Updated January 23, 2016
By Richard Thomas
The American whiskey blogosphere sparked ablaze late yesterday as word broke that Heaven Hill Distilleries would transition their popular Elijah Craig 12 Year Old Bourbon into a no age statement whiskey (NAS), with the new version entering the distribution pipeline as early as today.
Reportedly, the stock used to make Elijah Craig will be reduced from 12 years-plus to the 8 to 12 year range, while retaining the existing 94 proof level. The barrel dumps for this small batch won’t be so small anymore, rising from around 100 to roughly 200. According to the same reports, this move was made necessary because Elijah Craig could not both expand its sales and retain sufficient stock for future releases of Elijah Craig 18 and 23 Year Old bourbons. Future releases of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof will continue at the 12 year old mark and on an an annual basis.
At the time of publication, Heaven Hill had not officially confirmed any detail of the above report.
The Public Cries Foul!
Rumors that a move to Elijah Craig NAS was in the wind first began when the company changed the labeling of the bourbon last summer, moving the age statement to the back label and playing up “small batch” on the front label. From that time, Heaven Hill had consistently and vehemently denied that the labeling change was part of a plan to move Elijah Craig to NAS, or that they had any such plans in the first place.
Bourbon enthusiasts are already crying foul over this, and should the reports of an NAS switch prove fully accurate, they have every reason to feel misled. The time separating the labeling change from the NAS report is a matter of a mere two seasons, so any claims from Heaven Hill that they did not intend this all along are going to seem specious indeed. In terms of mendacity, it would eclipse anything Templeton Rye ever did. After all, the Iowa bottlers had always admitted to journalists they were sourcing their whiskey, despite their misleading marketing.
Once Again, This Isn’t A Shortage Story
The thing that stands out most to me about the Elijah Craig NAS report is the open admission in it that Heaven Hill has resorted to this course of action because of their sales ambitions. They aren’t switching Elijah Craig to NAS because of demand today or even to demand in the near future, but to meet their future sales goals. Also, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof will go on untouched, becoming, in essence, a pricier continuation of Elijah Craig 12 Year Old.
The more simplistic pundits were already crying “shortage!” when rumors started flying months ago, but in reality this is another example of a strategy I call “robbing Peter in hopes that Paul pays you more later.” Some of the world’s whiskey companies, like William Grant & Sons, make a point of keeping their sales and marketing goals in line with their ability to meet it based upon their current stock and the products their customers have come to expect. Others want to aggressively expand sales and market share, and to do that they must also expand their volume somehow. This appears to be what Heaven Hill is doing.
Of course, it could be that this whole thing will blow over in a four or five months time, and Elijah Craig 12 Year Old will be back. Only two and a half years ago, Maker’s Mark tried to water down their bourbon only to be forced to back off in the face of a popular backlash. Some croaked that the whole business was a marketing stunt, and while I’m dismissive of such talk in the case of Maker’s, we may yet discover that this Elijah Craig NAS affair is not as settled as it seems.
Update: The basic details of the reports were confirmed by Heaven Hill. Elijah Craig is moving from 12 Year Old to an NAS, officially renamed “Elijah Craig Small Batch,” based on a range of 8 to 12 year old stock (so technically it will become Elijah Craig 8 Year Old).