Ask most people what the most popular whiskey is in the United States and you’ll probably get some combination of Jack Daniels or Fireball. But in reality the #1 spot is occupied by Jim Beam, and a close second is Evan Williams. Today we continue the trip down the bottom shelf of the liquor store and see what’s the deal with one of the biggest brands of whiskey that seemingly no one has ever heard of.
While the bottle may proclaim that this whiskey is Kentucky’s 1st Distiller and pays homage to a 1783 distiller by the name of Evan Williams, in reality the current production of whiskey has no association (other than in name) with that individual and instead is produced by the Heaven Hill distilling company. In fact, the Filson Historical Society believes many of the claims about Williams to be untrue, including the fact that the first recorded distiller only came about in 1892, and that Williams only arrived in the area in 1794.
Founded in 1935, shortly after the end of prohibition, Old Heavenhill Springs Distillery was founded by a group of investors in Bardstown, Kentucky. They were gambling on the idea that alcohol production would be a booming business and invested heavily in being one of the first companies to stand up and service that market. One of those investors was well known distiller Joseph L. Beam, first cousin to Jim Beam, and would become the first master distiller of the facility.
As the years went on, the Shapira family bought out all of the other investors to become the sole owner of the business and changed the name to “Heaven Hill Distillery.” Despite being bought out, the descendants of Joseph Beam remain the master distillers of the facility to this day.
Their primary distilling facility burned down in 1996, burning down 90,000 barrels of whiskey and lighting the creek that feeds the distillery on fire for nearly two miles downstream. The business survived and they purchased a new distillery in Bernheim from Diageo in 1999 where production now takes place, but all aging still takes place at the original Bardstown facility.
The 1935 bet has paid off — big time. Heaven Hill Distillery is currently the biggest family owned distillery in the United States and the second largest holder of bourbon whiskey inventory in the world. Their flagship brands include Deep Eddy vodka and Elijah Craig, and their facility hosts the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival.
This is a pretty typical mass produced bourbon that doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles.
The bourbon starts as a fermented mash consisting of 75% corn, 13% rye, and 12% barley. From there, it is distilled at the Heaven Hill distillery and placed in charred new oak barrels to mature.
Once upon a time the Evan Williams line bore an age statement of seven years, but in recent times the demand has been outstripping supply. As a result they’ve dropped the age statement, now aging their product for as little as five years prior to bottling.
The bottle itself is fairly similar to what you get with the likes of Jack Daniels or Jim Beam. The glass bottle sports a square body with a pyramid-esque shoulder that extends into a long and slender neck. The bottle is topped off with a plastic cap.
Also like those other brands, the label covers nearly the entire face of the bottle except for the very top and bottom where the liquor can be seen. This is primarily done for bars, so that a patron won’t know that they are ordering from a mostly empty bottle (as full bottles are more appealing). It’s a shame, since that means the amber color of the spirit is covered up and hidden from view.
This smells like one standard unit of bourbon. Coming out on top this time is some brown sugar butter and caramel smell, with some vanilla undertones rounding out the scent. There’s a tiny bit of a chemical smell in the background when freshly poured, but that quickly fades away.
The taste delivers on the promises of the smell. It’s smooth and even in taste and temperament, without any bite or bitterness besides the usual alcohol related burn. The flavors are very much like licking the inside of an oak barrel, with vanilla taking the lead this time and just a bit of caramel and sweetness in a supporting role.
Despite the five year aging process, there really isn’t a ton of flavor here. Sure they exist, but it’s like the faded version of a good bourbon. For those who tend to avoid bolder bourbons this might be a good choice, but I like a little bit more boldness to the flavors, personally.
Everything except the caramel flavor has disappeared. There’s a touch of vanilla, but you really have to look for it. The vanilla is hiding behind the curtains in the background.
While the flavors may have gotten even more boring, the alcohol burn is reduced to the point that I’m not even noticing it anymore. It’s not the most exciting spirit ever, but it’s still quite drinkable.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
I was expecting this to be boring and unbalanced, but in reality it’s quite good.
With the added ice, all you get is the sweetness and the caramel so the orange bitters add a bit of balance back to the drink. It makes me think that this would be a really good base for a mixed drink, a bourbon that’s just good enough to be relevant in the cocktail but inexpensive and “standard” enough that you don’t feel bad using it that way.
It’s good. It’s not great, but it’s definitely good.
Usually the bourbons I find do well in a Mule are those with more of a pronounced peppery finish, like those with a heavy rye content. In this case, the peppery finish is absent so all this spirit brings to the party is the caramel and the sweetness to counteract the bitter ginger beer.
I prefer more flavor in a mule, but this is an acceptable level of flavor. Especially for the price.
This is not the bourbon you keep on display in your liquor cabinet. It’s not pretty or rare or interesting in any way.
This whiskey is the liquor equivalent of watching The Office on Netflix: it’s what you grab when you just need something mildly entertaining and acceptable. Something that is versatile enough to fit any scenario, that doesn’t take much effort to get working, and is always available.
Evan Williams Black Label
Owner: Heaven Hill Distillery
Production: Bardstown, KY
Grain bill: 75% corn, 13% rye, 12% barley
Aging: No Age Statement (~5 to 7 years)
Proof: 43% ABV
Price: $12/ 750ml
Overall Rating: 4/5
For the price, this is a great thing to keep stocked in the liquor cabinet.