When it comes to whiskey in the United States, I can’t think of a more restrictive appellation than that of Bottled-In-Bond Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. There are so many rules and regulations surrounding that title, most distilleries don’t even try. But Evan Williams makes just such a whiskey, and actually does it cheaper than almost anyone else.
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.
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.
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 whiskey bears the “bottled in bond” statement indicating that the aging warehouses follow a strict set of requirements set forth by the federal government. Specifically, the whiskey is created at a single distillery, is aged for a minimum of four years, and bottled at 100 proof (50% alcohol).
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.
With the black label version of this spirit, I can smell a little more of the complex flavors coming through, things like vanilla and toffee. In this case, though, what I get is 100% caramel and sweetness. Not that I’m complaining– it seems delicious.
The good news is that the more complex flavors make an appearance in taste, if not in scent. I can taste a bit of the vanilla, and even a bit of peppery spice. It’s a much more robust and complex flavor profile and enjoyable to sip.
The liquid itself is thicker than the usual version, more like the consistency of whole milk with a good bit of weight to it. That’s all due to the increased alcohol content, and while it does make the spirit a bit heavier on the tongue it also increases the associated alcohol burn that comes with each taste. There’s also a bit of a chemical taste at the end if you drink too much at one time, which can be off-putting.
Overall, if you take it nice and slow like a good bourbon is intended to be enjoyed, it’s a damn fine sipping spirit.
As the ice melts and starts to dilute the whiskey, it basically turns the spirit from the white label back into the black label, since the only difference between the two is the proof of the spirit as it goes into the bottle. Which is a fine thing as the black edition is just as good.
I think I get a bit more of the vanilla and the peppery taste with the added ice, some of the same flavors and complexity that I experienced with the black label when taken neat.
The alcohol burn is much reduced and any hint of a chemical taste has disappeared making this a quite enjoyable spirit, in my opinion.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
Just like with the added ice, there’s more flavors in this white label than in a similar concoction with the black label. And it works to the Old Fashioned’s advantage.
Instead of just caramel, there’s now many more complex and delicious flavors — things like not just the caramel but also vanilla and pepper to add some depth. It makes for a delicious and well balanced drink that I could sip all afternoon.
Thanks to the increased peppery finish with the white label version of this spirit, I can actually taste the bourbon behind the ginger beer.
With the black label the bourbon is part of the chorus, but here it’s the star of the show. There’s more flavor and more depth providing an enjoyable experience, something that I’d happily drink all summer long.
My current reigning favorite whiskey is the Nikka from the Barrel, another whiskey that is bottled at 50% ABV. I tend to enjoy the higher alcohol content whiskey and the associated improvement in the quality of the flavors that come out of the bottle. In this case, I think the bourbon is greatly improved by the slightly higher alcohol content, and well worth the slight price premium it commands.
Evan Williams White Label
Owner: Heaven Hill Distillery
Production: Bardstown, KY
Classification: Bottled-in-bond bourbon
Grain bill: 75% corn, 13% rye, 12% barley
Aging: No Age Statement (~5 to 7 years)
Proof: 50% ABV
Price: $16.99/ 750ml
Overall Rating: 4/5
Well worth the extra handful of dollars.