Evan Williams 23 Year Old Bourbon is currently only being sold as a gift shop exclusive at the Evan Williams Experience in downtown Louisville, KY. This expression is the cousin of Elijah Craig 23 Year Old, as both come from the Heaven Hill Distillery, both are aged for 23 years, and both share the same mashbill. This particular bottle is considered “pre-fire” Heaven Hill as it was distilled and barreled before the epic fire that took place on November 7, 1996.
Heavy aged oak is immediately noticeable but by no means overpowering. Digging deeper reveals classic scents such as vanilla and caramel, along with scents of marshmallow, creme brulee, and syrup. The nose is surprisingly rich and for such an old bourbon bringing forth a nice mixture of sweet along with oak. Interestingly enough, there is only the faintest hint of ethanol.
The sip starts with a bit of tannic wood which is immediately joined with sweeter flavors. The result is a big hit of sweet vanilla along with hard cherry candy, honey, seasoned oak, cigar box, and black pepper. The higher proof shows through and adds a little bit of fiery heat to the sip. A medium bodied mouthfeel delivers a surprisingly sweeter and more flavorful sip than expected for a 23 year old bourbon.
Unlike the nose and palate, the finish shows just how long this bourbon has spent in the barrel. Father time is evident as the sweetness found earlier is replaced by drier notes. The fiery heat carriers over from the palate and is joined by wood, pepper, and light cherry Halls. The heat lingers with traces of dry leather and tannic wood, making for a longer than necessary finish, and one that doesn’t quite live up to what the nose & palate delivers.
Evan Williams 23 Year is an oddball in the Evan Williams family line. The next oldest Evan Williams is 12 years version that is only available in the gift shop and overseas, while the current standard available expressions all fall below 10 years of age. To see an expression aged so far from its siblings is unique in and of itself, however being aged to 23 years is where things start to get interesting.
There aren't many ongoing releases of 23 year old bourbons out there. In fact there are only three in total, the other two being Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year and Elijah Craig 23 Year. Because bourbon is aged in charred new oak barrels, it’s not meant to be aged for a long time compared to what you might find in a scotch or other whiskeys that utilize pre-used barrels for the aging process. Bourbon aged over 20 years just doesn’t deliver a lot of flavor outside of oak. Additionally, once you get to this age, there just isn’t much bourbon left in the barrel to bottle, and sometimes barrels are completely empty by this point.
In tasting Evan Williams 23 Year next to Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year, I found both to have their own traits to appreciate, with Evan Williams delivering heavier notes. However compared to its sibling from the same distillery, I found Evan Williams 23 Year brought about a much more flavorful sip between the two. In both cases I credit this to Evan Williams’ higher proof content. Being bottled at 107 proof makes Evan Williams 23 Year the only 23 year old over 100 proof, which in this case correlates to a more nuanced and flavorful sip.
No matter how you try to justify it, $350 is a lot of money for a bourbon regardless of the age. In Evan Williams case, it happens to be priced well above the MSRP for Elijah Craig 23 Year and even Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year, both of which manage to stay in the $200-$300 MSRP range. Many will scoff at MSRP since secondary will be much much greater, but MSRP allows us to compare apples to apples. Off the cuff you might think that this is a horrible value, however the price alone doesn’t tell the whole story.
What stops this from being an absolute horrible value is the fact that the flavor profile is actually quite nuanced for such an old bourbon. Additionally, its 107 proof has to be taken into account for the value. By the time the bourbon has aged 23 years, only a very little remains in the barrel. Where Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year and Elijah Craigh 23 Year get proofed down to 95.6 and 90 proof respectively, Heaven Hill only proofs down Evan Williams 23 Year to 107 proof. This means that there is even less to bottle from each batch that they process for this line. So yes, this isn’t a good value in the grand scheme of things, however it’s also not a bourbon to avoid purley based on price either.
Evan Williams 23 Year goes to show you that even though bourbon isn’t meant to be aged this long, when done right, it can deliver a fine drinking experience.
Being aged 23 years, I expected to find an oak monster like I tend to notice in bottles of Elijah Craig 23 Year. Instead I walked away surprised at how much depth and nuanced sweeter flavors Evan William 23 Year brings to the table. Yes there are clear signs of its extensive time spent in the barrel, particularly in its finish. However its higher proof helps accentuate flavors you normally wouldn’t find in a bourbon that has been aged this long. There’s no denying that the price is incredibly high, however at the very least, it’s worth seeking out a pour to see what ultra aged bourbon can taste like if done right.