If you were to visit a distillery, what would you like to come home with?
I’m not talking about photos and memories. Rather, I’m referring to the distillery exclusive bottlings occasionally available in the gift shop. Beyond the gleam of shiny copper stills and the smells of fermentation, special bottles – not widely available – are an extra lure to potential visitors.
Scotland seems to do this well, judging by the reviews on this site. Jason most recently tucked into a Tomatin; Lagavulin and Balblair have also garnered consideration here. The English have gotten in on the game as well, with a trio from Bimber commanding above-average marks from Adam back in March.
My own distillery visits have been a bit more disappointing. The Yamazaki distillery had only a small (300 ml) souvenir bottle of “Single Malt Whisky” lacking an age statement and bottled at a flaccid 40%. At least the price (¥1,440) was more or less appropriate. Closer to home, the FEW distillery had a couple single cask bottlings on the shelf, though these are commonplace at retailers in the Chicagoland area and don’t require a special trip. Journeyman offered a weird flavored whiskey concoction as an exclusive, though the relative strength (or lack thereof) of their other offerings dissuaded me from snagging a bottle.
A number of the large Kentucky bourbon distilleries offer something different for those that bother to go visit them. These can vary from whiskeys of undisclosed age and parameters in souvenir packaging (Jim Beam’s “Old Tub” and “American Stillhouse Limited Edition”) all the way up to barrel proof bottles purportedly hand selected by the master distiller (Four Roses). The range of prices typically reflects the differing quality and prestige, with dollar amounts in the teens up to the triple digits.
Toward the upper end of this hierarchy sits the subject of today’s review, Evan Williams 23 Years Old. Frequent readers of this site will know that I’ve repeatedly lavished praise on some of the expressions from this label. The entry-level Black Label’s low price makes it a go-to house bourbon, though even the brand’s premium bottlings are available for far less than competing options. So, what would a very old and very expensive version of Evan Williams taste like?
An interesting wrinkle is that this bourbon was distilled in Heaven Hill’s old Bardstown distillery, before it burned down and was replaced by the current Bernheim distillery. I have had plenty of whiskey from the latter and have my own sense of the house style; it will be interesting to see if this corresponds at all to that flavor profile.
There’s not really much to compare this to, in terms of similarly aged bourbons. As we discussed prior, bourbons (particularly those with rye – as opposed to wheat – in the mash bill) don’t typically improve beyond their early teenage years. Thus, we’ve only got Pappy Van Winkle 23 Years Old, as well as Heaven Hill’s Elijah Craig 23 Years Old (and also the Orphan Barrel Rhetoric 23 Years Old, another Heaven Hill product), as peers for a benchmark when considering this whiskey.
Needless to say, I’m thrilled to be tasting this. A few particulars before I dive in: this is bottled at 107 proof (53.5% ABV). 750 ml will set you back $350, though this was another generous sample from Brett, who remains an inordinately kind supporter of ours.
Evan Williams 23 Years Old – Review
Color: Tarnished copper
On the nose: Incredibly expressive upfront, with a sticky, chewy, fruity note of strawberry taffy. There’s an herbal, medicinal aroma of menthol and the rich, mellow sweetness of vanilla buttercream frosting. After some time, I’m getting some more richly sweet notes of butterscotch and toffee. Meyer lemon rind and the faintest whiff of old leather couch round out what is, in total, an exceptional nose.
In the mouth: Woodsy notes of twigs and some peppery spice mark the arrival of this whiskey in the front of the mouth. There’s a citric nip of clementine before the texture turns airy and evanescent for a moment, rendering the whiskey almost silent before the flavors start flowing back instantaneously. This hits its highest note at midpalate, where tart flavors of underripe stone fruit meet the unmistakable metallic note that I find to be a Heaven Hill hallmark. The nose’s sweet taffy note appears again in the form of a brief burst of flavor before this finishes long and lean, with more stern notes of copper pennies and the lingering nip of cracked black peppercorn. The alcohol is noticeable from front to back, though two tiny drops of water cause this to be replaced with a creamy texture and more classic oaky vanilla notes.
This is delicious, sure, but it would have to be for the price. When reviewing whiskeys this rare and expensive, I usually struggle with scoring. On the one hand, I’m always happy to have tried them for educational purposes if nothing else. On the other hand, I don’t buy bottles carrying a multiple-hundred-dollar price tag with any kind of regularity. So, if I were in the Heaven Hill gift shop, would I be prepared to drop nearly four bills on this?
The answer is yes, for a few reasons: firstly, this is a legitimate rarity, being as it’s from a destroyed distillery. We’ve got the details on age, which puts it toward the outer end of available expressions, and $350 is still a sight cheaper than the $2,500+ that Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year Old fetches on the secondary market. Finally, it’s got a unique and delicious flavor that justifies the extended maturation, as well as the price. I can see this being the type of bottle I keep at the back corner of the top shelf, awaiting the arrival of guests who know and appreciate fine whiskey.
Until I can make the trip down to Bernheim, I’ll have to be contented with this small but wonderful sample. Thanks again to the magnanimous benefactor who shared it with me; I’ll be sure to pay it back and forward.
Photograph kindly provided by Whiskybase.