I like the Evan Williams line of bourbon. It’s one of my favorite budget priced spirits, a great balance of taste and affordability. But what happens when you try to elevate a bottom-shelf whiskey? Will it be something like a single barrel bottling of hand selected vintages? That’s what we’re looking at today, asking ourselves if it’s worth the price tag.
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. Instead, it’s 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.
Established 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, destroying 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.
There’s a slight difference between this bottling and the standard Evan Williams whiskey.
Like the normal version 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.
Normally the distillery will blend a couple of these barrels together after an undisclosed period of time to create a consistent flavor of their spirit. In this case, however, the spirit comes from a single barrel that has a defined and documented date when it was barreled and when it was bottled. In my case, my bottle comes from barrel # 526, which was filled on January 22, 2011 and bottled on March 22, 2019. That makes a total of eight plus years in the barrel before bottling.
I’m slightly disappointed with the bottle.
The standard Evan Williams bottles are distinctive, unique among the whiskey world. This single barrel version is in a more traditional package with a rounded body, long neck, and a slight bulge in the middle. The neck and cap are dipped in a black wax seal, and a proper cork stopper is used up top.
It’s not the worst design ever, but I think they’ve got it backwards. This is significantly more boring than their normal version, when this should be a flashier celebration of the spirit. I’m not impressed.
Just like the Black Label, the spirit smells like a freshly baked slice of bread covered in brown butter with a hint of vanilla. In other words, delicious. For those who have ever been to a Texas Roadhouse, it’s basically like their bread and butter… in a glass.
The smell is great, but the flavor is even better. It’s like I’m drinking a Werther’s Original, a delicious caramel treat with some good vanilla flavors as well. There’s no bite or bitterness, just a smooth and wonderful treat.
If there’s anything that I can complain about, it’s that there’s a bit of a cherry aftertaste on the spirit. It’s slightly medicinal, but easily overlooked given the rest of the flavors.
As usual, the added ice removes some of the more delicate flavors. Sometimes this is a negative aspect — removing the pleasant parts of the flavor, instead of the bite — but in this case, I think it makes things a bit better. The same Werther’s Original caramel and vanilla is present and delicious, but the cherry aftertaste is completely gone.
The ice brings out more of the bolder charred oak flavors, almost like a toasted marshmallow thrown into the mix. It’s an interesting difference and adds some character to the spirit.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
What’s interesting is that this version of the spirit isn’t quite as sweet as the Black Label or White Label blended expressions. As a result, the bitters are a little bit stronger in their bite than normal and they leave the old fashioned a touch on the… well, bitter side.
To be fair, this is pretty easily remedied. Add a little bit of simple syrup and things will fall into line. The flavors are all there, it’s just the sweetness that’s missing.
Just like with the Black Label, there’s a good bit of bourbon that fills out the flavor profile. The caramel and vanilla properly balance the bitterness of the ginger beer, and it makes for a great cocktail.
The only problem I’ve got is that there isn’t a ton of substance. Again, like with the Black Label, there’s no peppery finish or spice that comes through and makes the drink unique. It’s good but it’s not as amazing as it could be.
It’s pretty good, but it isn’t that much better than the standard offering. I appreciate that it’s a single barrel bottling so you really get a truly unique flavor, but there’s nothing else exciting going on here. I appreciate the craftsmanship, but for me there isn’t enough special about this version to warrant the price tag.
Don’t get me wrong — it’s still good — but instead of being a remarkable budget priced spirit, it’s now a mediocre average priced spirit. Middle of the road.
Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage
Owner: Heaven Hill Distillery
Production: Bardstown, KY
Grain bill: 75% corn, 13% rye, 12% barley
Aging: Depends on bottle (8 years 2 months for this bottle)
Proof: 43% ABV
Price: $25.99/ 750ml
Overall Rating: 3/5
All the properties of the Black Label at damn near twice the price.