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In an industry built on tradition, Heaven Hill Distilleries is doing its part by extending a rite first established in 1994 with the yearly edition of the Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage. This remarkable Bourbon whiskey is built on the twin pillars of laying down a spirit from a specific year and choosing solitary barrels that form an annual hallmark.
This year's vintage, which ships this month, was laid down in early 2003 and bottled in late 2012, making it technically a nine-year-old. The whiskey, though, typically enjoys 10 summers in the sweltering warehouses of Kentucky, a time when the whiskey takes most of its flavor from the barrels. At around $26 a bottle, it is an exceptional value.
"As this is our 18th vintage in the Evan Williams Single Barrel series," says the master distiller Parker Beam, "we feel like we have got the process of determining the taste profile and finding barrels that meet that profile pretty much perfected. This vintage is maybe a bit softer, with barrels drawn mostly from the middle three floors of three of our best ventilated rickhouses."
While Beam, a sixth generation distiller and grandnephew to Jim Beam, established the tradition, he is now joined in the selection process by his son Craig, who has become co-master distiller of Heaven Hill. While several hundred casks are chosen to match a flavor profile for the each year's Vintage batch, none of the barrels are mingled, which is the usual practice to maintain flavor consistency from bottle to bottle. Therefore drinkers might note slight variations from whiskey drawn from different vessels. In recognition of this, the company hand-numbers each bottle with the date it was barreled, the barrel number and the date it was bottled. That information may be found on the back label in case you are seeking to replicate the exact same taste sensation from bottle to bottle. Good luck!
Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage 2003 - Barrel No. 1, barreled on February 11, 2003; bottled on November 28, 2012 (86.6 proof, 43.3 alcohol by volume, $25.99)
APPEARANCE: Light-to-medium amber color with a hint of copper green. Fat, quick legs.
NOSE: A sort of stereotypical Bourbon aroma of maple candy, vanilla and caramel, belied by red berries and a slight whiff of sawdust when you get to the bottom of the glass.
PALATE: In the mouth, the softest to which Parker Beam refers, reveals itself with very fruity hard-candy notes: orange peel, tangerine and more red berries. Also along for the ride are honey and a pleasing mix of walnuts and toast.
FINISH: A long, sweet finish, with more of the red berries and orange.
CIGAR PAIRING: Aging Room Quattro F55 Concerto ($8.85, 7 inch by 50 ring gauge Churchill, 93 points, Nov. 27, 2012 issue of Cigar Insider). A near-perfect draw imparts delicious notes of cedar, roasted coffee bean and sweetness on the palate. Rich wood flavors as well as slight leather. This pairing is stellar. The cigar showcases the fruit of the whiskey and return gets a toasty nuttiness that it didn't previously exhibit.
La Aroma de Cuba Mi Amor Reserva Maximo ($8.75, 5 1/2 inch by 54 ring gauge, not yet rated). This cigar offering a consistent balance of woody flavors, sweet nougat notes and touches of nuttiness on the palate and as such served to heighten the same notes in the whiskey. However, the Bourbon's sweetness didn't have the same felicitous effect on the La Aroma as it did on the previous cigar.