There are a ton of bourbon brands on the market. But as we know, unless you are dealing with a craft distiller (that actually distills their own product) almost all of those brands are created by just a handful of distilleries in Kentucky and Indiana. Most of them with just a couple of mashbills or recipes each.
So how is it that they all end up tasting so different? How does Knob Creek taste so much different than Jim Beam Black? How is it that Evan Williams Bottled in Bond is easy drinking and Henry McKenna Bottled in Bond is so hot? One answer? Barrel selection. Sometimes a barrel tastes like Henry McKenna and sometimes it’s Evan Williams.
Bourbon is a natural product. It’s affected by it’s environment. Where was the warehouse it was aged in? What side was it on? North? South? Was it high up in the warehouse where the temperature swings are greater? Did we have a spell of really hot summers or really cold winters? The list can, and does, go on and on.
But these are big brands. Your average consumer doesn’t want to know that the Evan Williams comes from this barrel or that. They just want to know that it tastes like the last bottle of Evan Williams that they bought. Because they like it. Thank goodness for what Four Roses calls “mingling.” You see if you want the next batch of bourbon to taste as much like that last one as possible, you just dump in enough barrels until it all averages out and pretty much does.
But what if you want something just a little different than last time? Or what if you are just curious what different barrels taste like, one to the next? Well, then you pick up a single barrel product. If you want to make it more interesting, pick up two. Preferably from different barrels. Because a single barrel bourbon is just what it says: the product of one barrel. Theoretically, they all taste slightly different.
I’ve bought a lot of single barrel products in the past. But until now, I’ve never had two of the same open at the same time. Last Saturday I was having lunch and doing a sample swap with a friend, DP. He’d done a review of the Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage 2003 over at his blog, Whiskey Detectives, and didn’t care for it. I mentioned that I normally like those, so he was nice enough to throw the rest of the bottle into the swap. So that left me with two open bottles of this bourbon from two different barrels. What is a guy to do, but to taste them side by side to see just how different they are?
I’m reviewing barrel number 16 (barreled on 9-8-03 and bottled on 12-12-12) and barrel number 642 (barreled on 2-11-03 and bottled on 7-30-13).
Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage 2003
642: This starts floral, but after a bit of time in the glass it transitions to a strong cherry and chocolate scent, like the cheap chocolate covered cherry cordials you find at christmas.
16: This starts remarkably similar to the other bottle. After a bit of time though this is still very floral with only hints of the chocolate and cherries of 642.
642: Sharp and vegetal at first. After a bit it settles down though and brings out more of a traditional sweet vanilla/caramel/spice bourbon flavor.
16: This also starts vegetal, but somewhere along the way, it turns itself into a florist’s shop. It’s almost perfume-like.
642: Decent length heat that fades to a nice bitterness
16: Still floral. Still perfumey. Not as hot as 642.
Thoughts: In my opinion, neither of these are as good as I remember previous releases to be. They both hit me with a sharpness I didn’t expect and that I found it hard to get past. Barrel 16, which I bought as a birthday present to myself was like drinking perfume. I just couldn’t get behind it. Barrel 642 from my friend DP was better. It was sweeter and had a nicer finish. All that said, if you handed me one without the other, they are similar enough that I wouldn’t know which you had handed me. And in my opinion, that’s not a good thing. I wanted to like these. I thought I would, but I don’t.