My fondness for Evan Williams should come as no surprise to Malt readers.
My first bourbon review for this site was the Evan Williams Black Label, a bargain basement selection that punches way above its weight in terms of quality for price. Moving up the range, I thoroughly enjoyed the Bottled-in-Bond, another winner in the bang-for-your-buck category. I’m tempted to quit while I’m ahead. To wish for more than a very good and an excellent bourbon, both under $20, seems like the depths of ingratitude. Yet, as a compulsive upgrader, I am unable to resist the siren song of more premium bottlings from this familiar name.
If you’ll permit me a brief philosophical digression: so much of our happiness – or, indeed, our unhappiness – stems from divergence from our expectations. Surprise and disappointment, respectively, amplify or dampen our reactions to what are absolutely negative or positive experiences.
We traffic heavily in these tradeoffs here at Malt, both directly and indirectly. We’re all subject to our own biases, and these will necessarily contain our expectations about what a given whiskey should taste like. Some part of a review and score will reflect the actual performance of a whiskey relative to how good we thought it should be.
In addition, we refer to price as a benchmark in our Scoring Bands. The implication here is that a certain quantity of money should get you some level of quality. In evaluating this, we have recourse to both internal factors (e.g. would I pay $50 for this again) as well as external factors (how does this $50 whiskey compare with other $50 whiskeys I could have bought instead?), with some interplay between the two.
I’ve written before about the futility of a reviewer pretending to be objective. Embracing that fully in this case, I’m laying my subjective cards out and am detailing my baggage going in. Before even opening these bottles, I am making my expectations explicit, as a means of calibrating my reactions thereto.
To start, we’ve got a name toward which I am already positively predisposed. These are more expensive than the bedrock bourbons with this label but, at around $20 and $30, they’re hardly bank breakers in the grand spectrum of American (or, indeed, world) whiskey. One is presented as a small batch, a term about which I harbor some skepticism. The other is a single barrel, a format I like but about which I acknowledge the inescapable pitfalls. Overall, I’d describe myself as cautiously optimistic.
First in today’s lineup is the 1783 Small Batch. As noted in the Black Label review, 1783 marks the date that the historical Evan Williams was reputed to have commenced distilling. I pointed out prior that there is no direct connection between Mr. Williams (or Mr. Craig, for that matter) and the folks at Heaven Hill, who are using these historical personalities as marketing fodder.
Always a stickler, I’ll also point out that the label on this bottle reads “1783 Est.” Now, I don’t know about you, but around my parts “Est.” is an abbreviation for “Established,” which would indicate to me that this bourbon was made by a 237-year-old concern. We know, however, that this isn’t true. I’m not aware of any regulations that exist governing this type of representation, but I’m not impressed by it. For me, the dull truth will always be preferable to a glamorous lie.
This is also labeled “Small Batch.” Heaven Hill is sticking to the house definition of small batch here; “less than 200” barrels comprise this, according to their site, and consonant with what we’ve been told about the size of the Elijah Craig small batch. They also say it’s “extra-aged,” though you won’t be surprised to hear that no additional specifics are provided.
The hard facts are as follows: this is bottled at 86 proof (43% ABV), bang in-line with the Black Label. 750 ml runs you $20 at my local, making it a sight cheaper than comparable Small Batch expressions from Four Roses ($35 and 45% ABV), Heaven Hill stable-mate Elijah Craig ($28 and 47%), Wild Turkey (Russell’s Reserve 10 Year Old, $35 and 45%) and 1792 ($30 and 46.85%).
So, what are my expectations going into this? To be honest, I’m setting the mental bar fairly low. My experience with these lower proof small batch expressions has led to my preconception that these are often fairly pedestrian whiskeys with premium price tags attached. They vary greatly, though, and in this case the quality of the underlying materials should put Evan Williams at an advantage. The price, certainly, implies a less demanding qualitative assessment. Here goes nothing:
Evan Williams 1783 Small Batch – Review
Color: Brownish copper
On the nose: Extremely similar to the Black Label, this is balanced upon a tripod of oak, stone, and metal. Some pleasant topnotes of lemon meringue and vanilla custard swirl around here, with a mineral accent and whiffs of copper and stainless steel. There’s also a hint of tangerine to liven this up. In total this is bright and cheery.
In the mouth: Quite sedate on the entry, this has a spicy accent of cedar wood and little else. At the middle of the mouth, this develops an alluring balance of woody and fruity notes, with perhaps some watery tobacco nuances. It finishes with a lingering tart note of underripe cherries. There’s not much texture here; a promising nose is repaid with a rather flat mouthfeel.
This is fine (in the sense of being OK). It’s as good as, or better than, Four Roses and Elijah Craig, and costs nearly 1/3 less. However, it’s not as good as the Black Label or Bottled-in-Bond from Evan Williams but is more expensive. Where does that leave us in terms of meeting expectations? I don’t feel pulled strongly either way. This is one of those where I’m glad to have tried it for the purposes of completism and my own mental library of whiskey. That said, if you went your whole life and had never tasted 1783 Small Batch, I wouldn’t say you missed out.
We’re moving along to the 2011 Single Barrel. This expression was reviewed in years past by Mark and Jason in its 2002 and 2005 incarnations, respectively. The back label “informs” us that “This Bourbon was personally selected by our Master Distiller, only after meeting his exacting standards for this vintage.” Setting aside that “vintage” isn’t really a meaningful concept in bourbon (in the way the term is commonly understood regarding, say, wine), what we’ve got here is a single barrel with a stated age.
This particular barrel is #1453, which was filled on 1/5/2011 and bottled on 10/30/2019, making this an eight-year-old bourbon. Interesting to note that Jason’s review was of a nine-year-old; the downward march of age statements continues apace.
This is proofed down to 86.6 (43.3% ABV). A bottle of this will set you back $29; once again, the competition here is Four Roses ($45 and 50%), as well as Jim Beam ($38 and 47.5%), Russell’s Reserve ($60 and 55%), and Blanton’s ($70 and 46.5%). That’s not counting the many store pick single barrels and the ample supply of this format from craft distilleries.
So, what am I hoping for here, given the aforementioned vital stats? The aspiration of any single barrel is that it will deliver something better or different than the distillery’s normal flavor profile, achieved via blending. Of course, it would be preferable if this were bottled at barrel proof; as it stands, this is the lowest strength of the aforementioned normally available single barrel offerings from the large distilleries. On net, I’d realistically expect a slight divergence in terms of flavor and texture relative to the other offerings in the range. Anything better will be a positive surprise.
Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage 2011 – Review
Color: Darker auburn
On the nose: Meaty. I get scents of pan-fried pork fat, with a twinge of Heaven Hill’s trademark metallic note. There’s caramelized brown sugar, mint leaf, pine forest notes, the faint scent of tobacco, a nutty aroma, a squeeze of lemon, and an herbal whiff of tarragon.
In the mouth: Beautifully rich upfront, with woodsy and gently fruity nuances mingling in a soft, slow dance toward the center of the tongue. This becomes light and sweet the middle of the mouth, with the delicate, airy sugar flavor of pavlova. Moving into the finish this becomes a bit astringent and slightly bitter, which is the only real nit to pick in terms of flavor. Texturally this is a bit watery toward the front of the mouth, though it perks up at the crest of the tongue with a sharper alcoholic heat.
Given the variation inherent to the format, it’s difficult to make a blanket statement about a single barrel offering. This is true both on the upside as well as the downside; I won’t write off an entire label on the back of a bad barrel but feel equally hesitant to recommend it on the strength of a good one.
That caveat aside, you’d be remiss to not take a flier on a bottle of this. There’s no rush; it’s widely available and unlikely to turn into a collectors’ item overnight. However, if you see this in the bourbon aisle of your supermarket (which is where I got this bottle), I’m here to tell you that you could do a lot worse for $30.
It’s got a very appealing nose. While the palate doesn’t quite measure up for me (a consequence of the comparatively low bottling strength) there’s still enough here that’s both pleasant, as well as an improvement over the reference bottle of Black Label. Though this might not get the gold medal in a tasting of the aforementioned single barrel expressions, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on the podium.
I’m equal parts pleased and relieved. While the 1783 Small Batch mostly met my (lowered) expectations, I was positively predisposed to the Single Barrel Vintage 2011. At the end of the day Evan Williams retains its reputation for producing above-average whiskey at below-average prices, and I’m especially happy that the extra money spent on the Single Barrel is rewarded with additional aromatic and gustatory intrigue. For those seeking a quality pour at a fair price, you know who to ask for.