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Evan Williams Red Label, 12 years old & 101 proof, compared to two more reasonably priced cousins

Posted on by Eric Burke

When you are on vacation, it can be really easy to get caught up in spending just a little more than your budget. When you are whiskey fan vacationing in Kentucky, it can be doubly easy to do so. 

Back in September I was wandering through downtown Louisville, trying to decide if I wanted food or a drink, when I realized I was standing outside the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience. Ever since the one time I wandered in and stumbled upon the now discontinued Evan Williams Barrel Proof, I’ve tried to stop in on every visit to Louisville just to take a peek to see if there is anything fun for sale that is under my price ceiling and that I can’t get anywhere else.

We were wandering though, overhearing that they had sold out of that day’s allotment of Parker’s Heritage and looking at the shelves when a red bottle of Evan Williams catches my eye. It is 12 years old, 101 proof, has a nice gold wax dipped neck and a little paper seal proclaiming it to be an Evan Williams Bourbon Experience Exclusive.

Here’s the part where you can laugh at me. 

Apparently forgetting where I was and what year it was, I thought to myself “Oh cool, an older Evan Williams. Evan Williams is normally decently priced. I should pick this up” And so not seeing a price sign, I grabbed a bottle. I carried it through the gift shop for a little while until I happened upon one of the aforementioned signs. $129.99. I immediately turned on my heel and ever so gently put it back down where I found it.

But the more I thought about it, the more I tried to convince myself that I really didn’t want a 12 year, 101 proof Evan Williams. That I didn’t want to break my $125 price ceiling. That I would be perfectly happy with either a 100 proof Evan Williams Bottled in Bond or a 12 year old Elijah Craig. I looked at my wife. “How much is it?” she asked, seeing the look in my face. I told her. Her perfectly appropriate response was “we’re on vacation, it’s $4 and you let me buy the Master’s Keep. Just get it.” I didn’t need much more encouragement. I picked the bottle back up and made my way to the register before I found something else or changed my mind. Again.

Once I got home, I stuck it in the closet until a couple weeks ago when a spot on the whiskey shelf opened up. This was one that I had put close to the front. I mean if it was $100 more than the same aged Elijah Craig in the same size bottle, it was probably going to be something special, right? The price had lifted my expectations sky high. They wouldn’t charge that much of a premium if it wasn’t better, right?

Upon opening it, I poured myself a small sample and in an identical glass poured a small sample of Evan Williams Bottled in Bond. I was devastated to not notice much of a difference. There was a difference, but it was slight. My expectations came crashing down. It had to be me, maybe I was having an off day. I gave both glasses to my wife who said “not much difference is there?” I was crushed. I’d gotten caught up in a price and forgot the one lesson I always tell people: “A higher priced does not mean anything other than the company wanted to charge a higher price.” And so I set the bottle aside for a couple weeks while I waited for it’s turn for review.

Knowing that I needed to get rid of both my high and low notions of this whiskey, I set up a three way blind tasting for my wife and I. I pulled one of my samples of Elijah Craig 12 out of my sample library and poured a glencairn of it, the Evan Williams Bottled in Bond and the Evan Williams Red Label. I followed my normal double-blind procedure where I pour the glasses and set them on a sheet of paper labeled 1, 2 and 3 and leave the room. My wife then comes into the room and moves them to another sheet of paper labeled A, B and C. I know what bourbon is 1, 2 and 3 and she knows which number corresponds to each letter, but neither of us know which bourbon corresponds to what letter.

Evan Williams Red Label vs. Evan Williams White Label vs. Elijah Craig 12 year old

Purchase info: Evan Williams Red Label: $129.99 for a 750 mL bottle at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, Louisville, KY. Evan Williams White Label: $17.99 for a 1L bottle at MGM Wine and Spirits, Burnsville, MN. Elijah Craig 12 year old: I have no idea as I poured that sample from a bottle I bought back in mid-2013.

Nose: 

A: Dried corn, cloves, a bit hit of alcohol and some caramel sweetness

B: Lots of sweet caramel right off the top, mint, some bubble gum and fleeting hints of dried corn.

C: This is kind of muted. Mint, nutmeg, some bubble gum and a little dried corn.

Mouth: 

A: Starts with a nice heat and is very dried corn forward. A bitterness follows that, since I am allergic, my wife tells me is reminiscent of raw almonds. Cloves bring up the rear. 

B: Soft on the mouth. Oak, mint, caramel, nutmeg and cloves. 

C: Very spice forward with oak, clove and nutmeg appearing with the first sip. Typical bourbon notes of caramel and vanilla follow.

Finish: 

A: Lingering warmth along with a pleasant bitterness. 

B: Bubble gum, mint and a warmth that lasts.

C: Very long and warm finish with lingering spice and sweetness. 

Pre-reveal Thoughts:

A: I’m almost positive this is the White Label. With as corn forward as it is, I’m guessing that it can’t be a 12 year old whiskey. It’s good, but not very complex.

B: This is a very good whiskey. Enough oak and heat to make you notice without either being overpowering. The oak and heat are balanced with just enough sweetness to make this a very pleasurable dram. 

C: This might be my favorite of the three. I’m loving the combination of the sweetness and heat. The finish is darn near perfect. 

Which was which:

A: Evan Williams Bottled in Bond

B: Elijah Craig 12 year old

C: Evan Williams Red Label, 12 year old, 101 proof

Post-reveal Thoughts:

Based on my initial experience with the Red Label right upon opening the bottle, I would have bet money that that C would have been Elijah Craig 12. It had that mixture of heat, spice and sweetness that I remember. While I like all of these, the Red Label really is the best of the batch. Hands down. And it really should be. At roughly six times the price of the other two this bottle has a price that is hard to swallow. I certainly won’t be buying it again, but am quite impressed. 

A smile because it tastes good even if I don't like the price.

Overall, I like the Evan Williams Red Label. It has the Evan Williams approachability mixed with the complexity and spice reflective of its more advanced age. If you are in Louisville and $130 means nothing to you, grab this one. If on the other hand you value your cash like I do, see if you can find it in a bar and pick up a bottle of Elijah Craig 12 when you get home. Because the difference in quality between the two is much smaller than the difference in price.


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