You know the old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover?” The liquor store equivalent is “Don’t judge a bourbon by its price tag.”
Evan Williams bourbon consistently does well in taste tests and competitions despite the fact that it can usually be purchased with the money you could save by skipping a couple of fast-food lunches during the week.
Though that may be a detriment to the brand, which gets knocked for its low price tag from people who have never tried it, it is a big asset to the bourbon fan who is looking for an excellent beverage at a great price. Cheapness doesn’t mean low quality here – it just means that you get a lot more bang for your buck than you do with anything else in the bourbon section of the shop.
You might want to sit down for this shocking bit of information, but the brand got its name from … Evan Williams. Legend has it that he became the first distiller of Kentucky’s trademark beverage when he set up shop in 1783, before there even was a Kentucky (when he settled in the area, it was still a part of Virginia). It’s up to the bourbon historians to debate the truth of that, since it’s pretty much a given that every brand of bourbon takes credit for being the first to do something that is integral to the manufacturing of America’s signature drink, but there is no doubt that Evan Williams adheres to the finest bourbon traditions in craftsmanship and drinkability. That’s carried on today by the father-and-son distilling team of Parker and Craig Beam at Heaven Hill, with Parker the seventh generation of the legendary Beam family to earn the title of Master Distiller.
First things first – the type of Evan Williams that you’ll find most often is called the “Black Label” because ... well, unless you’ve already finished your bottle, you can probably guess that answer. It’s super-cheap, and you can usually find a 750-ml bottle for somewhere around $10. That price probably hurts its perception, since you’re not going to buy a bottle of this to bring to a fancy social gathering or anything because you risk looking like a cheapskate.
That’s a shame, because taste-wise Evan Williams has a lot to recommend it. Aged between five and seven years, Evan Williams has a complexity and drinkability that belies the price. Put it in a fancier bottle, change the name, and it would draw a lot more attention from the trend-setters. Or, better yet, put it and the leading bourbons in a plain, unadorned glass and see which one comes out on top.
In fact, the Wall Street Journal ran just such a tasting that included several pricier bourbons in 2008, and lo and behold Evan Williams Black Label carried the day as both Best Tasting and Best Value. No surprise. It’s got some sweetness to it, especially on the rocks, and it is a great option for mixed drinks. Just do yourself a favor and forget about the cost before you take a sip – maybe it’s cheap because Heaven Hill is secretly a philanthropic organization looking to give us bourbon drinkers a break in challenging economic times.
Evan William Single Barrel Vintage 2000
Of course, that’s not the only brand of Evan Williams has to offer. Like every other whiskey distillery in the country, the Heaven Hill folks are firmly entrenched on the single-barrel bandwagon, so you can pick up your Evan Williams Single Barrel at fine liquor stores everywhere. It’s exactly what you would expect with this brand name – very smooth, very drinkable neat, and significantly cheaper than its rivals – figure on paying between $25-$30 for your bottle and getting twice that back in value.
Evan Williams 1783 is an even better deal, especially considering it is aged for 10 years before bottling. With a bouquet that displays more caramel and vanilla overtones than the Black Label, it is an incredibly smooth drink for the price. If you can find anything better for less than $15 – and that’s what a bottle of the 1783 will run you most places – let me know and I’ll order up a caseload. Careful, at 86 proof it’s easy to drink a lot of this, because it’s not harsh at all on the palate.
Evan Williams Green Label is an 80-proof bourbon that has been aged for four years. It’s somewhat younger and less mature than the Black Label, and slightly less potent than the Black Label’s 86-proof offering. It’s available for less than a $10 most places, but the Black Label offers a little more complexity for just an additional handful of spare change. The Evan Williams White Label is somewhat harder to find, but at 100-proof is a strong and vivacious addition to the brand family.
Evan Williams also makes a Red Label (101 proof) and a Blue Label (107 proof) for export. Neither is available in the U.S. If you’re overseas and spy a bottle, just know that the alcoholic content is greater than the signature brands Heaven Hill provides at home, so if you start feeling the effects earlier than normal there might be something to blame besides the jet lag.
In addition to bourbon, Evan Williams also has an Egg Nog, a Honey Reserve and a Cherry Reserve available. The former is, well, egg nog that is pre-mixed with Evan Williams bourbon, and if you like egg nog it’s worth a shot. The Evan Williams Reserves mix bourbon with honey or cherry for a sweeter beverage, which is fine for mixed drinks or for people who really like a sweet beverage that has less alcohol than bourbon (this is 70 proof; bourbon must be 80 proof or greater to be street legal).
To be honest, part of your enjoyment with the Evan Williams family of bourbons depends upon how confident you are in your bourbon fandom, and how comfortable you are with your tastes. In both price and advertising, you’re steered towards pricier and trendier brands, most of which also have a lot to offer and make for an enjoyable drinking experience. Virtually all of them, however, are pricier than Evan Williams, and taste tests constantly talk about the “surprising” results that pit the bargain brand at or near the top. If you prefer taste and drinkability over a fancier brand and heftier price tag, Evan Williams definitely should be considered as a worthy everyday bourbon for its combination of quality and value.