On Saturday, October 13, Heaven Hill is unveiling its Evan Williams Single Barrel 1998 Vintage at the J. B. Speed Art Museum in Louisville. I don’t know when they announced it but I hear it’s already sold out. The ad on the web site says, "Meet Master Distillers Parker & Craig Beam and noted Bourbon experts." I’m pretty sure I’m one of the noted Bourbon experts.
Heaven Hill does something like this every year. Good for them and that's what’s so great about the vintage concept; each annual release is 'news.' True as that is, it's hard for me to get all worked up about it every year. It's always good whiskey, it's always interesting to compare it to previous releases, but let's just say it's not up there with Christmas.
This year is different. I'm really looking forward to this one, and the one after that, and the one after that, for the next few years. Why? Because Heaven Hill's distillery in Bardstown (DSP-31) was destroyed in a fire in 1996. They don't like to talk about it but I do, because it's bourbon history in the making.
EWSB always has a barrel entry date on the label. Anything entered after November of 1996 isn't DSP-31 bourbon. Some of the 1996 and all of the 1997 is whiskey made at Jim Beam to Heaven Hill's specifications and supervised by Parker and Craig Beam (P&C). Subsequently, Brown-Forman also made whiskey for them, supervised by P&C, etc. Sometime in 1999 they began producing in their new home, the Bernheim facility in Louisville, but it took maybe another year or more before P&C got the operation there the way they wanted it. Because Heaven Hill needs more whiskey than Bernheim alone can produce, they have continued to use Brown-Forman’s plant in Shively too, so who knows where the next EWSB was made. That's why these next few years of EWSB will be so interesting. They will be the only legacy of the '96 fire that you can taste and take home with you.
What we're going to see or, rather, taste is a transition. Heaven Hill has pretty much committed to making EWSB represent the best single-barrel whiskey they can produce in nine years. Each year the pool changes but the criteria doesn’t. You expected them to clear the bar every year at DSP-31 after they got this thing going. With DSP-31 out of the picture and not one but possibly three different distilleries in the mix, it starts to get interesting again.
There seems to be nothing to be concerned about, as the 1997 is good and perhaps superior to some of the last DSP-31 vintages (though '94 is still the one to beat). I'm looking forward to tasting the new one next month, much more so than I have looked forward to it in years. Heaven Hill was good about telling us that the 1997 was made at Beam and I expect they will be equally forthcoming about this and subsequent vintages.
I’ll let you know what I think after October 13.