The label of Evan Williams Bottled in Bond Kentucky Bourbon proclaims many things. Large and in front, right below the Evan Williams name, it says “since 1783,” and then right below that, “Kentucky’s 1st Distiller.” The label on the side elaborates on those two things a bit, stating that Evan Williams was indeed the first distiller in Kentucky, and that his first act of distillation took place in 1783. Sounds good, right? After all, someone had to be the first distiller in Kentucky, and you’d have to look pretty damn far to find a better year to start distilling than 1783.
It turns out that the whole Evan Williams backstory is actually just that, a made up story loosely based on a bit of truth. In 1892, a book called The Centenary of Kentucky was published by the Filson Club which, at the time was helmed by a historian named Reuben Durrett. The Filson Club went on to become today’s Filson Historical Society. In this book, there’s a small asterisk-ed paragraph that details the activities of one Evan Williams. It tells that he set up a still in 1783, and that while the locals found it good for medicinal purposes, it was thought to be “a very bad whisky.”¹ It also goes on to say that Williams was indicted for distilling without a license in 1788, and that by 1802, his whiskey-making had so polluted the local waters that his neighbors had the distillery shut down.
Much of this info is repeated in another book from 1896, Memorial History of Louisville from Its First Settlement to the Year 1896, and apparently these two sources were all that was needed by the Heaven Hill marketing team in the late 1950’s when creating a myth for their new Evan Williams brand of bourbon. Here’s the thing…actually, here’s a couple of things. First off, it doesn’t sound like Mr. Williams was a very good distiller, certainly not in the quality department, but also not in that proud-legitimate-business-man-beloved-by-his-community kind of way. There are additional stories about Williams being on the Louisville Board of Trustees and bringing a full bottle of his stuff to every meeting, and, because it was so tasty, leaving with an empty bottle. This proves little to me as anyone who’s served on a board of trustees knows you’ll drink pretty much anything just to make it through a meeting.
Much more importantly, research done by Filson Historical Society Bourbon Historian Michael Veach has turned up a couple of reasons why the Evan Williams story told on the bottle is more or less bullshit. In his book, Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey, Veach explains that there is evidence that shows that Evan Williams arrived in Philadelphia via London in 1784, which according pretty much everyone is a year later than the lable-adorning year of 1783. Also, Veach points out that it’s also a little irrelevant when ol’ Evan arrived as there’s also evidence of several other people distilling in Kentucky as early as 1779.
So, just to recap, we have our Evan Williams label proudly proclaiming that ol’ Evan started distilling in Louisville in 1783, a year before he actually arrived, and is “historically recognized as Kentucky’s first distiller of Bourbon,” despite there being others who actually did so before him. On top of all that, a company that had pretty much no relation to Evan Williams developed the brand 174 years after 1783 and claimed lineage to a whiskey that doesn’t sound like it was very good in the first place. Despite the research to the contrary, and many published de-bunkings of their myth, Heaven Hill and Evan Williams still trot out this stuff on the brands’ bottles. And as if that wasn’t enough on its own, another Heaven Hill brand, Elijah Craig, claims that its namesake was also the inventor of bourbon whiskey and the first to mature bourbon in charred oak barrels. There’s also little evidence to support these two claims, and enough in the other direction to raise a very skeptical eyebrow. Ah, well. Marketing isn’t supposed to honest, it’s just supposed to sell stuff, right?
Apparently, in this case, the marketing does a pretty good job. Evan Williams is the second largest-selling brand of Bourbon behind Jim Beam. Along with the brand’s biggest selling, black labeled 86 proof version, there’s the “extra-aged” 1783 small batch, the always good, vintaged, Single Barrel, and a smattering of flavored whiskeys we need not spend too much time with. There’s also this one, the white labeled Evan Williams Bottle-in-Bond. Now that I’ve made fun of the marketing, let’s finally get to what’s in the bottle. Heaven Hill’s relatively low-rye bourbon recipe is used for all of the Evan Williams bourbons, this one included. By definition, a bottled-in-bond bourbon needs to be at least four years old, this one is probably made up of whiskeys in the four to seven year range.
The Nose: Very solid and solidly classic with some expected heat. Maple sugars, caramelized bananas, caramelized cornbread crust, and fuck it, why not…caramel. There’s a little orange zest, brandied cherries, French vanilla ice cream, and fuck it, why not…sweet corn ice cream, too. The rye notes, subtle and toasted, are tucked in the background with hints of coconut creme pie. The oak is sturdy along with cinnamon candies, a little clove, and a little fine ground pepper.
The Palate: Not surprisingly, a little hot at strength. There’s more citrus here, juicy tangerine and orange. Still lots of caramelized sweetness with more vanilla bean, and a little charred sweet corn. As with the nose, the rye just adds a subtle grainy counterpoint. More robust oak and spice than the nose as well, tannic, rough cinnamon, clove, black pepper and barrel char.
The Finish: Vanilla bean, toasted coconut. burnt sugars, clove, barrel char, and a little burnt buttered popcorn.
Thoughts: Another, darn good, more-than-affordable, bottled-in-bond bourbon. A fairly classic, low-rye mashbill flavor profile with lots of sweetness, corn, and balanced spice. The youthful heat is a bit more prevalent throughout than with the Old Grand Dad Bonded, and to me, it doesn’t quite have the same complexity perhaps thanks to the lower rye content. That said, for around $20/liter this one is pretty much a no-brainer. Even though at this point Bottled-in-Bond is the best worst kept secret in the bourbon world, there are still quite a few Bottled-In-Bond bourbons that are great values, this Evan Williams is one of them.
- 1. Durrett, Reuben T., and Henry T. Stanton. The Centenary of Kentucky: Proceedings at the Celebration by the Filson Club, Wednesday, June 1, 1892, of the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Admission of Kentucky as an Independent State into the Federal Union. Louisville, KY: John P. Morton, 1892. pg. 79. Print.
Cowdery, Charles K. Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey. Chicago, IL: Made and Bottled in Kentucky, 2004. Print.
- Johnston, J. Stoddard. Memorial History of Louisville: From Its First Settlement to the Year 1896. Tucson, AZ: Americana Unlimited, n.d. pg. 261. Print.
- Regan, Gary, and Mardee Haidin Regan. The Book of Bourbon and Other Fine American Whiskeys. Shelburne, VT: Chapters Pub., 1995. Print.
- Veach, Michael R. Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2013. Print.