Today, I’m here to talk about another fallen soldier in the whisky war of attrition known as “supply vs demand”. Heaven Hill, in a statement issued in early 2016, announced that it would be replacing Elijah Craig 12 year-old with a non-age-statement version (“Small Batch”) which contains whiskey aged 8 to 12 years of age, due to “increasing pressure” to “stocks of 12-year-old barrels”. As the cynics in the comment section will point out no doubt, without an age statement it could literally all be 4 years old, since the word of a PR person assuring a “blend of barrels between 8 and 12 years of age” carries no legal weight. I prefer to take them at their word (at least they didn’t make this switch in attempted secrecy) and will assume the bourbon is mostly 8 years old, with a smattering of older barrels up to 12. Note that the Barrel Proof edition still has a 12-year age statement.
Honestly, I’m not too torn up about it, as I wasn’t a huge fan of the 12 year. I rated the Elijah Craig 12 year-old a solid “Try Before Buy”, and when I saw that the new NAS Small Batch is actually priced a little lower than its predecessor ($25 ish vs. $30 ish), I thought I’d give the new one a try. If nothing else, a $25 NAS bourbon is useful for cocktails, right?
Nose: A little shy. The first impression is of an indeterminate nuttiness. Some sweet vanilla, banana cream, and a hint of coconut underscore the reticent oak. Round and soft, but without much presence. As usual, a rest in the glass reveals more vanilla and more refined sugar (as in vanilla cake frosting).
Palate: Thin body. Very soft, with a mild tongue burn. Again, there isn’t much to describe beyond nondescript nut butter, tannic oak, and cake frosting. A bitter note suggests but does not assert spices such as clove and cinnamon.
Finish: More sweetness here, with black licorice, nonpareils, drying tannins, and very little to no bitterness. Fades inoffensively, self-effacing.
With Water: A few drops of water yield a vegetal (grassy) note, and increases the nose tickle. The palate is slightly more alert, but does not add anything substantial. Water optional.
Overall: The word “shy” describes just about every facet of the experience of drinking this whiskey. It nearly glides along the palate without interacting much with the taste buds (hence the “soft” descriptor), and while it has a nice round, balanced interplay of tropical fruit, wood, and alcohol, the whole is dialed down to “low”. Oddly, it doesn’t taste particularly watery or watered-down, but rather that the alcohol carries little with it in the way of flavor compounds. This might be a good whiskey to balance subtle ingredients in a contemplative cocktail, where you don’t want the bourbon to overwhelm something else. At $25, that’s not bad, but it feels like this is crafted for an audience that doesn’t really want to taste their bourbon. A more likely explanation is this is what happens when you take a “value” bourbon and compromise on the barrel ages of the components. Drop 4 years and you lose a lot of oaky sugars in the aroma, roundness on the palate, and spices in the finish. That tell-tale grassy note that showed when water was added is also a consequence of the younger juice. At the lower price-point this is still a “Try Before Buy”, but I’ve tried it and I won’t be buying more.