Whisky Advocate

Whisky Advocate Award: American Whiskey of the Year

February 2nd, 2012

Elijah Craig Barrel No. 3735 20 year old bourbon, 45%, $150

If there is one thing Heaven Hill has proven on numerous occasions, it’s that they know how to cherry-pick great whiskeys for their single barrel bottlings. They’ve been doing it for seventeen years now with their vintage-dated Evan Williams Single Barrel releases, many of which we’ve rated very highly. They also proved they can do it with rye whiskey, when they released their 25 year old single barrel Rittenhouse rye a couple years back (which we rated a 96).

In 2011, they did it again with a new bourbon. This time, it was a single cask, 20 year old Elijah Craig bottling, released to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. Since it is a single barrel bottling, very few bottles were made available to the public, and they were only sold at Heaven Hill’s Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardstown, Ky. However, those of you who read the Whisky Advocate blog ( on a regular basis had a chance to procure a bottle of this special whiskey when we published our review of it back in early November.

What makes this whisky so great? It’s seamless, richly textured, and impeccably balanced. It’s complex too, with nutty toffee, pecan pie, apricot, berried jam, and nougat, peppered with cinnamon, mint, cocoa, and tobacco. It’s warming, with polished leather and dried spice on the finish.

This is an outstanding whiskey from a distilling company that continues to prove that they know how to make a wide range of excellent products, from great value whiskeys all the way to some of the finest whiskeys America has to offer. —John Hansell

Join us tomorrow for the Canadian Whisky of the Year announcement.

No Responses to “Whisky Advocate Award: American Whiskey of the Year”

  1. Gary says:

    Great! Another amazing whiskey I will never taste.

    • John Hansell says:

      Gary, there will be many award winning whiskeys that you will be able to taste if you want. And, as you can see by reading the comments here, there are those who did taste this one.

      • Gary says:

        Sorry, it wasn’t meant as a criticism. I fully understand that I can’t taste EVERY whiskey. And the rules you use seem reasonable. I am fortunate enough to be able to taste some pretty good whiskeys. And quite frankly, I love reading about these whiskeys and the awards. Keep ’em coming. 🙂

  2. Vince says:

    I couldnt agree more John! This is an excellent bourbon-best bourbon I had in 2011 for sure!

  3. mark davis says:

    I love EC 12. I tried the 18 and was unsatisfied. it lacked the vigor of EC 12. Because of my preference I passed on the EC 20. Could anyone who has had three set me straight?

    • John Hansell says:

      I have learne over the years that sometimes older whiskeys are actually less woody and more vibrant than their younger siblings. I like Macallan 30 better than Macallan 25, for example. I have also had some Pappy Van Winlkle 23 year old bourbons that were less woody and more lively than the Pappy 20 releases. But, I have also had some Pappy 23s that were much more woody than the Pappy 20.

      In this instance, this particular Elijah Craig 20 was more rounded, and less oak-driven, than the EC 18 I have tasted. But, having said this, the second single barrel release of EC 20 (Barrel #3742), which is currently available, is more woody and is more tired on the palate than some EC 18s I’ve tasted.

      Bottom line: there’s a lot of variability in the older bottlings of whiskeys–especially small batch and single barrel offerings, and generalizations are very difficult to make.

  4. OudErnest says:

    This is the expression sold only at the distillery and from what I’ve read no longer available now as they’ve moved on to another barrel? Not sure I like the new rules for whiskies of the year. Gary is spot on. Yet another one I’ll, or very few others, will ever try.

    • John Hansell says:

      This is not a new rule. As long as the whiskey was for sale to the public in the calendar year, it it eligible.

      For example, several years ago we awarded a single cask bottling of Highland Park that was selected by Binny’s and sold only at Binny’s. We also honored an Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage with our “Whiskey of the Year” awards. Same deal. One barrel! This doesn’t happen that often, but it does happen.

      The only change we made for 2011 was that the product doesn’t have to be sold in the U.S. We did this because we were intentionally excluding some great whiskies, and we didn’t think this was fair.

      I understand your frustration not being able to purchase this whiskey, but this has been our poiicy since the inception of these awards 18 years ago. And if you think about it, it’s really the only fair way to do it.

      After all, if we were to put an availability condition on the award, we would be unfairly excluding some really amazing whiskeys. And what availability condition would you even put on it? Minimum of 10 barrels? 100 barrels? 1000 barrels? Maybe we only allow it to be eligible if it’s availble in YOUR local retail shop?

      If you put your emotions aside and look at this logically, our long-standing policy is really the only way to go: as long as it’s for sale to the public in the calendar year, it’s eligible. Regardless of quantity. Or price for that matter.

      Those who read my review on this blog and acted accordingly DID get a bottle before they sold out. That’s why we post up reviews here before they are eventually published later in the magazine. We are giving you the advantage.

      • OudErnest says:

        Fair enough John. You’re right. I confllated the new rules with exisitng ones. I remember that Binny’s. I’ve been a follower of MA from back when it was on non-glossy paper and was more of a news letter and have been a regular reader of this blog, which means I did see your posts stressing the fact we should move fast to get this expression.

  5. Tadas says:

    I am a little disappointed with the award this year. A single and only barrel was given American Whiskey of the Year award while other bottles of this same release from other barrels are not as good as the first barrel they released. So how it can be a Whiskey of the Year?

    • John Hansell says:

      No two single barrels are alike. That’s how.

    • Vince says:

      There is always variation in single barrel bourbons. This one was exceptional and I wholeheartedly agree that this should be American Whiskey of the year!

      • Tadas says:

        So the same exact release bottle from the other barrel is not as good and you still call it the American whiskey of the year? I do not see this whiskey worth the award. More like an American single bottle of the year award.
        You should consider the whole release not a single barrel. Heaven Hill just cherry picked a best bottle from the release and sent it for review. I think tasting multiple barrels and evaluating them as the whole release would be more fair.

        • Morgan Steele says:

          Two questions: Have you tasted it? Do you understand the award catergory criteria? If the answer to both questions is “no,” I think you have some work to do.

          • Tadas says:

            I do not see an argument in your response. Couple bottles (which are different from the rest) do not define the whole release.

          • JSJ says:

            Tadas, the award was given to Elijah Craig 20 year *BARREL NUMBER 3735*. The barrel which replaced 3735 has not been awarded anything.

          • Tadas says:

            That is my gripe. It was cherry piked from the best barrel from the Elijah Craig 20yo release. So it is like Toyota Camry gets the best car award for just a single Toyata Camry with a particular VIN number, while other Camrys are not even close as good. Disappointing and unobjective 🙁

          • John Hansell says:

            Yeah well they also “cherry picked” the second barrel which I didn’t like nearly as much. And they also are going to “cherry pick” the third barrel too, and who knows how good or bad that one will taste? Every single barrel is cherry picked to one degree or another, so your logic is invalid.

          • Jason Beatty says:

            This barrel was not “cherry picked” for John: in order for a critic to write a raving review. It was meant to be for those who paid for a tour package, and when hardly anyone attended, they just placed the remaining bottles out there. It was meant to be as an expression of gratitude for the loyal followers. I was the one it was chosen for and not John!!!

          • John Hansell says:

            This is true. I actually heard about this botling through the grapevine, not from Heaven Hill. And I approached them about getting a review sample. They had no intention of even sending me one.

  6. OudErnest says:

    I’m not sure how this award enlightens or benefits any of us as only a handful of people even had a shot at trying this.

    • John Hansell says:

      It’s very enlightening and beneficial. For example, we give credit to Heaven Hill for putting a really great whiskey on the market. We give credit where it’s due. (That’s the enlightening part.)

      I let you know that the barrel of EC 20 that replaced it isn’t as good. (That’s the beneficial part.)

  7. Morgan Steele says:

    Congratulations to Heaven HIll! Nice review, too. Bottles have been selling on eBay for those interested in finding a bottle. You won’t like the price but you can’t say it was not, or is not, available.

  8. AaronWF says:

    I have to agree that specifying one barrel as the sole American Whiskey of the Year is alienating and degrades the relevance of these awards in my mind. You seem to be saying these awards are more for the industry than for the consumers. There are four categories of awards for Single Malt and another one for Blended Scotch, but only one category for American Whiskey. As an American Whiskey drinker and enthusiast, I feel gypped.

    • John Hansell says:

      Since you brought it up, let’s look at the numbers. There are approximently 10x the number of scotch distilleries as there are “traditional” distilleries making straight bourbon and rye here in the U.S. BUT, there are only 5 scotch awards, compared to the one “American whiskey of the Year”. Gosh, if anyone should feel “gypped” its the scotch drinkers, not you. To be fair to the scotch drinkers, we should have 10 scotch awards to the one American whiskey award.

      Feeling any better now? (Probably not, but maybe you understand a little better?)

      Oh, an we also have a category for the U.S. craft distillers making whiskey too, which certainly seems appropriate.

      • AaronWF says:

        Well thank you for the numbers, I knew the general discrepancy, but not the specifics. I don’t think that more distilleries should mean more awards, all it means is that there’s more competition. I can appreciate separating the scotch awards by terroir, and distinguishing in the U.S. market between craft and “traditional” distilleries, but you’re right, I don’t feel much better, and I’m not sure what the solution is.

        Maybe I’ll go drown my sorrows in one of the 166 375ml bottles of Lion’s Pride 47th Ward Blend that Koval produced last year.

  9. DaveP says:

    John, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Kudos to Heaven Hill, now go bottle us some better wheated bourbon please!

  10. Larry Kass says:

    Larry from Heaven Hill…

    Wow, I typically jump on here with a traditional “on behalf of Parker and Craig Beam, and all of us at Heaven Hill, thanks for the award and recognition…”, and we absolutely do feel this way again, but I also feel like John is taking some slings and arrows here which I regret. But I also feel he is stating his case quite decisively and admirably. These are the nature of single barrels, this is the nature of the beast! Each barrel will be different…here is a little secret: the second barrel of this 20yo, which John favored less, was filled one minute after this American Whiskey of the Year winner 20 years ago and aged 5 inches away in the next rick. It tastes different. That is why we think the concept of a single barrel is still so engaging and exciting for a Bourbon lover.

    So thanks, truly, from all the Heaven Hill family and I’m going to quietly slip back away into the rickhouse now:)

    And Dave, hold that thought about a wheater for just a little bit longer!

    • sam k says:

      Congratulations, Larry. Heaven Hill is really firing on all cylinders now, putting great whiskeys on every shelf behind the bar, from the bottom to the top!

    • Jason Beatty says:

      I can verify that the two barrels were right next to each other. I went through my bottle way too quickly and I have to say that it was by far one of the best whiskeys I have ever tried, and well deserving of the high praise. Thank you John for giving props to this whiskey despite there being only one barrel!!!

  11. T Comp says:

    I am curious why the latest retail shelf EC 18’s have also grown in age and could also be labelled EC 20 (or 21 or 22). 2010 saw the release of EC 18 labelled as being barreled in 1992. They were superb and vanished rather quickly from shelves in Chicago. They have been replaced by new stock stating to be from 1990 and even 1989 barrels. The latest Binny’s bottling of EC 18 is said by them to be 21 years old and barreled on 4/21/90. Where are those barrels from 1993 and 1994 which are now 18 years old?

    • NB says:

      I would bet most of those 1993 and 1994 barrels were used after the ’96 disaster. We all know HH purchased some barrels, but they were without a distillery for a while and had to make ends meet. Just a shot in the dark.

      Also, in regards to the award itself…thank you, John. You are one of the few people that actually get to taste all of the special releases each year. I appreciate knowing what THE best American Whiskey was. Maybe you could do a “Best American Whiskey – Control State” award and compare Jack Daniel’s, Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, and Woodford Reserve. That way everyone can try!!!

  12. Texas says:

    Well at least there was no mystery or intrigue or who-you-know in getting this one as there is with the annual BTAC/Van Winkle circus, all you had to do was drive or fly to Kentucky and pick it up! Sounds like it was a very good bourbon and deserving of the choice.

    • Jason Beatty says:

      This particular barrel was actually meant to be for only those who paid to go on a special tour they had during the festival. Because there was not many people on the tour, John and others had the chance to get the remaining bottles. If there is anything like this in the future from Heaven Hill, contact me and I can get you a bottle:

      • Jason Beatty says:

        On the 20th Anniversary Tour they sat down this bottle and the new Parker’s Heritage inside a warehouse. After trying both I was told to have as much as I wanted, and I tried to shoot down as much as possible of the 20 Year in that 10 minute window of paradise overlooking KBD.

  13. Tadas says:

    Guess what Heaven Hill has on Elijah Craig 20 year old bourbon label now? It states: “Drawn from the same lot as Whisky Advocate’s American Whiskey of the Year”! So much for all justifications in this blog.
    Also the other barrel of this got just 85 MA rating instead of 96! 😀
    Completely bait and switch tactics on Heaven Hill part 🙁 So they selected the best barrel to be the first and others that follow (in this case, there are 80 barrels in the lot) are not as good or have wide variations.

    • John Hansell says:

      There’s nothing inaccurate about the label. No two single barrel whiskeys taste the same, even if they are from the same lot. And sometimes they can vary greatly. That’s the two-edged sword of single barrel bottlings.

      I don’t think they even intended to bottle a second barrel of 20 year old initially, let alone entire lot, so to I think it’s a little unfair to accuse them of “bait and switch.” They just picked one they liked. Then then picked a second one they liked, right? (Even if I didn’t). If they didn’t like it, they wouldn’t have put it out as their second bottling.

      I haven’t tasted any of the releases after that. I don’t even know if they have been released yet. And time will tell how good they taste. Who knows? There might even be some whiskeys in this lot that are better than the first bottling.

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