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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-

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
Nose:
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.
Finish: 
Vanishingly quick. A bit of pepper, a bit of caramel and corn. Hints of vanilla and mild wood. 
Comment: 
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. 
Rating:
B-