This one word summarizes my feelings of a relatively unheard of, and fairly difficult to find, bottom shelf bourbon. Charter 101, a 101-proof Mash Bill #1 Straight Kentucky Bourbon from Buffalo Trace, is a winner in its class, and something you should pick up without question if you ever see it on a shelf.
[For our final conclusions and links to our other Buffalo Trace Mash Bill #1 reviews, click here.]
With that conclusion out of the way, a bit more about the bourbon.
The Charter (including “Old Charter”) brand was established in 1874. In its early years, the bourbons under the Charter brand were produced at Old Charter Distillery near Bardstown, Kentucky. The Old Charter Distillery, as a physical building, is one of those pre-Prohibition distilleries that didn’t survive Prohibition.
In 1933, after Prohibition ended, Bernheim acquired the Charter brand and began again distilling Old Charter in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1937, the Schenley company purchased the Charter brand name and took over production. It, like Bernheim, produced the Charter brand elsewhere, but because labeling laws didn’t prohibit the practice, they continued to reference “produced at Old Charter Distillery.” Schenley continued to produce Charter through 1986, when that company was purchased by United Distillers. United Distillers continued to produce Charter through the early to mid 1990’s, when that company merged and become Diageo in 1997. Then in 1999, the Charter brand found its current home, when Diageo sold the Charter brands to Sazerac/Buffalo Trace.
Charter 101, despite its “Old Charter” relation, is really not very old. The brand itself first arrived on the market around 2008. The TTB database would confirm a label approval for Buffalo Trace Distillery on the “Charter 101” Brand name on February 2, 2008. Reviews of this “new” bourbon hit online soon thereafter.
But while Charter 101 is a relatively new bourbon, that doesn’t mean it’s here to stay. I’ve seen numerous posts on Instagram and across the web where people indicate that Charter 101 is discontinued. However, I’ve still seen a few bottles on the shelves here and there.
In response to these rumors, I took the liberty of emailing Sazerac/Buffalo Trace directly, stating: “I’m hearing many rumors that Charter 101 is discontinued. I’d love to hear it’s not true!” Here is their response:
“We still do occasionally release some of the Old Charter 101. But it is now very infrequently. For example our most recent shipment to Kansas was in May 2014.”
- Age: NAS
- Proof: 101
- Nose: Ethanol burn, which subsides some with time in the glass; caramel, corn and honey sweetness; vanilla; light fruit leather notes; some “signature” wet cardboard; finally, some maraschino cherry after it sits a bit.
- Palate: A powerful punch of vanilla and caramel; honey and corn sweetness; some fruitiness and a bit of the traditional Buffalo Trace cinnamon flavor; ethanol that is right on the brink of overpowering the palate, but stops right there, enhancing the Mash Bill #1 flavors; not as much oak as Eagle Rare, but more than Buffalo Trace; reasonably thick body and a bit more oily than Buffalo Trace.
- Finish: This gives a long Kentucky hug/burn in the chest, but somehow still is not overpowering; a hint of white pepper spice; lingering and not drying.
We all thoroughly enjoyed it, and it certainly improved the longer it rested in the glass. At roughly $20 for 750 ml, we each equated it to Sazerac/Buffalo Trace’s wheated lower-shelf gem, Weller Antique. Both are higher proof, flavor-packed pours that are truly phenomenal buys. That is a true compliment!
But…to say Charter 101 has been received with mixed reviews is an understatement. In his 2013 Whiskey Bible, Jim Murray rated it at an incredible 95.5. Some reviewers agree. Many on Reddit and other web-based review sites, however, have not thought as highly.
So what exactly is Charter 101? For me, Charter 101 represents that 100+ proof sweet spot. Its flavors are condensed just right. But having tried the Old Charter 8 products, I suspect it is not just the condensed flavors of standard 80 proof Old Charter 8 that I’m enjoying in Charter 101. I suspect this may be something just a little different and unique. To know, I thought I should give Charter 8 and even the recently discontinued Charter 8 Year a try and compare.
As you may have seen, Charter 8 underwent a label change in 2014 that dropped the words “aged” and “years” from the label. It is now a non-age-stated product, and many believe it to be closer to the 3-4 year mark versus the old 8 year. A quick review of both are below.
- Age: NAS
- Proof: 80
- Nose: A ton of ethanol even at 80 proof; light notes of cedar, dark fruit and citrus; crème brûlée burnt sugar
- Palate: Watery; brown sugar sweetness that promptly leaves; an odd wet cardboard flavor.
- Finish: Nearly none, but what is there is very light and slightly bittersweet; an odd lingering mouthfeel that’s almost waxy.
Old Charter 8 Year
- Age: 8 Year
- Proof: 80
- Nose: Light; ethanol, oak, wet cardboard, orange and light brown sugar.
- Palate: Very thin and light; the same brown sugar sweetness as the “8” but brighter and richer and with a little butterscotch; lesser wet cardboard.
- Finish: Worse than the “8,” or maybe it’s exactly the same, which is more disappointing; the same weird mouthfeel.
I also thought it might be prudent to take my Charter 101 and add about 20% water to dilute to a similar 80 proof, and compare that also side-by-side with the two Old Charter 80 products. I’ve let that one marry together for a few days in a sealed bottle.
Charter 101 diluted by 20%
- Nose: Not Old Charter 8 at all; soft caramel and citrus; vanilla; sweet cherry and dark fruit; soft hint of oak; the best nose of the bunch, and the ethanol of Charter 101 is perfectly tamed.
- Palate: Fruit and caramel upfront; vanilla; the cinnamon is nearly muted; a delicious, soft oak with just a tinge of the wet cardboard.
- Finish: Here the alcohol burn really makes its appearance, sharing the “hug” of the Charter 101; much shorter finish than the Charter 101; not quite the odd mouthfeel of the Old Charters but not the nice, oily finish of the 101.
To make it clear right off the bat, I don’t care for either the Old Charter 8 or the Old Charter 8 Year (although they both grew on me a bit during this experiment). They both are very thin, light on flavor, and have a strange wet cardboard profile from beginning until the end. Old Charter 8 Year has some age over the Old Charter 8, which is to be expected. Both of those two share a common profile. Charter 101, in its full or diluted form, share some commonality, but simply diluting Charter 101 down to 80 proof does not result in Old Charter 8. Thankfully.
We know Charter 101 has no age statement. We know it to be a straight whiskey without an age statement, so by law we know it to be no less than 4 years old. I’d guess it sat in a barrel for maybe 5-6 years. And if the age is closer to that 5-6 year mark, that gets in the realm of the standard Buffalo Trace offering – something that shares an identical mash bill and produced at the same location. Charter 101 fits the general profile of Charter 8 and Charter 8 Year, but it also starts to hit the general profile of Buffalo Trace itself. In fact, I’d describe my impression of Charter 101 to be closer to Buffalo Trace versus either Old Charter 8 product.
So, in a time-period where Old Charter is losing its age statement, and the older Old Charter 10 year (and even 12 year) products have gone away, why would Charter 101 hit the market? I suspect Charter 101 may be simply an inventory management product and no more related to Old Charter than its cousin the standard Buffalo Trace bourbon. When a company like Buffalo Trace has excess supply, it would seem there are a few options: (1) let it sit; (2) bottle and produce something they can’t sell; (3) sell it off to an independent bottler; (4) try to use it up in its own blends; or (5) create a new one-off label and dump it on the market at a low price. My theory is just that: Buffalo Trace Distillery had excess stock of something that might otherwise be used for Buffalo Trace bourbon, and they created a low-shelf brand where they could dump this stock when need arises. Hence, variable supply, seldom releases, no marketing, and really good juice.
Scott is a co-founder of Flight Club and a frequent writer and reviewer on the Club’s blog.