Consumers like choice, or at least the appearance of choice within a fairly narrow band of options—this much is obvious to anyone who has ever set foot in the whiskey aisle, where a handful of major distilleries control most of the shelf space with a wide array of products, many of which tend to be only subtle deviations from each other. This can be especially true when it comes to bourbon, as some distilleries such as Beam, Brown-Forman or Heaven Hill have an especially large number of brands in direct competition with one another, constantly jockeying to find and exploit niches so small they can barely be said to exist at all.
Now and then, this jockeying results in the decision to redesign or repackage one of those products to attempt to refocus its position in the market, or on the shelf, and that’s what we’re seeing today with a new version Evan Williams 1783 Small Batch. This product sits smack-dab in the middle of a crowded lineup of bourbons from Heaven Hill, and it simultaneously illustrates the distillery’s ability to craft solid bourbon with budget pricing, but also the way that the distillery’s lineup may simply have become a bit too myopically specialized.
First, though, let’s define what exactly Evan Williams 1783 is, exactly.
1783 is a small batch bourbon—we dove into what exactly that term truly means a while back—made from Heaven Hill’s one and only rye bourbon mashbill of 78% corn, 12% malted barley and 10% rye. It’s technically non-age-statement, but Heaven Hill states that it’s a marriage of barrels “aged six to eight years,” and the proof on this new version has been bumped up slightly, from 43% ABV (86 proof) to its original 45% ABV (90 proof). The new Evan Williams 1783 likewise sports a newly redesigned bottle. Its MSRP is a very affordable $20.
All in all, this profile says “value” in a way that a big distillery can offer, and a small distillery can never really hope to match. Just try finding a 6 to 8-year-old, 90 proof bourbon from one of your local micro-distilleries for $20. It’s not going to happen. On the face of it, then, this is a high-value brand that offers a taste of “small batch” flavors on a budget. In practice, though, Evan Williams 1783 sits in the middle of a Heaven Hill bourbon lineup with so many other options that it’s totally unsurprising for it to go relatively unnoticed. In terms of ascending average prices, we have:
— Evan Williams Green Label (80 proof, $10)
— Evan Williams Black Label (80 proof, $13)
— Evan Williams Bonded, White Label (100 proof, $16)
— Evan Williams 1783 Small Batch (90 proof, $20)
— Elijah Craig Small Batch (94 proof, $25)
— Evan Williams Single Barrel (86.6 proof, $30)
— Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond (100 proof, $40)
That’s a LOT of different bourbon brands from one distillery between the $10 to $30 or $40 range, especially considering that all of them are made with the same mash bill. The differences come in factors of age, strength, barrel selection and the subtle art of blending, but there are still times when it’s a bit tough to look at the specs of two products and see why they’re treated significantly differently.
Evan Williams 1783, for instance, is composed of bourbons 6-8 years old, according to Heaven Hill. The Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond, meanwhile, has a 7-year age statement—so doesn’t that imply that these two are roughly the same age? It implies that a 10 point jump in proof equates to a 100% increase in MSRP, from $20 to $40, which seems a bit tough to accept. Likewise, although 1783 is undeniably a good value, looking at the specs of Elijah Craig Small Batch, a blend of 8-12 year old barrels with a proof point of 94, for a mere $5 more on average, seems to suggest that it’s an even better value. Or what about the beloved Evan Williams Bonded, which carries a 100 proof level for roughly $15? Increasingly, it feels like we’re splitting hairs here.
Regardless, let’s get to actually tasting what’s inside this bottle.
On the nose, this newly redesigned Evan Williams 1783 Small Batch smells sweetly inviting, combining some of the classic Heaven Hill bourbon nuttiness (peanut shells and hints of peanut butter) with brown sugar, cinnamon and slight gingerbread. Hints of cherry round out an uncomplicated but enticing nose.
On the palate, this is predominantly sweet, but with just enough of a trailing, oaky finish to give it a bit of backbone and avoid seeming too youthful. Again, I’m getting brown sugar, light corny sweetness and hints of nuttiness—definitely less nuts than you’d get in even younger Heaven Hill bourbon, like Evan Williams Black Label—along with a pleasant array of spice, from semi-subtle rye spice to flashes of black pepper, cinnamon and candied ginger. Fruit notes here lean in more of a caramel apple direction, while the ethanol is very restrained, making this an effortless drinker.
All in all, you really can’t possibly ask more for $20 in the current bourbon market. Evan Williams 1783 Small Batch has just enough age on it to leave behind some of its most youthful flavor notes, while being extremely approachable. Certainly, it compares well to some of the other high-value offerings in the same price range, such as Jim Beam’s Old Tub or Jim Beam Bonded, or Wild Turkey 101, although it lacks the raw power of those offerings.
With that said, it’s still sort of hard to imagine myself specifically seeking out this brand, when I could spend another $5 and go for the Elijah Craig Small Batch instead, but that’s simply a factor of Heaven Hill’s lineup being so densely constructed. If anything, what this release really points out is that the Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond that was redesigned in 2019 is something of a tough sell—why spend $40 when there are so many solid, high-value options from the same distillery at nearly half the price? It’s times like these that I’m glad it’s not my job to rationalize the subtle differences between half a dozen different bourbon brands.
Distillery: Heaven Hill
City: Bardstown, KY
Style: Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 45% (90 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $20 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.