As you may have noticed, bourbon is a big deal again.
It started less than a decade ago. Obscure brands with weird names like Pappy Van Winkle, which used to languish on the shelves, now fetch thousands of dollars. Famous entertainers as diverse as Drake and Bob Dylan are peddling their own bourbon concoctions. Hick-town and backwoods distilleries have transformed into tourist meccas that annually draw a million visitors to Bourbon Country.
The celebrity brands and the old expensive stuff grab headlines, but it is the cheap and accessible workhorse bourbons that drive sales. America’s whiskey wouldn’t be enjoying the renaissance it has without them. Chief among these stalwarts is Evan Williams: the barstool bourbon found in every dive, the old standby that every drunkard knows by its first name.
And, like a lot of characters found in murky dives, the background of Evan Williams is a little shady.
Evan Williams today is the crown jewel and flagship brand of Heaven Hill Distilleries, headquartered in Bardstown, Kentucky. It wasn’t always so. Heaven Hill itself didn’t exist until 1935 when a group of post-Prohibition distillers looking for legitimate work approached a Kentucky businessman named Max Shapira. Shapira and his sons, the descendants of Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants, owned a chain of five-and-dime stores that managed to turn a profit during the Depression.
The distillers, one of whom was Jim Beam’s cousin, founded a distillery called Old Heaven Hill Spring. They had some big ideas about making bourbon—but, alas, no money. Would the Shapiras be interested in investing in the booze business?
The Shapiras said they would. It was a risky bet, especially considering they had no experience selling booze. It would end up changing bourbon history.
Heaven Hill’s first offering was a two-year-old sauce called Bourbon Falls. “I don’t know if anybody was really bragging or was too happy about it,” said Max Shapira (grandson of the founding patriarch) in an interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader. Bourbon Falls was followed by Old Heaven Hill Bottled In Bond, a 100-proof bourbon that became a local hit, and the distillery was on its way.
In the 1950s and 60s, Jack Daniel’s was America’s whiskey of choice, by far. Jack had the rather significant advantage of Frank Sinatra’s unpaid endorsement, but it had some other things going for it. A tough-sounding masculine name, for one. And a built-in heritage and lore—the legend of Jack Daniel—that customers could latch onto.
Heaven Hill’s honchos decided they wanted to develop a bourbon like that. According to bourbon writer Chuck Cowdery, some amateur historians at Heaven Hill’s advertising agency (where Cowdery also worked) went rummaging through the historical records, in search of colorful characters to build a new brand around. They came up with a couple: Elijah Craig, and Evan Williams.
Evan Williams was a Welshman who immigrated to post-colonial America and wound up in Kentucky. Like many other frontier settlers, he led a rambunctious life that included making his own booze. Best of all, from a marketing standpoint, Williams could plausibly be claimed as the state’s first commercial distiller.
Though they started distilling and barreling their new bourbon in the mid-1950s, Heaven Hill didn’t get around to trademarking the Evan Williams name until 1960. When the brand finally hit the shelves, it was not an instant hit. In fact, “It was a total flop,” says Shapira, who blamed the packaging: an impractical bottle with an artsy label. The distillery was on the verge of dropping the brand but instead decided on a repackaging. Gone was the fancy getup, replaced with a square bottle and plain black label with white lettering—just like Jack.
Along with the new look came some questionable advertising puffery on the bottle. Evan Williams the man was elevated from Kentucky’s first commercial distiller to first distiller, period. Which is a ridiculous claim—as if no one in Kentucky thought of making hooch until Mr. Evan Williams blew in from Wales. But the company got away with it then and still does. Another claim on the label, “since 1783,” gives the impression that Williams’ original recipe (which was most likely rotgut) is still in use today.
If the outside of the bottle was less than honest, the inside was damn good. It was 90 proof and carried a seven-year age statement, but sold at bottom-shelf prices—just a few dollars for a fifth in the late ‘70s, according to old-timers. But not many people bought bourbon back then, and Heaven Hill started diversifying into vodka and gin to spread out the risk.
Some advertising support might have helped. “We would have a difficult time spending $5 million behind a brand,” Shapira said. “We couldn’t do it.” There were some tepid ads featuring the bland slogan, “Some things never change. And shouldn’t.” Later Evan Williams became an official sponsor of professional bass fishing. Otherwise, the brand had to rely on word of mouth.
Which, as it turned out, was good enough. In the 1980s Evan Williams became the fastest-growing bourbon brand in the world and the third best-selling. Today it is in second place, trailing only archrival Jim Beam. It moves more than two million cases a year, according to Market Watch. It took a while, but Evan Williams has slowly worked its way into every boozehound’s arsenal.
Unfortunately, Evan Williams’ rise to glory has come with a little slippage in quality. The proof is down, from 90 when it debuted to 86 (though at least it has not been lowered to 80, as Jack Daniel’s has shamefully done). And the seven-year age statement has disappeared. There is no age statement at all anymore. Instead, Evan Williams’ official site assures us that the bourbon is aged “far longer than we are required to by law.”
So much for that “some things never change” line. Still, Evan Williams remains a great value. “On average, Evan Williams is about five and a half years old and 86 proof, and it’s less expensive than Jim Beam White, which is four years old and 80 proof,” Heaven Hill master distiller Denny Potter told Market Watch. “It’s very good juice at an affordable price.”
The Heaven Hill distillery is still owned by the Shapira family to this day. Evan Williams has moved on from fishing tournaments to an official sponsor of Major League Baseball but has otherwise stayed close to its humble roots as the bargain bourbon that punches above its weight. From an unpromising beginning, things have turned out pretty well for Heaven Hill and the bourbon industry—not to mention boozehounds on a budget. Everybody wins.