If there's a Beaujolais nouveau of the whiskey world, it's Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage.
Just as excitement revolves around the release of the new vintage French wine on the third Thursday of November at 12:01 a.m. each year, Bourbon lovers anticipate the annual January release of Heaven Hill Distilleries vintage whiskey.
The similarity pretty much ends there, however. Evan Williams is a big, bold whiskey, hardly like Beaujolais, and the vintage designation is based more on what happened to the Bourbon over the years than on the born-on date.
This year's vintage was distilled and put into oak in 2004. It represents the 19th Evan Williams Vintage since the concept was introduced in 1994 (those casks were bottled in 1986 as an eight-year old). Because great care is used to ensure each run is consistent—from grain stock to fermentation to distillation—whiskey's differences do not lie so much in the climate conditions at their birth as they do with wine.
It is with aging conditions that Bourbons of the same origin diverge. Location in the warehouse, heat and cold, and relative humidity and dampness in subsequent seasons of maturation, all make a difference.
The human element, of course, is integral. The vintage idea started with master distiller Parker Beam and depended on his excellent discretion in choosing barrels from the Heaven Hill warehouses for this single-barrel (the whiskey is not melded between casks) distinction. While Beam's duties have reduced, he is still fully involved in choosing this whiskey—and the high-quality tradition lives on at a value price for its age.
Depending on which month the whiskey was bottled in, it is either nine or 10 years old. The barrels came from Rickhouse (warehouse) "Y" in Bardstown, Kentucky, directly across from the company's Bourbon Heritage. As a result, those making a visit can see exactly where their Bourbon incubated.
(Cigar pairings on next page)
Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage 2004 (86.6 proof, or 43.3 percent alcohol by volume; nine or 10 years old depending on cask origination-this tasting was from Barrel No. 1, barreled on March 19, 2004, bottled on November 16, 2013-$26.99 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Deep amber color, slight copper green. Slow legs that speed up once they form in big drops.
NOSE: Heady aroma of caramel, toffee and honey that morphs into a slight olive oil before releasing a touch of fruit candy.
PALATE: Big scrumptious Bourbony flavors (go figure?) of vanilla, caramel and toffee meet toast and nuts, and a bit of that olive oil, in the mouth for a complex, savory taste sensation.
FINISH: The fruit from the nose reappears on the finish slightly, but all and all this just keeps being a big, chewy whiskey.
CIGAR PAIRING: Headley Grange Hermoso No. 4 (5 inches by 48 ring gauge, $8.95, 90 points, Cigar Insider May 14, 2013) The draw on this narrow robusto is near perfect, delivering leather and earth flavors with a touch of anise. It's balanced and bright. The hearty flavors of the cigar play well with the caramel tones of the Evan Williams. The whiskey's latent fruit notes accentuate the spice on the cigar, and both synthesize into a sum greater than their parts.
Liga Privada No. 9 Corona Doble (7 inches by 52 ring gauge, $16.30, 90 points, Cigar Aficionado October 2013) Very evenly rolled with a perfectly symmetrical round body. The draw is a bit firm and flavors begin earthy and herbal, picking up some spice and toffee notes. Once again, the Bourbon notes are a graceful pairing for the cigar. The Liga Privada's spice boosts the same quality on the whiskey, and the whiskey gives back with its sweetness, making a candied connection.