If you are looking for a bottle of reasonably-priced bourbon, you’re likely to come across two bottles that have a lot in common: Ezra Brooks and Evan Williams.
The similarities are unmistakable. Price Point. Boxy Bottles. Sour Mash. Charcoal Mellowed. Bottling Proof.
Are these coincidences, or is there something else going on here?
Whether you’re new to the bourbon category, a longtime whiskey enthusiast or a bar manager looking for a ‘bottom shelf bourbon’ to act as a revenue driver for your on-premise program, you may ask yourself which is the best option between these two well-established brands.
In this feature, we will pit these two bargain bin favorites against each other to discover what’s going on behind those black labels and give you some insight into the liquid before you buy.
Round 1: History
The Ezra Brooks brand was introduced to the market in 1957 by entrepreneur Frank Silverman.
The history of Evan Williams goes back a little farther — 1783, to be exact. That is when Evan Williams founded his distillery, which the brand claims is the oldest in Kentucky. In fact, the words “Kentucky’s 1st Distiller” are emblazoned on the front label. However, the Evan Williams expression we’re familiar with today was first introduced to the American market in — get this — 1957.
Round 1: Draw. Although Evan Williams seemed to have a slight edge due to the fact there was a pre-prohibition distiller of that name in Kentucky, both brands have their modern origins in the post-war bourbon boom of the late 1950s.
Round 2: Ownership
Ezra Brooks is owned by the mid-sized spirits portfolio Luxco, based in St. Louis, Missouri. In February 2021, distilling giant Midwest Grain Products announced plans to purchase Luxco as part of a $475 million deal.
Evan Williams is owned by the international spirits producer Heaven Hill. Based in Bardstown, Kentucky, this well-respected American whiskey producer owns several famous whiskeys, including Elijah Craig, Mellow Corn, Larceny, Old Fitzgerald and Rittenhouse. Evan Williams is known as the No. 2-selling bourbon brand, following the industry-leading Jim Beam white label.
Round 2 is a draw. Who cares who makes it as long as it tastes good?
Round 3: Mashbills
Each of these products is a Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. And, as such, each contains at least 51 percent corn in the mashbill. Ezra Brooks and Evan Williams have almost identical mash bills — about three-quarters corn, with the remaining percentage split between rye and malted barley.
Both of these products use the sour mash process during fermentation. Sour mash bourbons are created using a portion of terminal beer from a previous fermentation and adding it to the next mash. Think of making bread from a sourdough starter — only for beer!
Round 3 could not be any closer. Literally. Check out the Distillation & Production notes. These guys are basically shadowboxing.
Round 4: Maturation
Neither of these whiskeys contain an age statement on the label. Each is designated a “Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey,’ which means the spirit was legally required to mature for at least two years in new charred American oak barrels.
At one time, Ezra Brooks had a 7-year age statement on the label, but it was subsequently removed. However, the liquid in the bottle does have the maturity that might indicate a whiskey with five or more years in the barrel.
The judges are scoring this a draw. If you get to taste these two whiskeys side-by-side, see if you can pick out which seems to be more mature.
Round 5: Distillation & Production
Evan Williams is distilled at the Heaven Hill distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky.
Ezra Brooks is currently distilled at the Lux Row distillery, also located in Bardstown, Kentucky. The Lux Row distillery opened in 2016. Before it came online, the Ezra Brooks brand sourced whiskey as a Non-Distiller Producer. While Luxco did not name its supplier outright, it was rumored that Heaven Hill distilled the juice that filled Ezra Brooks barrels using the Evan Williams mash recipe.
Both Ezra Brooks and Evan Williams are in many ways clones of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey. To attract Jack Daniel’s customers, both brands embraced similarities in bottle shape, label design, font color and terminology — including references to ‘Sour Mash’ and charcoal filtration.
We should note the charcoal filtration or charcoal mellowing mentioned on the labels and marketing copy for these two brands is very different from the Lincoln County Process used in Tennessee whiskeys such as Jack Daniel’s. The Lincoln County Process uses maple wood charcoal to filter, or ‘mellow,’ the clear distillate before it goes into the barrel. The charcoal filtration mentioned by Kentucky whiskeys Ezra Brooks and Evan Williams referenced activated carbon filtration after the spirit has matured. This type of charcoal filtration is more commonly associated with the production of vodka.
Another draw. This one is like watching two identical twins duke it out…
Round 6: Price Point & Value
Evan Williams is about $15 for a 750mL bottle. It is bottled at 90-proof.
Ezra Brooks will cost you about $14 for a 750mL bottle and is also bottled at 90-proof.
For two brands with nearly identical production techniques, a slight edge goes to Ezra Brooks. But a $1 difference is really splitting hairs.
Round 7: Tasting Notes
Nose: Oak, vanilla, baking spices and leather, with a corn sweetness.
Palate: Stone fruits, baking spices, honey and buttery caramel.
Finish: Butterscotch, a touch of spice from the rye grain, and a peppery spice.
[Related: Complete Evan Williams Bourbon Review]
Nose: The aroma of charred oak and tobacco, with hints of charcoal, autumn leaves and gunpowder.
Palate: Cherry and tobacco, with leather, melon and spicy rye notes. A distinct wood-aged character for a whiskey at this price point.
Finish: Earthy rye spice, dark notes of black pepper, leather and raisins.
[Related: Complete Ezra Brooks Bourbon Review]
A double TKO? These guys knocked each other out at the same time, resulting in a tie!
How do they make this stuff so good and sell it so cheap? Despite being ‘Value’ segment bottles, the liquid inside either of these bourbons is worthy of a place on the bar of even the snobbiest whiskery geek.
Ezra Brooks, in particular, has a surprisingly mature profile for a whiskey in its price range. And as the No. 3-selling Bourbon whiskey on the marketplace, Evan Williams is certainly doing something right.
These whiskey brands may not quite have the name recognition of category leaders Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam, but they really punch out of their weight class in terms of quality. And while they may not be the most mature, complex or refined American whiskeys on the marketplace, they will undoubtedly serve excellently in a cocktail, on the rocks or served neat in your favorite tumbler or whiskey glass.
Try these two sour mash bourbons side-by-side to see which you prefer. That way, your tastebuds will be the real winner!