Tales From The Bottom Shelf: Evan Williams

Last month I featured some pricey bottles. I could continue raiding the more exciting corners of my collection and give the impression that I’m loaded beyond imagination (rather, wealthy – loaded in the other sense might at times be accurate). Heck, I guess I could just write a series of wholly fictitious tasting notes just to add to the illusion — perhaps that will become an occasional feature at some point in the future. After all, who’s going to open all those Dalmores that sell for $25,000 and up? Might as well have some additional notes on them. Right: It’s a plan.

But, I’m not loaded (in either sense) right now, so balance is called for. Today we journey from the glass cases of December to the bottom shelf. This isn’t done in some sad attempt to claim legitimacy and relevance (I attempt to avoid both), but rather for the simple purpose of balance. You can’t eat coq au vin and wild game constantly; it’ll get stale and boring. Sometimes you just need a Pink’s chili dog. And in that spirit, we go from bottles with three figures left of the decimal to bottles with three figures, decimal included.

Today’s whisky is Evan Williams. That’s it. Plain, standard Evan Williams, stalwart resident of the bottom shelf of my local BevMo. You could argue that this is a position of shame, but I prefer to see Evan Williams as one of the foundations of the selection available. It’s not glamorous like the latest trendy bottle with a special label, nor does it necessarily occupy the same spot in the mind as, say, Jack Daniel’s or Jim Beam. Evan is a little more low key and anonymous, an everyman in the bourbon aisle.

I must admit before going further, I previously ran afoul of Evan Williams. In my college days, Evan was the first beverage that got me REALLY drunk. It became a staple of our movie nights, with a 1.75 being squirreled out and poured into a styrofoam cup and then mixed with Coke. The resulting hangovers were the stuff of legend and caused me to give Evan a wide berth in later years. (We also discovered one hung-over football morning that you could sing “Evan Williams Whiskey” in time with the chorus of Montell Jordan’s “This is How We Do It“.

That was then… this is several years later. I approached this with a bit of hesitation, figuring that at $9 this was probably about the same level as what powers my car and it was going to hurt going down. After all, those college diets and drinking habits aren’t chosen on taste…

The nose had more going on than I remembered – obvious corn upfront with a little tail end of new-makey vegetal sourness. Some moderate wood influence was there and a bit of varnish and paint thinner. Yeah, yeah, sounds great. But also in the nose were light bits of black cherry, caramel and faint vanilla, with a bit of cinnamon. All the elements for a decent bourbon (except maybe some age) are in place.

The mouthfeel is medium-light and gains some weight. The palate comes with plenty of toffee and caramel upfront with corn right behind. There’s some faint woodiness on the palate and a hint of raw sugar that echoes the new-make notes from the nose. There’s a distinct black cherry note very late in the palate.

The finish is probably the biggest stumbling point for Evan Williams – it’s vanishingly quick. There’s a bit of black pepper, some caramel and more corn; and then a quick hint of vanilla and some slight wood notes.

It turns out that Evan Williams is a pretty decent whiskey – especially considering the price. It’s not fully developed and would benefit from some age, but there are good elements in place. Compared to, say, Jim Beam, it’s miles ahead. Beam products to my palate have a much more sharp sugary sweetness that really makes it objectionable. Evan Williams to me is far more balanced, but would just benefit from some age.

Let this be a reminder to us all – those bottles at your feet may be worth reexamining. They’re likely not going to break the bank and they’ll generally be more satisfying than that white whiskey you were about to pay 30 bucks for. Put it back. Put it back! Just grab the Evan Williams. You can even let your friends mix it and you don’t have to get all uptight and fussy like whiskey drinkers are supposed to. (They’ll probably even appreciate that you haven’t stocked your bar with something that has a five minute long backstory detailing the more obscure points of cooperage.)

At a glance:

Evan Williams 43% ABV
Notes of corn (and faintest new-make vegetal leafiness) and some moderate wood influence. Light cinnamon, very light black cherry. A slightly varnishy/thinner note. Light caramel and very faint vanilla.
Palate:  Medium-light on the palate but becoming heavier. Caramel and toffee are forefront with caramel dominant; corn notes are right behind it. Very faint wood, and a hint of raw sugar that is again an echo of the new make notes from the nose. Very late black cherries.
Vanishingly quick. A bit of pepper, a bit of caramel and corn. Hints of vanilla and mild wood. 
It’s not fully developed and would benefit from a little more time in wood, but the elements I like are there. This is way better than your average Jim Beam buy – by a longshot. Totally drinkable, totally mixable. 

13 thoughts on “Tales From The Bottom Shelf: Evan Williams”

  1. Good review, and you’re absolutely correct EW is better than Jim Beam.  Also wanted to note that you brought up a very good point about balance.  If you only drink good stuff, your palate will become used to it and you will A) not be able to appreciate the cheaper stuff and B) lose some of your appreciation for the good stuff too, as you will be desensitized to it.  That’s part of the reason (at least after the fact) that I set my whisky budget such that I can drink good whisky, but not too good.  Thus, when I buy a good bottle, I’ve got to buy something less expensive next to balance it out.  Nice review!

    1. I think there’s a distinction I’d like to call out. Even though Evan Williams is inexpensive, I don’t necessarily think it’s not good (it got a B-, that’s a pretty respectable mark). It’s maybe a bit underdeveloped but honestly, I’m looking at this as maybe being a mainstay to have on hand since it’s fine to drink on its own and you can mix it without anyone getting uptight. Same sort of thing goes for Very Old Barton – 12 bucks for something that’s pretty good (better than Evan as my memory serves). 

      My goal overall is to find “the good stuff” regardless of price. I think it’s just as easy to find clunkers in the high end – usually they’ve got enough going on either through vatting or age that they’re not *bad*, but they don’t really move into good/great territory. Heck, some of the Ardbeg committee bottlings have been rather uninspiring (Rollercoaster didn’t do much for me). Price isn’t a guarantor of quality or a lack thereof.

      To put it another way, I can hit one of ten zillion anonymous Mexican restaurants in LA and have some of the best food I’ve had in my life with fresh ingredients, prepared to order and generally healthy (corn tortilla please). Or I can spend that same $8 and get a McDonald’s burger with all the sodium, fat and pink slime that is implied in that. Consider the occasional bottom shelf hunts an attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff.

      I know you get the distinction – I just wanted to articulate my thoughts more cleanly and you gave me a clean springboard on it.

      1. I think what price does is it increases the probability that the whisky will be a higher quality, at least up until a point, say $100 or so.  That is, if you look at all the $12 whiskies, there will be one or two good quality ones like Evan Williams per 10 or so that you look at.  At $30, there’s probably 7 or 8 high quality whiskies per 10, and at $100, it better be about 10 out of 10.  But quality isn’t the only factor in enjoyment, there’s also flavor profile, and that is probably less correlated to price than quality is.  All-in-all, you could correlate price to enjoyment and there would be a significant correlation I think, only it would not be a strong correlation – lots of variance.

        1. I think it’s a reasonably fair statement – I would say bourbon tracks a little closer on price/quality than scotch does. 

          I think there’s a tendency to trade on some established names in Scotch which leads to people believing all Port Ellens or Broras are great – and then you end up with all bottlings beginning at $250. (Then compare price to any of the other closed-in-’83 distilleries)
          There’s also a more aggressive push into the luxury/status market in Scotch whiskies – the five-figure Dalmores and Macallans for instance. Macallan 30 is one of the poorest values for the dollar I can think of, and even if it was a third of the cost it’d be far too expensive for very mediocre whisky. 

          In bourbon land, things feel more in check. Being in CA a lot of the Buffalo Trace/Van Winkle stuff gets overpriced and that’s just an unfortunate fact of life out here, but beyond that, things seem reasonably sane. 
          I think the only real readily available clunker north of $70 in bourbon is the Woodford Masters bottlings, but that’s a series of posts unto itself. But a Parkers or most of BTAC — even Eagle Rare this year, for crying out loud — I think while expensive is a pretty great whiskey.

          Obviously there are always exceptions. 

      2. Perhaps you could have a look at Evan Williams 1783 for us.  At 10 years, it may have the age you think EWB needs.  And for some reason it is even a bit cheaper.

        1. Interesting – I don’t know that I’ve seen it locally. Looks like it’s a buck or two more online than I’m seeing standard Evan for around here. I’ll add it to the shopping list! Thanks for the suggestion. I hope it does hit the right notes. 

          1. Probably not only on the bottom shelf, but perhaps in the corner of that same shelf.  Here in Florida it is about a buck cheaper than Black for whatever reason.  Will now have to track down a bottle myself next time by the store.

  2. I’ve decided that I just will not drink bottom shelf whisky anymore.  Life is too short and there are so many great middle and high end whiskies to be had.  From now on, I am all about seeking the highest quality drams I can fit into the budget.  Not to say I won’t be a frugal shopper.  I can find plenty of excellent quality whisky in the <$100 category.

    1. With Uigeadail in the sub-100 category among others, there’s plenty of good stuff to be had. 

      I think as long as you’re enjoying yourself, that’s all that matters. For me, it’s finding gems high and low (and sometimes finding those expensive bottlings aren’t what they’re cracked up to be). For others, it’s the value and budget segment. 

      I agree, there’s tons of great stuff that’s not bottom shelf but still reasonably priced that’s great. 

      I think I’m just too divided on my attention to have an overall set of guiding principles. :) 

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