Will this be the worst of the best, or the best of the worst?

Today, I’m going to be considering a bottom shelf offering from a brand that’s near and dear to my heart. Before I get into the specifics, though, I hope you’ll permit me a few musings about bourbon and value:

Bourbon is incredibly inexpensive, in the grand spectrum of whiskey. No, I’m not referring to the artfully-packaged sourced whiskey with a perfunctory cask finish and an aspirational price tag. Neither am I referring to the top end of the major distilleries’ ranges, which can yield true delights as well as misfires, the type that languish on the shelf long past their release date. I’m certainly not referring to the dusties that, while they may have been economically priced in their heyday, are now trading hands routinely in the four-figure price range.

Rather, I’m talking about the everyday bourbons. These are the ones that you can walk into any supermarket and liquor store and grab right off the shelf. While we spend a lot of time pining away for days gone by, in actuality the contemporary American bourbon drinker is blessed with an abundance of compelling options. These whiskeys often come to us at prices that, on a cost/quality spectrum, would put them at the top of the global league table for whiskey, as well as for distilled spirits more generally.

Top among these super value bourbons, for me, is the Evan Williams range. The Black Label (43% ABV; $13 for 750 ml or $22 for 1.75 L; you do the math) has been the bedrock of my home bar for more than a decade. Those of you aristocrats with spare cash to burn can shell out the princely sum of $17 for the Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond (50% ABV), which – for my tastes – is perhaps the best value for money in bourbon, alongside only Wild Turkey 101. Back in the Williams family, the 1783 Small Batch ($20) and Single Barrel ($29) are solid if unspectacular examples of their respective formats.

Being a completist of the most obsessive-compulsive variety, I could not rest until I rounded out my experience with the lowest tier offering in the Evan Williams range. As a consequence, when I noticed a bottle of the heretofore elusive Evan Williams Green Label on the (bottom) shelf of a local grocery store, I took the plunge and shelled out

How is this different than the standard Evan Williams Black Label? Most obviously, it’s bottled at the lowest legally permissible strength, 80 proof (40% ABV). Miniscule type on the rear label informs us that this is “Thirty Six Months Old;” while Black Label currently carries no age statement, it had been bottled with a seven-year age back in the 90’s, and is now thought to contain whiskeys in the five-to-seven year age range. While I’m keeping an open mind, the indicators (shorter maturation, lower ABV) would point to this being the equivalent of Diet Evan Williams.

To recapitulate the specifics: this is Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey, aged thirty-six months. It is bottled at 40% ABV; I paid $12 for 750 ml.

Evan Williams Green Label – Review

Color: Pale orange-hued straw.

On the nose: Heady and grain-driven, with an herbal accent of mint leaf and dill. With tenacious sniffing, this reveals a little spicy accent of cinnamon and the faintest nuance of campfire. With some time in the glass, the overwhelming aromatic character is of a yeasty, bready nature, like a freshly baked wheat loaf straight from the oven.

In the mouth: Thin throughout, this presents dilutely woody notes at the fore. The entire presentation falls apart as this hit midpalate, turning into an off-bitter note of young wood and precious little else. If I really reach, I can sense a faint echo of citrus fruit as the lone other element to this composition.

Conclusions

I know I should score this more clemently given the budget price and the unpretentious presentation, but this calling this seriously mediocre whiskey is more praise than it deserves. It tastes exactly like what it is: young whiskey bottled at the bare minimum strength. It’s not awful but not good, or even OK; it’s as dull and insipid as Jim Beam White Label. As a consequence, I am docking it two points and issuing a strong recommendation not to buy this one, no matter how curious you may be.

Score: 3/10

I couldn’t resist revisiting a dram of the Black Label for comparison. Here, once again, I present my notes for your consideration:

Evan Williams Black Label – Review

Color: A far more satisfying hue of burnished copper.

On the nose: This presents the classic Heaven Hill citric/metallic note straightaway. In comparison to its predecessor, there’s a remarkable amount of aromatic character in this whiskey: vanilla bean, baking spice, the herbal greenness of cardamom pods, and the baked buttery richness of chess pie. Some deep sniffing gives the meaty scent of smoked brisket.

In the mouth: Again, by way of contrast, this has texture galore. Upfront there is a metallic kiss of damp pennies or depleted nine-volt battery (pretend that you don’t know what I mean). In the middle of the mouth, this is distinguished by an herbal nuance of mint leaf, as well as some more piquant spicy notes of ground cinnamon and black pepper. The finish is one of a lingering limestone minerality that persists with a mouth-desiccating dryness.

Conclusions

This is far from perfect bourbon but, for the price, it hasn’t a shred of competition. In the way that the prior whiskey was thin, shrill and (most unforgivably) boring, this is startlingly personable. It varies throughout the nose and mouth with a remarkable range of aromatic and gustatory character. This is not overwrought or extreme, but rather it achieves a type of serene balance that is consistent from the first sniff to the final swallow.

Score: 6/10

This has opened up a fascinating conundrum: why does Green Label exist? It’s not appreciably less expensive than the Black Label but is both conceptually and experientially inferior. It’s a product for which there should theoretically be absolutely no demand, and yet here it is… sort of. It’s not available everywhere; Heaven [Hill] knows why we were honored with its presence here in Illinois. It’s not even featured on the Evan Williams website. Is it hard to kill off an expression? If any whiskey ever deserved a merciful death, it is this one, which does dishonor to the entire Williams family.

CategoriesAmerican
  1. Avatar
    Formack says:

    Thought your comments about Evan Williams Black Label were spot-on. Was especially delighted to read the take on Jim Beam White Label. Had friends who would pay meaningful money for that stuff and, when sharing my EW Black Label, would rave about it, then switch. However, something happened in the 2000’s, with the brand’s purchase by Heaven Hill. Was there a fire? Was there a change in the mash bill? Couldn’t imbibe it until recently I purchased a pile of black nips at $1 each. Deelish. Now I can find the 1.75L, when lucky, at $20.95 in Massachusetts, of all places. Be well.

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      Formack, thanks for the comments. RE: the fire, the Heaven Hill Bardstown distillery burned down in 1996. The Shapira family bought the idled Bernheim distillery in Louisville in 1999, which is the source of the whiskeys we know and love today. For what it’s worth, I have tried whiskey from both distilleries and have found it to be consistent in the sense of being recognizably Heaven Hill. Cheers!

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