Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon is a widely distributed bourbon that is typically readily available and generally well-known. In October 2019, Heaven Hill announced the launch of Elijah Craig Straight Rye, which would be packaged and priced similar to its bourbon counterpart distinguished by new bottle decoration, face, side, and neck labels with green features. According to the company’s press release, “Elijah Craig Rye is made as a traditional American Straight Rye Whiskey with 51% rye, 35% corn and 14% malted barley. This combination of grains, which relies heavily on corn as the secondary grain rather than a higher percentage of rye, has been the primary Rye mashbill used by Kentucky Bourbon distilleries since taking over virtually all American Rye production post-Prohibition; the same mashbill directly responsible for the Rye resurgence seen today." This will be an ongoing nationwide release.
Black pepper and summer fruits form against an herbal bouquet. Mild in its intensity the aromas find the middle ground between blasé and inviting.
Surprisingly sweet; kettle corn and caramel sweetness originate first. A mix of allspice, nutmeg, and rye grain follows. The sweetness remains though, and begins to ramp up into the finish. Light bodied and mild in its intensity overall.
A crescendo of sweetness introduces vanilla and butterscotch, which is quickly met with a hit of lasting rye spice. The finish delivers the right level of intensity which is lacking in the nose and palate, making it the highlight of the sip.
Elijah Craig Rye originates from Heaven Hill’s 51% rye mashbill, which also includes Pikesville Rye and Rittenhouse Rye brands. This mashbill is often referred to as a “barely legal rye” mashbill as it contains the bare minimum 51% rye required by law. Barely legal ryes are produced by numerous distilleries, and often contain a high percentage of corn as the secondary grain. In this case, the combination of 51% rye and 35% corn is arguably not far off from a bourbon that could legally contain 51% corn and 35% rye, or some higher proportion of rye if malted barley was reduced.
As a result of its relatively low rye, high corn content, the flavor profile of Elijah Craig Rye is quite similar to what might be expected from a bourbon (though, notably, it lacks the oak forwardness of its bourbon counterpart, Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon). If poured blind, I think few would be able to confidently identify it as a rye versus a bourbon. But this is merely an observation, and surely the end result Heaven Hill is going for. Utilizing their existing rye mashbill, they were able to simply change up the target flavor profile from some of their existing brands. And while Elijah Craig Rye will certainly be a crowd pleaser, it offers only a slight variation from other ryes in the marketplace.
Value is where Elijah Craig Rye shines. Heaven Hill has built a reputation on producing great whiskeys for a fair, or even better-than-fair price. While it would be easy to argue that Rittenhouse Rye Bottled in Bond is a very similar product given it comes from the same mashbill and is released at only 6 proof points higher, it does have a different, and more punchy fruit-forward flavor profile. And while Rittenhouse is widely distributed, I expect Elijah Craig Rye to ultimately become more prevalent on liquor store shelves. Presumably Heaven Hill plans to produce a lot of Elijah Craig Rye, and in so doing establish it as a product that's more “front and center” similar to Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon.
There are plenty of other comparisons that could be made including the still relatively new to market Old Forester Rye, but the one that seems to stand out the most to me is Knob Creek Rye. Given its nationwide availability and overall likability, it comes in at only $10 higher. While it does offer 6 additional proof points, I would guess that the same person regularly reaching for Knob Creek Rye would also be interested in Elijah Craig Rye. And while Knob Creek's flavor profile does exhibit a bit more character, Elijah Craig has what I would call a more mainstream flavor profile that offers greater mass appeal. At $30 compared to Knob Creek's $40, Elijah Craig Rye is also better priced to draw the masses, and I believe over time it will.
Elijah Craig Rye's combination of a flavor profile with mass appeal, great price, and recognizable branding makes it a contender for becoming one of the most popular ryes on the market.
Many people are already familiar with the Elijah Craig brand, so it makes perfect sense that Heaven Hill would introduce a rye to sit beside its popular Small Batch Bourbon counterpart. Put simply, Elijah Craig Rye is light and approachable, but it also lacks complexity and oak influence which I think will make it come across as somewhat boring to seasoned rye drinkers. While it may not wow anyone with its mild intensity of flavors, its approachability, recognizable branding, and ultimately its $30 price point, will serve it well.
The sample used for this review was provided at no cost courtesy of Heaven Hill Distillery. We thank them for the sample and for allowing us to review it with no strings attached.