The Unfortunate Vintage of Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon


April 21, 2013

Before analyzing the label on the Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage, I pop the cork and pour two fingers in my square glass.

This deep-colored and strong-nosed whiskey is layered with vanilla, toffee, caramel, spice and just enough smoke that I almost miss the toasted marshmallow. It’s certainly not the most complex bourbon I’ve tasted, but it sure is good. On the second taste, I notate its smoothness and fruity, maybe an apple peel, finish.

I was excited to write the master distiller Craig Beam about the puzzling smoke I picked up. Did he get that? I always like to challenge my palate and learn from the true masters. Then, I noticed the bottle: Stamped above the Evan Williams name in bright red: “Put in oak… 2003.” The worst year of my life.

If you’ve ever wondered a vintage’s power, remember this: Many in Bordeaux claim the worst all-time vintage was 1939, the year Germany invaded. On the other side, the year World War II ended, 1945, was considered one of the top vintages of the twentieth century.

We buy vintages of the years that mean something to us. They say 2009 and 2010 are the best Bordeaux years, but I’ll always covet 2005, the same year I first saw my wife’s brown eyes. Deep down, every consumer has a year he or she loves and hates.

I love 2005.

I hate 2003.

On February 14, 2003, I received a “Warning Order” from my National Guard unit that I would be activated for Operation Iraqi Freedom. We waited a couple months, but were never activated, so I decided to take some special military courses to advance in rank.

Sometime in the summer of 2003, a tick bit me during training and I became extremely ill. My head felt like somebody was driving a metal spike down the left side. I couldn’t keep a meal down. When I developed bell’s palsy, I was admitted to the hospital and eventually diagnosed with Lyme disease. For two months, I had a pic line running from my left bicep to somewhere in my chest pumping the artillery of antibiotics, “Rocephin,” into my system.

About a month after finishing my treatment, I got the call. We were destined for Iraq. I did not mention this in my memoir, Camera Boy: An Army Journalist’s War in Iraq, but I could have received a “doctor’s note” to avoid Iraq. Apparently, Lyme disease is a big deal. Yeah, I couldn’t leave my Army buddies, so I went and hoped ticks didn’t exist in the Middle East.

When training for the deployment, we were vaccinated for all those supposed bio agents Saddam couldn’t wait to use. The medics lost my medical records, and double vaccinated me for Anthrax, Small Pox and a few others things. Hey, at least, I’ll survive if I ever step on a rusty nail thanks to my tetanus immunity.

So, when I retaste the Evan Williams, I still pick up those obvious notes, but it’s not the same. Is this how the French felt when tasting the 1939 vintages?

I’m sure 2003 was a glorious year for many, but mine was worst than the actual year I spent in Iraq. The waiting and the sickness rendered me useless and without purpose that year. But, as I always tell my fellow veterans, we can enjoy this post-war life if we allow ourselves to.

When my war revisits me from time to time, I think about the good that came of it: my buddies, the launch of my book career and the eventual meeting of the woman who changed my life. I ponder these things and smile.

Determined to not let my year impact this Evan Williams 2003 Single Barrel, I retaste for the fourth and final time. It’s the last drop.

Oh, yes, there’s that bourbon: Bringing smoke to a party of vanilla, caramel, citrus (didn’t get that before) and some pear. I need to drop Craig Beam a line about this puzzling smoke note. I guess 2003 wasn’t such a bad year after all—for bourbon.