It dawned on me a few weeks ago as I sat down to review a bottle of Evan Williams that I didn't think there was too much difference between bourbon at different price points. I realized that was a bold claim, and so I decided to test it.
The experiment was relatively straightforward. I poured the Evan Williams White Label into one glass. Immediately alongside it, I poured a fancy, single-barrel version of Four Roses (for the whiskey geeks, their OESF formula aged for ten years and one month). The direct comparison was interesting, to say the least.
Contender 1: Evan Williams White Label
I had just written some detailed notes for the Evan Williams the night before in preparation for my review of the stuff. A more detailed comparison is available there, but sitting down with it for the first sip once again, I was once again reminded of how it hits hard with buttery corn. On the development, there was a little cinnamon, clove, and allspice. The finish was spicy with a bit of a pink bubblegum flavor that lingered. All solid, all unsurprising.
What was more interesting was returning to the Evan Williams after letting the fancy bottle of Four Roses slosh around in my mouth.
To be blunt, the Evan Williams shows you what it's like when a spirit loads corn into both barrels and shoots to kill. That buttery sweetness becomes far more noticeable, and as it sits on the palate it does become a little sour and funky—prototypical traits that had put me off from bourbon for a long while. In direct comparison to something fancy, the nose is definitely more muted: you get a little vanilla sweetness and earthiness, like a plate of vanilla custard that's been dropped on a dusty road.
A bit of back-handedness aside, the Evan Williams was still downright drinkable next to something easily five times its asking price. The finish had a nice cinnamon crackle that lead nicely into clove earthiness. And honestly, if you have a sweet tooth, that buttered, sweet corn flavor is straightforward, but delicious.
Contender 2: The Four Roses Single Barrel (OESF)
Immediately, you notice that the Four Roses single barrel smells like something. You don't need to try to get your nose so far into the glass that you can feel liquid in your nostrils. Even from a few short whiffs, there's a clear aroma of dry cedar and dill. I was able to tease out the scent of a struck match. A clear win here.
In terms of the tasting, the extra spend does provide a lot more depth. The Four Roses has a much more pronounced arrival and a clearer maturation into a development of flavors. Maybe "intrigue" is a big word to throw around for booze, but one sip doesn't reveal everything. Initially, the wood comes on strong and leads into the baking spices and herbs from the initial aroma.
Over time, however, I became aware that there was a burst of cherry somewhere in the middle of it all, and just before the finish there was a bit of vegetable sweetness that reminded me of a grilled onion. All that, and there was a delightful presence of tobacco and baking chocolate that I feel was attributable to a higher rye content. All complimentary flavors!
That said, I could see how someone wouldn't prefer what the OESF had on tap. The extra aging and chewy grip of the wood provides a lot of oak-based tannins that are a little astringent on the palate, and in direct comparison to the EW White Label, the OESF is a much drier (i.e., less sweet) tasting affair. If bourbon to you means big, sweet corn, that flavor is decidedly in absence here.
But Wait! Let's make them Kiss!
I decided with a few remaining sips of each bourbon that I was going to mix them together. This might seem like abomination to the uninitiated, but the truth is that bourbon producers do it all the time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my no-effort, half-and-half concoction was actually pretty good. So good, in fact, that while it didn't taste like an $80 bourbon, it certainly did offer an experience on par with what I'd expect of a bourbon in the $40 to $50 range.
My hybrid bourbon began sweet, offering that sweet corn rush the Evan Williams does so well. However, instead of flattening out in the mid-range, there were some good notes that came out in the arrival that amplified the chocolate and spice. Then, more sweetness bookended the whole experience.
Only in the finish did the hybrid falter, and in direct comparison with the OESF barrel, the finish was weaker and receded more quickly. That said, it still had some lingering pepper I associated with the Evan Williams, and even though this was the weakest aspect of it, I still was anxious to take another sip and get back on the sweet-and-savory roller coaster I had created. I honestly enjoyed this stupid exercise about as much as something legitimate like Booker's or Blanton's.
So, What did we learn?
Well, it is true that the OESF was better if we're making a decision based on points. The pricier bourbon smells like something. It provides an evolving taste experience that, frankly, is fun to taste. It has a level of complexity that rewards a close study of all the various flavors in the glass.
That said, it's a different experience, and the above qualities certainly might not warrant a price premium of $65. Especially if you're a bourbon drinker who likes a rush of corn and wants to unwind at the end of a day and sip something familiar and agreeable while watching the evening news. There's nothing wrong with that.
At the end of the day, I was personally surprised to learn how closely the EW White provided a level of enjoyment that wasn't much below what I would have expected in comparison to a fancy independent bottle. And again, whodathunk myhalf-assed concoction of half-cheap, half-fancy bourbon would turn out to be a passable facsimile of something decent. In the classroom of life, it pays to experiment. We'll be doing more of these, for sure—it was too fun to make this just a one-off.