Whiskey Is For The People: Evan Williams 1783

Over on the K&L Spirits Journal, David Driscoll has spent the last several days discussing the parallel between whiskey and Bordeaux. His opinion, for those of you that haven’t been reading it, is that the price increases we’re seeing in whiskey are inevitable and irrevocable. Sku at Sku’s Recent Eats believes a “Silver Age” of whiskey is coming a few years after the current bubble pops. Reddit is predictably split on the issue.

Time will prove one of these two gents right. I consider both to be friends so I’m certainly not writing this for the purpose of taking sides, but it’s too tantalizing of an issue to let slide.

To cut to the chase, I disagree with David. And more importantly I believe we as enthusiasts have the opportunity to make the world we would like to inhabit to a certain extent.

We’ve seen an interesting pullback from the exuberance recently. While I don’t think it signals an end of the bubble, there’s a definite market resistance lately. Dalmore’s Constellation Collection was rightly mocked among enthusiasts, and the 1957 Bowmore failed to make its lofty goal of about $160,000 at auction.  While it’s possible in these cases that “the skill and patience that has gone into the production [...] has not ben appreciated by the market“, it’s also possible there’s a reaction to this trend of style over substance, and price dictating quality.

Van Winkle is the topic du jour among bourbon enthusiasts. This is partially natural – it’s fall, which is traditionally the limited and expensive release season; and partly because there’s no shortage of disgust at the additional hype the New York Post’s recent article on Van Winkle bourbons has engendered. Van Winkle happens to be an extremely interesting case study of this phenomenon.

For the five of you who aren’t aware of the lore, Pappy Van Winkle is the name that a very limited range of bourbons is marketed under. Historically, Van Winkle was the product of the Stitzel-Weller distillery, which closed over a decade ago. The Stitzel-Weller profile is a really nice one, though having tasted several old Stitzel-Wellers, I would not say the Stitzel-Weller profile is too dissimilar to the profile that Buffalo Trace’s wheated bourbons have. This is fortunate, because as the Stitzel-Weller bourbon is getting older and no more is being produced, the younger expressions are made up more and more of Buffalo Trace whiskey. Buffalo Trace tends to be a bit more wood-forward and not as overtly caramel sweet as Stitzel, but it’s still within range.

Van Winkle’s profile has been raising in recent years, buoyed heavily by mentions from celebrity chefs (Bourdain, Chang and Ripert among many others). Rising faster than its profile, however, is its price.

It’s no secret that the kitchen is big business, and we have a tendency to want to follow and emulate the recommendations of those we look up to. However, in a nod to David Driscoll, I’ve got to say that you should try and find what you like personally. I personally found in an extensive blind tasting of wheated bourbon this summer that I have a real soft spot for a beautifully crafted 90-proof wheater. Not all 90 proofers, but there are some out there that really kill it with an unbelievably balanced profile. To take this in a different direction, as a musician – we’re different physiologically than our heroes and teachers. I’ve never once used the same drumstick as my teachers – my hands are a bit smaller; I like something that’s lighter in my hand. If I was following my teachers or heroes, I’d be struggling with an uncomfortable 747, 777, 85A or SD1. Instead, I like the plain old boring 5A – the 90 proof bourbon of drumsticks. I’d never reach these conclusions without the willingness to toss aside the bourbon gospel of barrel proof uber alles.

I don’t have the depth of market history or insight that David does. I don’t know the ins and outs of the wine market or the whiskey market (except as an enthusiast and member of the chattering class). However, my experience with whiskey says that it – even scotch – is a different beast than wine. Whiskey is a drink of the people. Whiskey is a drink for the everyman. I just feel in my gut that whiskey is heavily riding the wave of a slightly tongue-in-cheek and superficial desire to reconnect to the rugged personalities we like to imagine existed in the 60s and before. I can’t help but feel like this will all be passé in a few years – which is then followed by a price collapse.

Maybe I’m wrong, which is also entirely possible. Maybe some whiskeys are going in the direction of Bordeaux and In five years I’ll never taste another Macallan again. If that’s truly the case, it’s a shame. I think we have the opportunity to fight against an elitist, collecting, hoarding and status-seeking mentality that only helps drive prices explosively higher.

People like to imagine scotch as a marker of high status, that you’ve really arrived when you’re drinking scotch. It’s a drink of the rich and powerful, and is best enjoyed in tweed jackets, in old leather chairs in a study. Hey, that’s a hell of a setting, but let me paint a separate picture, one of the Los Angeles Whisk(e)y Society.

LAWS is a group of guys who are by most any measure a fairly successful and sharp group of guys. Certainly there’s some socioeconomic advantages enjoyed among the group; you won’t see some of those ridiculous whiskies posted on the site if not. It’s nothing if not an intensely passionate group of whisky enthusiasts, so there’s definitely some nerdy discussions that are overheard – “I’m getting a real rancio note on this”; “This is a lot different than later Stitzel-Wellers”, and so on. However, the night drags on and what you have is a very boisterous room of friends reconnecting after a month(ish), talking about family, movies, music, random blogs and online stuff, work, and so on. That’s right: it’s not a quietly reverential, cold and analytical group that is some sort of whisky version of Inside The Actor’s Studio. It’s loud, it’s funny, the people are smart as it gets, but it’s never too serious. I hope I haven’t spoiled any illusions you may have.

Even when we’re tasting Strathislas pushing 50 years old, or incredible oloroso-matured Glendronachs, there’s always a grounded, earthy, joking presence. That, to me, is what is the core of the whisky experience. That, to me, is what we as a community (speaking much more broadly) need to foster.

Maybe we’re all going to be priced out and remembering the heyday when we could afford a 40 year old Glendronach split 15 ways. But even if we can’t, we can keep the spirit alive. This is what I mean when I say whisky is for the people: it’s the drink of tailgate parties at your college. It’s the drink your friends buy to wreck you after you’ve gotten blind drunk on your birthday. It’s a little more grown-up, but it hasn’t forgotten how to have fun. Your grandfather didn’t drink bourbon because he was old, he drank it because he enjoyed it. (And he remembers when Old Grand-Dad used to be great stuff).

Let’s not be afraid to visit the bottom shelf. Let’s not forget we’ve got friends to share and split with. And for crying out loud, after you’ve finished taking your tasting notes, tell your friends that story where you looked like a complete idiot this last month. It’s so much more fun when you’re sharing it over a glass of whiskey. Along with the experiences, whiskey is better when it’s shared – it’s scientifically proven to taste better. (Maybe not, but if you share your rare Brora, someone else might share their rare Glenugie…)

In this spirit of whiskey for the everyman, a quick peek at Evan Williams 1783, as requested earlier this year.

The nose on 1783 has a heavy caramel presence, a touch of wood with some furniture polish, a very faint hint of sourness that provides a nice counterpoint to the sweetness, and some vanilla creaminess, with a more grainy turbinado sugar sweetness also.

The palate starts light, but gains a little weight. It leads with some slightly bitter wood, but it’s nicely mixed with some big caramel notes and some toffee. It’s got some light sugar, but it becomes more vanilla-creamy, which sits nicely in complement to the caramel. There’s a light hint of citrus and some very slight black pepper. There’s also a late hint of black tea tannins.

The finish is sweet, dominated by caramel, turbinado sugar and buttercream vanilla with some light cinnamon and pepper heat. A faint sourness keeps the sweet in check, and it’s also got some faint black cherries.

1783 is a slightly more grown-up take on the standard black label Evan Williams. It mies well; it’s also great straight. For me, it might supplant black label as a worthy low-price bourbon to keep on hand.

As my friend Adam says:

Drink whiskey!

At a glance:

Evan Williams 1783 43% ABV
Nose:
  Heavy caramel presence, a touch of wood with some furniture polish; a very faint hint of sourness in the nose in a way that provides a nice counterpoint to the sweetness; vanilla creaminess. Some turbinado sugar.
Palate:  Light. Slightly bitter wood up front, mixed well with caramel with some light toffee. More light sugar hints but it’s becoming a little more vanilla-creamy in nature which sits nicely against the caramel. A light citrus hint, and a very very slight dusting of black pepper. Hints of black tea.
Finish:  Sweet on exit, caramel, turbinado sugar, some buttercream vanilla with some light cinnamon and pepper heat. Faint sourness and faint black cherries.
Comment: A slightly more grown-up take on standard black label Evan Williams. A superb mixer, solid to enjoy straight. This might supplant black label as a worthy low-price bourbon to keep on hand.
Rating: B-

3 thoughts on “Whiskey Is For The People: Evan Williams 1783”

  1. Bourbon and rye seem scalable in ways that wine never will be. They can source their grains from pretty much anywhere in the country (though I’m sure they have preferences) and are mostly using column stills, so there’s already a lot of capacity. It also ages more quickly, so even though the older whiskeys probably will stay pricey, there isn’t nearly as much reason for stuff on the lower end to go up. Supply can largely keep up with demand (there are exceptions like Rittenhouse, but even there is likely more supply coming on stream).

    Scotch whisky is similar, as most buy barley from large suppliers (there have been some problems with supply lately, but it doesn’t seem like there’s much to impede more planting in future) so that shouldn’t be such a big issue, but the biggest constraint I can see is water. Almost every distillery has the preferred source and both increased withdrawals and climate change could make that an increasingly difficult issue. However, I’m guessing there may even be ways to stretch their water use by being more careful with how its used. Additionally, while David points out that new distilleries aren’t coming on stream too quickly (and those that are often want to charge a lot for their product), there are still plenty of up-and-comers moving in (Arran, Kilchoman, even Rosebank might start up again). The boom-and-bust cycle of scotch whisky has a long, long history and I’m not sure this time will be any different. It might be smoother, as increased economic growth increases their customer base, but tastes are fickle. Who would have imagined that vodka would become so popular? It’s really, really hard to make predictions when it comes to the spirits business.

    1. Regarding the whiskeys external to Scotland, I agree – it seems to me there is an ocean of capacity yet untapped if it truly became big business. Yes, there will likely be that problem of aging product out to meet market demands without tainting the brand. I can’t help but think if whiskey becomes the money-printing machine vodka has seemed to be in the past that it won’t be seen as a worthwhile startup cost however, especially if the hysteria continues.

      As for scotch, I agree, the boom/bust cycle is fairly well established and the potential for capacity expansion there is massive too… 100+ distilleries – what if each simply added an additional pair of stills? What if the Lowlands became a major production region again? (Seems like it’d be a good time to be a still maker :) ). With the megadistilleries from Grant and Diageo coming online, production will increase appreciably. The question there is will the drink stay in fashion for the 8-10 years required to deliver a baseline good malt? I tend to think fashion will be the more fickle mistress for whiskey than anything.

  2. I always like when you have a thoughtful discourse that leads into a review. I can do one or the other, but rarely do I combine the two. I agree with Sku that there will be a bubble burst and once again we’ll be able to get some excellent and rare whiskies at a reasonable price. The only reason they charge the huge prices now is because they can. It’s not like much more goes into the production/storage of a 30 year old than a 10 year old, certainly not enough to warrant a $500 a bottle increase. It’s more about supply and demand, rather than company cost. But, they can get away with that now. If there’s a crash, that will change.

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