more about than others, like how we all know more about certain general knowledge topics. One of the main whisky knowledge divides separates bourbon and Scotch, or perhaps more accurately, whiskies from North America and the rest of the world. Experts in bourbon often know surprisingly little about Scotch and vice versa. Bourbon veterans often have misconceptions about the prevalence of peat and Scotch whisky cask types. Scotch experts regularly mix up US whiskey classifications and don’t have the first clue about bourbon mashbills. Different oaks for different folks.
Specialist subjects don’t just divide us by region. They also affect how we experience the smell and taste of whiskies. Just as a cook who avoids curry can’t tell cumin from coriander, a whisky drinker who stays away from an entire style will struggle to identify and name the flavours they encounter. Switch from refill cask Scotch to rickhouse top floor bourbon and you might find only oak and get your vanillas and caramels all mixed up. Move from a full roster of bourbons to Scotch whisky and you might only decipher malt and peat… perhaps even if there’s no peat in sight. Our noses and palates have specialist subjects too.
But don’t let the differences between branches of whisky stop you from seeing the forest for the oak trees. Zoom out and it’s clear that bourbon and Scotch connoisseurs are both whisky specialists. Taking myself as an example: I have spent some time in both the Scotch and bourbon worlds, but that doesn’t make me master of the tasting universe. I have far less experience with rum and brandy, plus my knowledge of beer and wine is minimal. My culinary palate is limited and nowhere near as nerdy as my whisky palate. With one stomach, one liver, and a limit on how adventurous we want to be at breakfast, it’s inevitable that we trade off breadth and depth in our flavour experiences.
There are some advantages, though, to being a specialist stepping into a new realm. As much as we might try not to, we can prejudge whiskies based on what we know about them. And if you’re the type to read a whisky blog, you probably know quite a bit. Trying whiskies from a new category enables you to work out what you think of the whiskies without being biased by the brand, distillery, or Facebook group chatter. It’s like going back to the start of your whisky drinking journey, when everything was new and you didn’t quite have the words for what you were experiencing. The search for this feeling is one of the reasons – along with value – that many whisky drinkers are turning to rum, cognac, and armagnac. Ignorance is bliss.
Today’s whisky is one that I have shared and seen shared with malt whisky drinkers to consistently positive receptions. It’s an Elijah Craig, one of the many brands produced at Heaven Hill distillery. The whisky has a low rye mashbill comprising 78% corn, 10% rye, and 12% malted barley. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, which is aged 12 years old, debuted in 2013. Since 2015, three batches per year have been released. This bottle is from batch is B517 (release #14); the code reveals that it was the second batch of its year (B) when it was bottled in May 2017 (517).
Nose: Roasted almonds dusted with brown sugar sit beside cherry yoghurt, all coated in pinches of cinnamon. Time increases the spicing – adding nutmeg – and amplifies the cherry yoghurt. A few drops of water changes little but does roast the almonds more heavily and add a few drops of vanilla.
Taste: The age shows with a boisterous mouthfeel dominated by intense cask char, spice, and oak tannins. The sweetness is now from brown sugar caramel rather than cherry. The cinnamon and nutmeg are more than dusted, with cask char smoke also entering on the back palate. Water changes the taste a lot more than the nose, toning down the tannins, taming the mouthfeel and focusing the flavour on deep caramels with drops of honey.
Finish: Long and moderately drying on caramel, nutmeg, wood tannins, and cask char.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof is an excellent bourbon, with the sweet and spice you’d expect along with well-integrated tannins. It can even go toe-to-toe with highly hyped and limited bourbon bottlings, most of which are younger than the Elijah Craig’s 12 years. My only quibble is that the current price in the UK – around £105-£110 – is over double the $65 suggested retail price in the US. Duty, VAT, and tariffs may make up most of that difference but the gap does mean that Elijah Craig Barrel Proof carries a hefty premium over other barrel proof bourbons in the UK. Nonetheless, I still strongly recommend this whiskey, whether it’s part of your bourbon specialist subject or an addition to your general whisky knowledge.