In the realm of high end bourbons, Elijah Craig and Woodford Reserve are worthy considerations for your drinks cabinet. Both Kentucky brands are renowned for their great tasting whiskeys, packed full of flavour and nuanced complexity.
If you’re deciding between the two, I’ve written this handy comparison to help you decide which is the best bottle for your tastes and budget. Today, I’ll be looking at each brand’s flagship bottlings; Small Batch Elijah Craig vs Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon.
I’ll compare the smell, taste, finish and value of each signature whiskey. I’ll also explore how these two whiskeys differ from one another in order to help you make an informed decision.
Let’s dive in.
Quick brand overview
Elijah Craig are a premium Kentucky bourbon brand produced by the Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown KY. Their core range of four whiskeys are primarily sold as straight bourbon, ranging between small batch, single barrel and toasted barrel. (They also produce a Kentucky straight rye edition too.) The brand is named after the Baptist preacher and entrepreneur, Elijah Craig who founded his own distillery in 1789. To this day, he’s claimed to have originated the use of charred oak barrels to mature whiskey.
Woodford Reserve are owned by the Brown Forman Corporation alongside other major brands such as Jack Daniels and Old Forester. Their whiskeys are sold as premium Kentucky straight bourbons, produced at their distillery in Woodford County, KY, USA. Founded by Elijah Pepper in 1812, the historic distillery is readily credited to have developed the sour mash fermentation method. Uniquely, Woodford use a dual distillation method, combining column still and triple pot still techniques.
Elijah Craig vs Woodford Reserve
Elijah Craig Small Batch
Nose: Cardamom, orange, cedar & honey
Palate: Cinnamon, nuts, cooked apples, more honey & baked cookies
Mouthfeel: Buttery & astringent
Finish: Oaky with nutmeg
Age: NAS (8-12 years average)
Barrels: Level 3, new, charred, white American oak
Mashbill: 78% corn, 10% rye & 12% malted barley
Strength: 47% ABV / 94 proof
Price: £45 / $56
Nose: Leather, spice, honey, oak, cocoa, vanilla & butterscotch
Palate: Spice, sweet, espresso, ginger, rum, almond & rye
Mouthfeel: Thick & full bodied
Finish: Lengthy, malty, spicy & oaky
Age: NAS (6-7 years average)
Barrels: New, charred, white American oak
Mashbill: 72% corn, 18% Rye, & 10% malted barley
Strength: 45.2% ABV / 90.4 proof
Price: £38 / $48
A closer look at Elijah Craig Small Batch
Due to popular demand (and diminishing warehouse stock levels) Elijah Craig introduced a new small batch bourbon in 2016 to replace their 12-year-old version. This NAS bourbon is made from a selection of whiskeys from over 200 barrels and is aged between 8 and 12 years. It’s positioned as their signature bottle within their bourbon portfolio which is distilled at the Heaven Hill distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky.
Nose: Opening the bottle of Elijah Craig, you’re met with a mildly sweet nutty smell. It’s faint, but florally honeyed. Poured into my glass, there’s notes of caramel, cardamom, orange and fragrant cedar. With some swirling, it’s a reluctant but inviting aroma.
With some time to breathe, there are hints of toasted oak and sweet caramel mixed with warm spiciness from the rye. There’s a subtle smokiness too, which gives it an inviting aroma that draws you in for more. Not an exceptional nose, but pleasant none the less.
Palate: On my first sip, the Small Batch has a robust and spiced taste. I’m actually surprised with the body of this bourbon as it’s thicker and fuller than I’d anticipated. Initially, there’s a caramel sweetness, followed by cooked apples and peach. Not cloying or sickly, it’s a pleasant honeyed sort of flavour which coats your tongue.
So far, there’s not much burn. The spice aspect builds slowly, with notes of cinnamon and clove which gives this bourbon a nice heat. On the mid-palate, buttery flavours emerge which remind me of freshly baked cookies. For me, the profile is pretty good and exceeds my expectations for this lower priced bottle.
With some chewing and savouring, there’s still the same toasted nuttiness from the nose. It’s subtle, but as a self-declared peanut butter monster, I love it. Towards the end, there’s a herbal sort of minty flavour going on, with hints of dark chocolate, oak and citrus peel. These flavours lift things slightly, which is a nice departure from the nuts and rye heat. Overall, the palate is good, but not overly deep in flavour.
Mouthfeel: Elijah Craig Small Batch Whiskey has a smooth, creamy mouthfeel. The buttery texture adds a subtle richness while the 94 proof provides a slight kick. The combination of the two creates an enjoyable balance that allows you to savour the complex notes of cinnamon and honey. The charred oak barrels used to age the whiskey contributes to its oaky mouthfeel, adding slightly astringent tannins and a hint of nutmeg towards the end.
Finish: The finish of Elijah Craig Small Batch Whiskey is mid-length. The oakiness from the charred oak barrels lingers on the palate, providing a faint smokiness that’s complemented by the whiskey’s spicy notes of cinnamon and nutmeg. An underlying sweetness from the honey and baked cookies rounds off each sip in a satisfyingly smooth manner. For me, the aftertaste is pleasant and leaves me wanting more.
Price: For $55 (£45 GBP) Elijah Craig Small Batch offers decent flavour and quality. Produced in very high-volumes, this bourbon falls into that grey-area where the unregulated term of ‘small batch’ comes into question. Made with over 200 barrels, it’s certainly a very broad blend which I found to be pretty tasty.
Overall, this is a solid bourbon to try if you’re looking for robust flavours and reasonable complexity. The palate was more varied than I expected, with nuttiness, honey, apples and spice. For the price, I personally think it delivers a good drinking experience that won’t break the bank.
Elijah Craig food pairings
For starters, Elijah Craig bourbon pairs excellently with classic Southern cuisine. Smoked pork shoulder, crispy fried chicken and BBQ ribs are all excellent choices to start your meal. The smokiness of the bourbon complements the smoky flavour of these dishes, while the sweetness of the whiskey creates a delightful contrast. The spiciness in Elijah Craig whiskey also makes it a great choice for pairing with spicy dishes like jambalaya or buffalo wings.
For mains, Elijah Craig is an ideal accompaniment to grilled steak or pork chops. Its hints of cinnamon and nutmeg add further depth to the robust flavours of red meats. This bourbon also pairs amazingly with hearty stews and braises thanks to its rich caramel notes and underlying sweetness. Bourbon-glazed baked ham also works really well with this whiskey due to its sweet honeyed taste and subtle smokiness.
Desserts are where Elijah Craig truly shines! Its deep caramel notes make it a perfect partner for apple pies, crumbles and other fruit-based desserts. For something more decadent, a chocolate cheesecake or bread pudding with a bourbon-infused sauce is sure to satisfy your sweet tooth. The subtle smokiness of the whiskey adds a delicious element to these desserts, while its sweetness helps balance out the richness.
Elijah Craig cocktail suggestion
For a refreshing summer sipper, why not try this ice cold mint julep? It’s a lovely way to keep things light during the day, all whilst enjoying the flavours of Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon. If you have fresh mint in your garden, you’re already half way there.
- 50ml bourbon
- 10 mint leaves
- 12.5ml sugar syrup
Shake the bourbon, mint leaves and sugar syrup with ice and strain into a highball glass or julep tin filled with crushed ice. Churn gently with a long-handled spoon and top with more crushed ice. Garnish and serve.
In an ice-filled cocktail shaker, add your bourbon, simple syrup and mint leaves. Shake vigorously for 15 seconds and string into a highball glass or tin julep jug filled with ice. Garnish with a spring of fresh mint and serve.
A closer look at Woodford Reserve
Nose: Pouring a measure of Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon, the initial aroma that greets me is sweet and inviting. There’s the unmistakable scent of honey, mixed with an underlying spiciness. I can distinguish baking spices such as clove, nutmeg and cinnamon.
Swirling it in the glass brings out hints of leather, followed by more complex aromas like cocoa and a subtle smokiness. As forewarned by a friend of mine, the oaken notes are incredibly prominent that remind me of old antique furniture. No bad thing – as this sort of flavour is delicate, and drying, offering a different experience to the typically sweet bourbon profile.
In the background, subtle hints of vanilla, traces of butterscotch and fragrant toasted oak become apparent. All these scents blend together to form a warm and inviting bouquet that invites my first taste.
Palate: Taking a sip of Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon, the flavour is robust and complex. Straight off the bat, I’m met with a sweet and spicy concoction that brings to mind flavours of clove, nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice. It’s a Christmassy concoction that reminds me of gingerbread biscuits and winter Bundt cake. Furthermore, there’s no harshness or alcohol burn which keeps me from reaching for my water jug.
With some ‘chewing’ more subtle notes become apparent; hints of espresso add an interesting counterpoint to the sweetness of honey and dried fruits like apricots, dates and raisins. The rye provides an earthy undertone while warm ginger lingers on the tongue. In the background, there’s a very mild smokiness to this dram, which work wonderfully with the sweetness.
Aromatics of leather, oak and cocoa develop as I swirl it around my palate before giving way to creamy notes of butterscotch and vanilla that balances everything out. Overall, the taste is softer and more delicate than the Elijah Craig. No necessarily better, just more varied and light.
Mouthfeel: Overall, the texture is incredibly creamy and smooth. It has a full bodied viscosity that makes this bourbon feel decadent on the palate. It’s a warming mixture of spice and caramelised sweetness that’s incredibly easy to drink.
Finish: The finish of this bourbon is long, with cereal sweetness, winter spices and oak tannins. The woodiness is definitely the star of this show with this bourbon, delivering a cigar box dryness that lingers on the tongue. There’s subtle notes of butterscotch that add a lovely sweetness to the mix. There’s more of the same baking spices – allspice, clove and nutmeg which add a pleasant tingle to the end of each sip.
Price: In my opinion, Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon offers good value for its slightly higher price. At US $48/UK £38, its eveident why this bourbon is considered to be of premium quality. With a robust and complex flavour profile, it offers layers of spice, honey, espresso and toasted oak that makes it a very enjoyable pour.
For those looking for something special, Woodford Reserve offers an exquisite blend of flavour that you’d expect from a bottle twice the cost – making it a no-brainer choice if you want to splurging on yourself or want to impress someone with a gift.
Woodford Reserve food pairings
For starters, Woodford Reserve pairs exceptionally well with a charcuterie plate. The salty and smoky flavours of the cured meats combine nicely with the sweetness of the bourbon. A classic cheese board features nutty and earthy cheeses that provide a great contrast to the bourbon’s oaky notes.
For mains, Woodford Reserve pairs nicely with roasted or grilled meats like pork, beef and chicken. The smokiness and sweetness of the bourbon melds perfectly with these dishes, while the subtle notes of leather add an interesting nuance to each bite. Dishes cooked in a cast iron skillet also work well, as the caramelisation brings out even more flavour when combined with this whiskey.
For dessert, Woodford Reserve is excellent when paired with sticky toffee pudding or bread and butter pudding. The caramelised sweetness of these desserts coupled with the vanilla undertones of this whisky create a wonderful harmony on your palate. Chocolate-based desserts are also great accompaniments; the contrast between bitter cocoa and sweet whiskey makes for an unforgettable combination.
Woodford Reserve cocktail suggestion
For a fruity, sweet summer tipple, why not try the official Kentucky Derby cocktail of choice? The ‘Woodford Spire’ is a delightful mixture of cranberry, lemonade and whiskey. If it’s hot outside, grab yourself a bottle of Woodford’s classic straight bourbon and give this fruity one a go.
- 50ml Woodford Reserve straight bourbon
- 75ml Lemonade
- 25ml Cranberry juice
- Lemon peel garnish
In a mixing glass, add all your ingredients with ice and stir until combined. Strain into a stout rocks glass filled with ice and garnish with a lemon peel twist. Serve.
Elijah Craig is the cheaper option of these two bourbons, which gave a wonderfully sweet and fruity palate, mixed with cardamom and orange. Personally, it was a spicier pour than the Woodford, with more rye heat, toasted nuts and cinnamon. Although the brand has deviated from their original 12 year old age statement, this NAS version still delivers good depth and complexity for it’s maturity. Overall, it’s less sweet than the Woodford, but with a good old rye ‘bite’ and variance of spice, citrus and buttered pastries.
Woodford Reserve is the more costly option here, with a much softer profile compared to the heat I experienced with the Elijah Craig. The overarching flavour is woody, with strong notes of oak tannins which gave a slightly leathery character to this bourbon. There’s a greater breadth of flavour going on in this bottle, which has a more intricate and nuanced profile. For those with a discerning palate, it’s a more delicate range of tasting notes.
Between these two bottles, I’d go with the Elijah Craig for it’s assertive, spiced flavour. For the money, I think it delivers a good range of flavour which is easy to drink. The orangey flavours mixed with the spice is a treat on the senses, without emptying your wallet. In terms of performance, the Elijah Craig is a solid choice for the lower price point.
The Woodford Reserve is far more delicate, with softer heat and no where near the same level of spice. It’s much sweeter and broader in terms of tasting notes, which I’d say is more suited towards a more ‘seasoned’ palate.