Evan Williams Single Barrel

Evan Williams Single Barrel

Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

86.6 Proof

GUYS, I’ve got two bottles for comparison, it’s that kind of awesome day!

Bottle #1 Put in oak in 3/2003, bottled in 5/2013 (10 years 2 months old), Barrel No. 515

Bottle #2 Put in oak in 1/2004, bottled in 11/2013 (9 years 10 months old), Barrel No. 125

The name Evan Williams is synonymous with Bourbon.  Even people who don’t know bourbon know that Evan Williams is a bourbon, in the same way that I know Absolut makes vodka, though I can’t remember the last time I drank vodka.  The name goes back to 1783, when Welsh immigrant, entrepreneur, and jack-of-all-trades Evan Williams moved to Kentucky and began distilling whiskey.  If you don’t know, there is a lot of corn in Kentucky, so this seemed like a pretty good use of it to him.

Evan Williams whiskey is produced in Louisville, KY by the illustrious Heaven Hill Bernheim Distillery (the company Heaven Hill Distilleries, Inc is based in Bardstown, but their distillery is actually in Louisville), who also make other great brands such as Bernheim, Elijah Craig, Heaven Hill, Larceny, and Rittenhouse Rye, among others.  Heaven Hill is a huge operation, and is the seventh-largest alcohol supplier in the United States, but they consistently produce some of the country’s greatest and most exciting whiskey, in my opinion.  It’s interesting that in the beer world, bigger is usually not better.  The best beers in the world are being made by some of the smallest breweries, but the best “craft” whiskey is really being made by the big names at this point.

Under the brand Evan Williams we have quite a few nice whiskeys, though the Single Barrel is far and away the best.  There is also Evan Williams 1783, Black Label, White Label (100 Proof), and even the Green Label is a pretty good sipping whiskey considering the price.  Being a bourbon drinker and associating the name Evan Williams with solid, good bourbon, but not GREAT bourbon, I was quite surprised the first time I tasted the Single Barrel.  It is well beyond good, and even creeps past great to fantastic, especially for an under $30 bottle.

So, here’s something interesting.  I just opened the 2003 vintage, and right away I can tell it’s way different than the 2004, which I really wasn’t expecting (shows what I know).  The 2004 is the one I’ve had for a while and loved so much (and what my previous praise in this post was based on), and during this tasting I’ll be drinking the last ounce left in that wonderful bottle.  Color-wise they are similar, with the 2004 being half a shade darker, but right away upon nosing the 2003 I get a powerful alcohol scent, which is shocking at 86.6 proof.  Swirling in the glass and letting it sit for about five minutes lessened this a good bit, but it’s still present.  Past the alcohol zing in my nose, I’m getting front and center a distinct sweet tea smell, not unpleasing, but definitely not what I was after.  After that, honey, light oak, tiny bit of rye, and that’s about it.  It tastes…good?  No, really it does taste good, but again way different than the 2004.  It’s spicy, light to medium bodied, and thankfully doesn’t actually taste that much like sweet tea.  The oak comes across more on the palate, the rye less, and the honey is there for sure.  It’s way less smooth than I’d expect a bourbon to be at this proof, pretty “alcohol forward.”  I’d normally never say to add water to an under 90 proof bourbon, but this could benefit from a couple drops.  Not much vanilla, but it is present.  Overall the flavors just aren’t super balanced, and again the sting of the drink all over the tongue is overpowering everything a bit too much.  Now, I know I’m being a little more critical of this bottle than perhaps I should, but compared to the ’04, I am disappointed.  It’s still good, and better than a lot of bourbons I’ve had, but it’s not great or fantastic.  And I still can’t believe every time I take a sip how much I can smell that sweet tea.  It kind of makes me like it more though, because, I mean, sweet tea is great.

Now the 2004, let me revisit you, my dear old friend.  Full disclosure, the ’04 has now had a chance to sit in the glass (a Glencairn tasting glass, by the way…I normally taste with these with about a 1.5 oz pour) for about twenty minutes, and I will go ahead and tell you it smells freaking great.  Much brighter, fruitier, and oakier (spell check says this is not a word, but I say it is) than the ’03.  Still not super oaky though.  Not getting any of that sweet tea scent.  Really nice pear, brown sugar, and oak, someone please make me a sandwich with those three things right now.  It’s got a tiny bit of campfire smoke to it too, goes really nicely with everything else.  I will now take a sip, if that’s ok.  Wow, I can’t even believe this is bottled in the same state!  So different.  It’s much more full bodied for starters.  I’m getting bright orange and lemon peel, an awesome fruit punch juice box vibe (but light, not overpowering), sweet vanilla, more oak than ’03, tiny bit of that campfire, and only a faint, faint rye.  It’s more about the balance of it all that makes this vintage so great.  It’s much smoother.  It’s such a nice drink.  And I just finished the last drop…guess I know what my next purchase is!  Hope I can still find this year’s.

I am just shocked at the difference between these two bottles.  I know this is the world of single barrels we are talking about, but still.  I’m almost as shocked by the difference as I am by the 7-1 Germany crushing of Brazil in the World Cup semi-final that I watched yesterday…ALMOST (I know this might alienate some of my readers…Soccer isn’t popular among bourbon drinkers, but guys, just give it a few years and y’all will catch up, trust me).

I know rating a single barrel release is kinda like deciding how good a sports team is by watching one game, but I can’t just go around reviewing a bottle from every single barrel of a release.  Or…could I?…..Anyway here are my ratings for each bottle:

2003 Rating 6.8 / 10

2004 Rating: 9.1 / 10

2003 bought in Athens, GA at Five Points Bottle Shop for $25.99

2004 bought in Asheville, NC at an ABC Store for $24.99

Can’t wait for the 2005 release next year.

***UPDATE*** 10/6/14

I was able to do a side by side tasting of two more Evan 2004 bottles, one of them a private barrel release from Decatur Package Store, my favorite package store in Atlanta:

 

Bottle #1: “Herb’s Leap Year Barrel,” a private barrel selected by owner of Decatur Package Store. 2004 Vintage, put in oak 2/29/04 (leap year), bottled on 5/5/14. Didn’t remember to get the barrel number on this one.

Bottle #2:  2004 Vintage, put in oak 5/5/04, bottled on 5/31/14. Barrel #758
These two are also quite different. On Herb’s I’m getting some of the best cherry and oak combo I’ve ever smelled, then warm cherry pie, brown sugar, and caramel. Smells very sweet. It’s a nose I keep diving back into, putting off taking the first sip for almost 20 minutes. The other 2004 smells much hotter, a little musty/dirty attic-y, earthy in a good way, brand new leather wallet. Doesn’t smell very sweet. On the palate, Herb’s Leap Year is less sweet than it smells, but well balanced with black tea, lemon peel, light brown sugar, and oak. Super smooth and light-medium bodied. The standard 2004 is not as smooth, much hotter, much heavier oak with light honey. Shares the same body with all the EW Single Barrels I’ve tried, light to medium.

Overall Herb’s Leap Year Barrel is the best of the EW Single Barrels I’ve tried, the 2004 barrel 125 being the second best, then the 2004 barrel 758, and the 2003 being the most underwhelming, though not a bad bourbon by any means.

Also P.S. this is hilarious–this is pulled from the Evan Williams website on their cocktail recipe page:

“Ingredients:

  • 2 oz. Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon

Instructions:

Pour into rocks glass.”

Sounds good to me!  I hope I don’t mess it up…

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