A Trip To the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience

A Trip To the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience

So as I mentioned before, Jen and I had an amazing time at the second annual Bourbon Classic last year (for a recap of 2014, please read Part One and Part Two here), and decided to return to Downtown Louisville for the event again last week.  Tickets were purchased, hotel reservations were made, and last Friday, we made the drive down from Detroit.

We arrived midday and, since the Classic doesn’t begin until 7pm, looked to enjoy a little more bourbon culture prior to the main event.  We were staying at the 21c Museum Hotel close to the event, so we decided to stay close and check out the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience that opened in 2013 right on Main Street.

No, it's not real bourbon - the lobby of the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience
No, it’s not real bourbon – the lobby of the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience

The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is part of the official “Kentucky Bourbon Trail,” but it is not a distillery.  Rather, it’s a sort of museum dedicated to the history of Evan Williams Bourbon – and whiskey in general – in Louisville.

A tour of the EWBE starts with a short film.  Wall sized projection video is a very big part of the EWBE, and it starts with a bit of background about the bourbon namesake, Evan Williams, himself.  Williams, as the legend goes, was the first commercial whiskey producer in Kentucky, settling in Louisville and starting there.  Like so many of the ‘facts’ around the history of bourbon, the details of William’s life are less than clear, and they are presented in a less than canonical way.

Rather, the show sets the stage for a walk through ‘Louisville past.”  The short film explaining the importance of Louisville as a port (and stopping point on the Ohio River) leads to a room showing what the small town of Louisville might have looked like in 1800, when the whiskey business was just starting in earnest.

This is the ‘experience” part alluded to in the title – Evan Williams Bourbon is actually made at Heaven Hill distillery nearby, before being bottled in Bardstown, KY.  It is not actually made at this location – the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is more of a beginner’s guide to bourbon.

That said they have created a very small micro distillery, that illustrates the wall-scale, step-by-step “How Bourbon is Made” multi media presentation.  Approximately one barrel of whiskey is created there a day, and tour participants are encouraged to sign  the guest book to be alerted when the whiskey of their visit day is matured.

The Heaven Hill Experience Micro-Distillery
The Heaven Hill Experience Micro-Distillery

Subsequent floors (exhibits) show the 1800’s distilling equipment and methods, which serve as a good intro primer to how bourbon is made.

The upper floors focus on Louisville, and Bourbon, through the eras.  A nineteenth century saloon is recreated.  The third floor showcases the “Bottled-In-Bond” Act and it’s importance at the time.  Some Prohibition-era bottles are displayed, along with some recreated era-appropriate storefronts.

Finally, the tour resolves in a tasting of different Heaven Hill products – we had Evan Williams, Evan Williams Single Barrel, and the wheated bourbon Larceny – in the recreation of a 1960’s bar where we learned about the history of Heaven Hill, and by proxy, the Evan Williams brand.  We exited through a gift shop, and our time at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience was done.

All in all, it was a pleasant way to spend an hour – the cost wasn’t prohibitive, and it was fun.  It certainly wasn’t as in-depth as an actual distillery tour, but in fairness, it didn’t claim to be.  What it certainly did do was serve as the perfect primer for the main event – The Bourbon Classic!

scrooge
A text exchange between myself and friend/bourbon enthusiast Josh McAllister…

 

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Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Elijah Craig 12 Year Barrel Proof

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Elijah Craig 12 Year Barrel Proof

It may only be Wednesday, but it feels like it has been a full week already, and there’s plenty more to come!  In Michigan, we are steeped in snow and in the midst of another Polar Vortex, but we are not alone – a good swath of the country looks to be frozen along with us.

One place it’s not frozen is Florida, which is good because it’s Spring Training time!  My Tigers have a few new faces (Cespedes, Gose, Greene and Simon), a few question marks (the rotation) and some injuries to see through, but few things can bring warmth to a sub-zero winter day like the thought of baseball.

This is also Bourbon Classic week, and  I will be going for my second year.  We had a wonderful time last year, sampling the wonderful dishes and drinks, and I am looking forward to it again.  I just wish it was a tad warmer in Kentucky…

So what to drink when the weather is so very cold?  How about trying something Barrel Proof?  And that’s exactly what I did, with a glass of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof!

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: Elijah Craig 12 Year Barrel Proof
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Elijah Craig 12 Year Barrel Proof

The most recent issue of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof is it’s sixth offering, although I haven’t been fortunate enough to run across the earlier five myself.  It is also the highest proof, at a little over 140.  No laughing matter here.

Heaven Hill barrels this direct – no char filtering – and it shows in the color.  Even in the bottle, it’s a very deep brown.  They have accented that with a dark label, and it is just distinctive enough to set it apart.  I have respect for 12 Year Elijah Craig, even if it’s not my first choice (it is, however, my first choice in baking – it’s spiciness adds much to pies, cookies and chocolates!). How would this one fare?

Dan’s Take:

The deep, dark amber-brown color of the pour lets you know right away that this is not a light and breezy pour.  But what really amazed me was the nose – a 140 Proof glass should burn, but this most certainly does not.  There are many wonderful, unique and often, sweet aromas in this glass.  Rich vanilla, caramel and the smell of warm baking, like a gingerbread man iced with maple frosting.  Does that sound unique?  It surely shocked me – there was no great burn, just the wholly unique smell of sweet baking in a wood fired oven.

The taste brought me back to earth and how.  The tip of the tongue held that sweetness of caramel before the proof hit.  In baseball, a pitcher might throw a fastball up around the batters shoulders to brush him back a bit, or get him to swing wildly at an eye level pitch – the ‘high heat.’  This drink is the ‘high heat,’ and the first sip admittedly knocked me back for a second.  The nose had lulled me to sleep, but 140 proof woke me up fast.  I caught my breath and tried again – slower this time.  There is a slightly burned sugar taste, brown sugar to be more specific.  Wood weighed in heavily, but not overwhelmingly, as the toasted oak blended well with the toffee, maple flavors.

(I handed it to Jen to sample, and she agreed with me on both the taste, and the kicks-like-a-mule effect of drinking too large a sip!)

It has a long finish, and a whole lot of burn.  THe wood is probably strongest in the finish, and I’ll admit, it went on a little too long for me.  Such a high proof leads to a long finish, and this one left traces of oak, alcohol bite and burnt toast on my palate for minutes.

So how do I rate it?  I thoroughly enjoyed it – not unlike a roller coaster that gives you a great start, but maybe by the end you wish was a little bit shorter, this version of the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof is a great ride.  I look forward to trying other, varied proof versions.

Dan’s Rating: 8.7

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: John J. Bowman Single Barrel

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: John J. Bowman Single Barrel

With all of the discussion and debate that swirls around “sourced” whiskey – whiskey produced in a facility not owned and operated by the bottler and/or brand name on the bottle – it can too often go unsaid that there are two different ways a whiskey can be sourced.  The first and often more controversial way is when a bottler or brand name purchases mass-produced barrels of an indiscriminate recipe distilled and aged at one of the larger distilleries and puts it out to market with less-than-transparent information.  The ‘artisanal‘ bourbon that is really 3 year old sourced Indiana rye, or the fancy bottled and elaborate storied family recipe that is actually excess barrels purchased from an unnamed distributor.

This form of sourcing can be harmless – I’ve enjoyed many sourced and mysterious bourbons.  But it can also be a gimmick, and there are many overpriced, underwhelming bourbons on the market made from a basic recipe by a bulk manufacturer and bottled with a ‘family heritage’ story and a hefty price tag.  Its unfortunate, and gives sourcing a bad name.  Legendary bourbon blogger Chuck Cowdery calls them “Potemkin Distilleries” and on the whole, I concur with his opinion: failure to demand transparency in what we drink only encourages others to be (at the least) disingenuous or (even worse) underhanded.

The other way whiskey can be sourced is much more interesting.  This form of sourcing involves a distiller, NDP, or brand having their recipe distilled to their specs at a larger distillery.  For example, everyone knows the name Pappy Van Winkle, but Pappy is distilled by Buffalo Trace to spec – the same as John J. Bowman.

John J. Bowman’s distillery (The A. Smith Bowman Distillery) is most interesting, because they are, in fact, a distillery.  They are owned by Sazerac, the same as Buffalo Trace (and Blantons and Taylor and Stagg and etc).  They are in Virginia, not Kentucky, and have been at the current location in Fredericksburg, since 1988.

What makes their process so different is that they have Buffalo Trace do the first distilling, to make the ‘White Dog’ corn whiskey.  Then the distillate alcohol is shipped to Bowman, where they distill it two more times.  Then it is barreled, stored and aged.  I have even read that the barrels are stored upright, which is again very different.

So how is this Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey?

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: John J. Bowman Single Barrel
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: John J. Bowman Single Barrel

Dan’s Take:

John J. Bowman Single Barrel comes without an age statement, a barrel or bottling number, or any other indicators that would allow me to match this single barrel with any others.  Its unfortunate, because there is much about this whiskey I would like to find again!  The bottle itself is quite lovely, with its image of Col. John J. Bowman exploring Kentucky on the back.  It’s no slouch at 100 Proof.  I just wish I knew a few specs.

The nose is fantastic – caramel, vanilla, oak, and a soft corn.  It was a sweet nose, and as the soft corn gave way to the oak and wood, I almost couldn’t help but forget it was the dead of winter and think of soft campfire and roasting corn.

The taste was as smooth – a thick texture, with a great sweetness up front, but never overwhelming.  Again, vanilla, and a vanilla almost sugary and frosting like on the front of the tongue, while the thick mouthfeel showed off a rich woodiness blended with a slightly tart citrus.  Orange and a tiny bit of raisin, before resolving to a smooth finish of cinnamon, walnut and dry oak.

A second sip showed me a bit more of the rye – along with the cinnamon, there was a hint of clove and even a bit more of that raisin, roasting corn taste.

I found the John J. Bowman Single Barrel to be outstanding – a wonderful sipping bourbon, and a nice addition to the regular rotation.  Most impressive. I can see why it’s competition scores have seemed to rise ever year.

Dan’s Rating: 8.7