Numerous factors affect a whiskey’s final characteristics. Those in the know will tell you that the mash bill, the yeast, the fermentation method and environment, the still, distillation rates and proof, the type and char of barrel, the barrel entry proof, the aging environment, and the time in the barrel are all factors that contribute to each specific product.
But one more nuanced variable also shapes the way a product is perceived – the bottling proof. This month’s Flight Club will focus on just that – the bottling proof – and that factor’s impact on nose, taste, and finish. We will be sampling the entire international lineup of Blanton’s, which includes otherwise identical single barrel bourbons* bottled at 80 proof, 93 proof, 103 proof and barrel proof.
[*Note: One can’t isolate every variable in this experiment, because each barrel of any single barrel product does contain individualized character. Notwithstanding, as discussed below, Blanton’s barrels are handpicked at different ages to help maintain uniformity in the brand, and therefore we might expect Blanton’s to have isolated “bottling proof” as well or better than anyone else in the market.]
Before we discuss the various Blanton’s products, a bit of history is in order. “Blanton’s – The Original Single Barrel” began its life in 1984 on the grounds of what is now the Buffalo Trace Distillery, under the leadership of Master Distiller Elmer T. Lee. Throughout his career, following a practice began by Col. Blanton himself, when Lee desired bourbon for his own consumption or to highlight the distillery for specialty purchasers, Lee would hand-select individual barrels from a single warehouse – Warehouse H – and would individually bottle and serve the contents at 93 proof. Lee, in his last years before retirement, finally convinced the company’s owners to bring the product to the market. It would be the first single barrel bourbon in the post-Prohibition era. For the Blanton’s products, not just any single barrel would do. Just like Lee’s and Col. Blanton’s personal selections, only those barrels housed in Warehouse H would suffice.
Warehouse H is the only metal clad warehouse at Buffalo Trace. It was created during the era when product namesake Col. Albert B. Blanton led company. It was built immediately after the repeal of Prohibition, and made of metal so it could be constructed quickly and inexpensively. As an additional benefit, the metal building conducts heat more quickly, so the whiskey ages more quickly than other buildings. Warehouse H is heated (steam heat) in the winter, which also helps expedite the aging process by mimicking the rises in temperature during the day. The metal-type construction and the winter steam-heating are all thought to be the conditions that sets Blanton’s apart.
While Warehouse H makes Blanton’s unique, it is Buffalo Trace Mash Bill #2 that makes it familiar. Bourbon must be comprised of no less than 51% corn. The remaining 49% is typically made up of a small amount of barley, then either rye or wheat. Buffalo Trace produces one wheated bourbon recipe, or “mash bill,” and two rye bourbon mash bills – a low-rye and a high rye (it also produces a non-bourbon rye mash bill). The low-rye mash bill, or Mash Bill #1, is used to produce bourbons such as Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Col E. H. Taylor, and numerous other products. Mash Bill #2, the high-rye mash bill, is used for Blanton’s, Elmer T. Lee, Rockhill Farms, and a few other products. The authoritative breakdown can be found at www.bourbonr.com.
Today, Blanton’s is still produced at Buffalo Trace (a newer distillery on the same grounds, now owned by Sazerac) and aged in the same Warehouse H as when the product was created. But the brand is not owned by Buffalo Trace or Sazerac. Beginning in the 1970’s (before Blanton’s was created), the bourbon market struggled and the parent company that produced Mash Bill #2 sold off pieces of the company, although they would continue to contract to produce many of the products. A company that would become Age International was eventually formed and bought the rights to the Mash Bill #2 product lines. In 1991, Age International itself was sold. Today, Age International (including the Mash Bill #2 recipe and products) is owned by a Japanese company. Age International has a joint venture arrangement, wherein Buffalo Trace continues to produce Mash Bill #2 Bourbons for Age International’s distribution. And, even though Blanton’s and other Mash Bill #2 Bourbon’s are made on U.S soil, Age International reserves many products primarily or exclusively for the international market, making Blanton’s often more difficult to find than other Buffalo Trace products.
For our March tasting, we will be sampling the following:
1. The standard U.S. version of Original Single Barrel. It is bottled at 93 proof and is available in the U.S. in a standard 750ml bottling, and internationally at a 700 ml bottling (the same size as all the other remaining non-U.S releases). It’s labeled with the widely known brown label.
2. The Special Reserve, which is produced for markets that charge tax based on alcohol percentage and therefore is released at 80 proof. It bears a green label.
3. The Gold Edition, with no actual label but text in gold, which is released outside the U.S. at 103 proof.
4. The Straight From The Barrel offering, which has a brown and white label and is released straight from the barrel, “uncut and unfiltered.”
Other expressions of the brand, which are not featured, include an 80 proof version (identical to the green Special Reserve version), which is currently released in Japan only. A Silver Edition was once released as a duty-free bottling at 98 proof, but is discontinued. There are also a few very limited releases to specialty liquor stores and festivals throughout the world, which carry different labels and proofs, but these are not intended for mass distribution.
Just like Prohibition underlies the origins of Warehouse H, Prohibition also underlies the selected cocktail as well. A term was coined during the Prohibition era for those who “scoff” (to mock or ridicule) at the “law”, specifically those who drank illegally in the face of the law. The term was “scofflaw” and shortly after the creation of the term, a drink too was created. The original recipe of the Scofflaw remains up for debate and several versions now exist, but all contain basically the same ingredients.
I will note that I have varied from using Blanton’s in this cocktail. With the impacts of higher amounts of the vermouth, lemon, and grenadine, the nuance of the high-end Blanton’s is overwhelmingly lost. So, replacement with a mixing-grade bourbon is more appropriate. Instead, I’ve kept with Buffalo Trace Mash Bill #2 and selected the lower shelf Ancient Age Bourbon. This began as the same mash bill, but has been aged only about 3 years in warehouses other than Warehouse H. It’s not entirely palatable on its own, but was never intended to be. It works perfectly with this cocktail.
In a mixing glass filled with ice, add all ingredients and shake heavily. Double strain into a coupe and garnish with a lemon swath.
For this month’s tasting, we are going somewhat blind. Each member knows the selected liquor is Blanton’s and that each pour varies only in terms of proof. But the order is unknown to them. To help isolate the impact of proof, I’ve opted to serve the pours as follows: (1) Original Single Barrel, (2) Special Reserve, (3) Gold Edition, (4) Original Single Barrel and (5) Straight from the Barrel. With this strategy, I’m giving everyone two shakes at the standard U.S. Original Single Barrel (without telling them that), and limiting the proof differential as much as possible between the consecutive pours. But for this write-up, I’ve listed them in order of proof:
Special Reserve: 80 Proof (Barrel No. 1, Warehouse H, Rick No. 16, dumped on 9-14-16)
Nose: Very light and no hint of alcohol; green apple, raisins and new oak.
Palate: Light; honey and citrus; a touch of vanilla and spice.
Finish: Medium-short; honey, leather and the new oak makes a reappearance.
Original Single Barrel: 93 Proof (Barrel No. 1271, Warehouse H, Rick No. 62, dumped on 7-19-16)*
Nose: Soft; toffee, citrus, vanilla, caramel and rye spice.
Palate: Caramel, orange-citrus, raisin and floral notes.
Finish: Dark brown sugar, caramel and vanilla, transitioning to floral, citrus and oak; medium-long and slightly drying.
*I also took the opportunity to compare several different barrels of the Original Single Barrel, each of which was dumped in 2016. I won’t provide tasting notes on each barrel, as each would likely be described with the same general tasting notes as above. However, even though Blanton’s does its best to limit the variation between bottlings, each is a single barrel. Of the three I tasted, one bottle had a more pronounced fruitiness on the nose and palate, while another had more floral notes on the nose and palate, each as compared to the above notes. Of the three, the fruitier barrel suited my palate the best (it is the second Original Single Barrel served in this tasting), but the variations were extremely minute. Another review can be found here.
Gold Edition: 103 Proof (Barrel No. 604, Warehouse H, Rick No. 4, dumped on 10-22-2016)
Nose: Rich; caramel and vanilla, honey, and dark dried fruit.
Palate: Some heat; cinnamon and spice, vanilla, caramel, honey and raisins; the mouthfeel thickens significantly.
Finish: Rye spice, pepper, raisins and some dry oak; warming throughout; very long and lasting raisin and oak.
Straight From The Barrel: 125.6 Proof (Barrel No. 265, Warehouse H, Rick No. 11, dumped on 4-4-2016
Nose: Warm; honey, green apple, raisins and dried dark fruits; toffee and vanilla.
Palate: Cinnamon and rye spice; rich flavors of caramel, honey, oak, vanilla and raisins; perfection on mouthfeel.
Finish: RAISINS, tobacco, rye spice and more raisins and dried fig; dry oak with a bit of bitter chocolate; very long and warming.
The Special Reserve is a nice bourbon, but the feeling at all stages that it is over-diluted kills the enjoyment. It tastes exactly like I added ice cubes to an already soft and balanced bourbon. If it were all that were available, it would be enjoyable. But I’ll take my next bottle with less water please.
How much less? That is the question.
Stepping up to the Original Single Barrel, the nose is bolder, the palate is less muted and the finish is apparent and warming. This is the minimum proof that Blanton’s should ever be enjoyed. It is very enjoyable at this proof. It tastes like the Special Reserve, just with less water.
But the 103 proof Gold Edition may be the sweet spot. Everything about the nose, palate, and finish richens and amplifies, but the heat only makes a short appearance. This is truly delicious in every way. It has very similar characteristics to the Original Single Barrel, but in other ways it takes on a unique persona with its richness.
With that said, I’ll take the Straight From the Barrel any day. It feels so right. If you like dried dark fruits, you will love it. I’m a huge fan of the “dried fig” flavors in bourbon. This screams fig. For me, this may be a “Top 5” all time bourbons. And that may be conservative!
[For reviews of each of the other Buffalo Trace Mash Bill #2 brands, click here.]