The 23-year-old Evan Williams comes from the Heaven Hill distillery, whose Master Distillers have always been members of the Beam family (the first, Joseph, was Jim’s cousin). Its impeccable pedigree and distinguished age come together to create a whiskey that richly repays the investment of a little time in its enjoyment.
The nose has all the kick you can expect from the 107-proof (53.5% ABV) liquid. The aromas are fiery: at first, a cherry compote with cloves and cinnamon warming on the stove. The backbone of the nose is fine black coffee, the sort that you know from the tilt of the cup and the tart aroma is alluringly bitter, with an almost syrupy presence on the tongue. It has its softer side, too, as rich cocoa and melba toast vie with apricots and brambles for what’s left of your attention. In the background, sweetly acrid sparkler smoke completes a decidedly autumnal impression.
On the first taste, you get an impression of oak before the sheer weight of the whiskey overwhelms your tastebuds. Stop. Breathe. Now try again, slowly. That’s it. You were right – it is very wooden at first, but that soon moves through piquant liquorice into a mellow coffee, gentler than the nose. It’s treacly too, though kept lively with zings of pepper and blackened toast.
The finish begins with a surprisingly fruity bite: orange, lemon, melon and strawberry clash in a mouthwateringly succulent brawl that’s over just as you begin to relish it. Now the espresso and charred oak return, sprinkled with fresh white pepper. As it fades (in a predictably oaky fashion), occasional swirls of milk chocolate sweetness appear.
Adding water makes for quite a change. The nose has a citrus freshness in place of the earlier kick, and a sugary, marshmallow coating. The taste has been tamed, with a much more muted (though still appreciable) oak followed by longer liquorice and mint. You can almost imagine the inspiration for the preeminent long drink of the Old South. The finish has more coffee – this is definitely the barista’s dram – together with polished leather, sweetened orange peel and dry sultanas.
Water has transformed the whiskey: where before it had the raw material but careened around the dance floor with Doc Martens on its two left feet, it now glides with unsurpassed elegance, barely scuffing the polished maple with mirror-shined Oxfords. Give it a go with, give it a go without, but certainly give it a go. 23 years in a warehouse have been worth the wait.
Nose 21 Taste 21 Finish 23 Balance 22