Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Bourbon Review: Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage 2000

This week will be focused on Heaven Hill products, as after this review I plan on reviewing Elijah Craig 12 and 18 year old and Fighting Cock, which are all Heaven Hill products.  Heaven Hill is one of the big boys, and is also a branch of the Beam family with Parker Beam serving as the master distiller.

Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage 2000 - 86.6 Proof; aged 9.5 years (barreled 11-16-00, bottled 6-3-10); Distilled at Heaven Hill Distilleries; Price ~$25

Preface:  Evan Williams has long been known as one of the better selling cheap bourbons.  Many referring to it both lovingly and hatefully as "Evil".  The release of their single barrel premium bourbon under the Evan Williams name was a bit curious.  The traditional playbook for bourbon manufacturers when producing a premium bourbon has been to create an entirely new name for it, in order to distance itself from the reputation of the cheaper, more mass produced bourbons.  Heaven Hill does this already, where the Elijah Craig name is thought of very highly, and all but the most dedicated drinkers are completely unaware that Elijah Craig is essentially "just" an upscale version of Evan Williams (I mean this as no disrespect to Elijah Craig, which I believe is some of the best bourbon you can buy as you will see later in the week).

However, Jack Daniel's may have led the way here, with their Gentleman Jack proving that a relatively middle brow whiskey can create a higher tier product that does well, and actually elevates the brand's reputation in the process.  It's no coincidence that about the time Brown Forman (makers of Jack Daniels) began selling Gentleman Jack, the price of regular Jack Daniels went up in relation to chief rivals, Jim Beam White Label and George Dickel.

That must be what Heaven Hill is hoping for here, that putting out a higher quality bourbon under the Evan Williams name elevates the cachet of Evan Williams in the process.  However, it is a tricky play, as Jack Daniels had a much stronger brand image than Evan Williams to begin with.

The single barrel vintage series from Evan Williams aims to allow users to compare vintages.  However, unlike the previously reviewed Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, they don't aim for distinct bourbon from year to year, so any differences are going to be very subtle variations.

Packaging: A very attractive, simple bottle.  The label is very straightforward and is hand numbered on the back with dates it was put into barrels and then bottled.  The neck is hand dipped in black wax, very similarly to Booker's.  The top is plastic with Cork.  I could do without the faux rough edges on the label, but overall a very elegant, understated package that holds up well sitting next to much more expensive bottles.

Color: a slightly more red medium amber, fairly dark for an under 90 proof bourbon.

Smell: Vanilla, mild caramel; alcohol kick

Initial taste: Very smooth, a bit of rye/cinnamon kick.  Decent balance of caramel and vanilla, though less in amount than most Heaven Hill products.  Decent amount of oak comes in after a second on the tongue.  Not quite as corn syrupy as some Heaven Hill products, but that's not necessarily a good or bad thing.  Nice balance in the mouth.  Tiny hint of astringency at times, but not to a bad degree.

Finish: nice and spicy with a really oaky, very faintly bitter finish.  I'm not huge on oaky finishes, but this one is very nice.  Again, a much less sweet finish than I'm used to from Heaven Hill products.  The bitterness isn't negative by any means, but if you're looking for a sweet caramel-y bourbon with a sugar coated finish, look elsewhere.

Overall: Very good and excellent for the price.  I had to remind myself several times that I was drinking a $25 bottle of bourbon, not a $40 bottle.  It's not especially sweet, as compared to most of the Heaven Hill/Beam family taste profiles, but it is nice and smooth.  Nice oak taste to it, seems that it would have been getting on the verge of overaged had it sat in barrels much longer, as just a hint of oak bitterness was starting to find its way in.  Has a nice feel in the mouth for an 86.6 proof bourbon (usually I think that bourbons under 90 proof are too light in the mouth).  If you want something a little more oak-y but you don't want to break the bank to try it out, this is a good choice.  You really can't go wrong here given the price point.  They could easily put this under a different name and charge $10-20 more.

Mixing:  Mixes extremely well with coke and a sweeter ginger ale such a Vernors, which isn't a tragedy given the price point.

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