By Richard Thomas
It says it right there on the bottle: “Kentucky’s 1st Distiller” and “Since 1783.” Although some legendary figures in bourbon history predate Evan Williams, the Welsh immigrant was the first to set up a commercial distillery, and in what was then the American frontier before Kentucky was a state or the debate on the U.S. Constitution had even begun. It’s a lucky thing for the Evan Williams legacy that he collected the river wharf dues for the town of Louisville, since that cemented his place in the records on top of putting some extra coin in his pocket.
In the modern context, Evan Williams Black Label is the #2 mass market bourbon, right after Jim Beam White. Even so, I have generally thought of Evan Williams as the true sleeper of big name bourbons. Despite the healthy sales numbers, I see Jim Beam or Wild Turkey on bar shelves far more often than Evan Williams, making it more of a liquor store favorite. That ought to change, if for no other reason than it is hard to match this bourbon’s low price and solid quality.
Evan Williams Black is reputed to be based on mostly five to seven year old bourbons, and bottled at 86 proof (43% abv). Compare that to the eponymous Jim Beam White, which is quoted at four to six years and definitely bottled at 80 proof.
The color is in the vein of light amber, like a coppery honey. The scent is corn sweet, leaning into citrus sweet, with a hint of vanilla and a dash of rye spice cinnamon.
On the palate, the bourbon has an unremarkable feel, neither thick nor thin. The flavor kicks with a solid current of oak to start, with a layer of that corn-leaning-to-citrus sweetness underneath. A pinch of rye spice emerges about in the middle, along with a trace of oak. The finish is lightly sweet, with a moderately warm and mid-length run.
Evan Williams is a decent mass market bourbon. Some thing it is better than the others, and some do not. That is just a matter of opinion, but what isn’t is the price, usually just $11 or $12 per fifth (750 ml) in most of America. Cheaper than that runs to rotgut.