Learning the true history of a whiskey (as opposed to the glossy narrative generated by its current owner) is one of my favorite parts of researching these reviews. What you see, typically, is not all there is. Peeling the onion often reveals additional layers about a whiskey’s parentage – past and present – that may surprise even a reasonably savvy drinker.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon. A member of the Buffalo Trace stable, Blanton’s (in its official materials) lays claim to the dual distinction of being the “first single barrel bourbon,” and also to creating the “super-premium” bourbon category. Quite a trailblazer (says them), this Blanton’s!
Setting aside the fact that someone, somewhere, must have bottled a single barrel bourbon before 1984 (whether or not they referred to it as such), Blanton’s certainly has a well-established fan club of horsey stopper collectors. It also has a convoluted history, obscured by official recounting of this expression’s origin, that we will unravel over the course of today’s review.
Starting at the start, temporally: Blanton’s is named after Col. Albert B. Blanton, who began working at the George T. Stagg (now Buffalo Trace) distillery at the age of 16. The Colonel (an honorific in Kentucky and not an indication of military rank) had the type of Horatio Alger-esque origin story that is a common trope in whiskey history. In just under a quarter century, he climbed from office boy to distillery President, a post he occupied for 31 years until 1952. Shepherding the distillery through disasters both natural (catastrophic flooding) and man-made (Prohibition), he passed away in 1959.
The official history on the Buffalo Trace and Blanton’s websites would have you believe that Blanton’s genesis was “all in the family,” but reality is (as always) a bit messier. To summarize: a pair of former Fleishmann’s distilling executives started the Age International company, which purchased the Ancient Age brand and the distillery now known as Buffalo Trace from beverage conglomerate Schenley Industries (itself later sold to Guinness). Got all that?
Master Distiller Elmer T. Lee, himself an Albert Blanton hire and another up-by-the-bootstraps success story, was on the verge of retirement in the early 1980’s when his employer—Age International—decided to launch a premium bourbon for the Japanese market. Channeling memories of his late boss’s habits and predilections, he came up with the idea for Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon. More on that in a moment.
Age International was acquired by Takara Shuzo of Japan, in the form of a minority stake in 1991, with the remainder in 1992. Takara Shuzo sold the Buffalo Trace distillery back to Sazerac, but the Japanese company still owns the brands and trademarks associated with Ancient Age and Blanton’s. While the international sales of Blanton’s Single Barrel and a handful of other expressions are Takara Shuzo’s business, Buffalo Trace does the distilling and distribution Stateside.
Does that make this a “sourced” bourbon? I mean… not really? It’s produced and sold to us here in ‘Murica by the company that produces it (Buffalo Trace), albeit with the permission of a Japanese company that owns the brand name. So that would make it… umm… whatever it is when you re-license a brand to the distillery that produces the spirit? I’m not sure there’s a precedent here.
Taylor reached out to Amy Preske, Public Relations Manager at Buffalo Trace Distillery with a handful of questions and received the following answers:
Malt: What is the mash bill used for Blanton’s Bourbon? I have read that it is the higher-rye “Mash Bill #2.” Can you confirm this?
Amy: While the exact ingredients of our mash bills are propertitary, I can confirm it is called BT Mash Bill #2 and it does contain a slightly higher rye proportion than BT Mash Bill #1.
Malt: Can you please describe the commercial agreement with Takara Shuzo, which I understand owns the Blanton’s brand and related trademarks?
Amy: Sorry, the details of that agreement are confidential.
Malt: What is the annual production of Blanton’s? How does that break out between U.S. and international sales?
Amy: Sorry, as a privately held company, we do not disclose sales.
Malt: What is the U.S. release schedule for Blanton’s?
Amy: Due to a shortage of all bourbons produced by Buffalo Trace, Blanton’s is on allocation, as all of our bourbons produced here are. However, Blanton’s is shipped on a monthly basis to our distributors, who in turn send it to retailers.
Ok, back to the review…
As for the whiskey itself: though the distillery’s specific recipes remain a Buffalo Trace secret, it is thought that Blanton’s is distilled from mash bill #2, which is rumored to be slightly higher rye (10-12%) than mash bill #1 (<10%). Ancient Age, Elmer T. Lee, and Hancock’s President’s Reserve are also reputedly distilled from this mash bill. The barrels supplying Blanton’s are said to be taken from the “center cut” (also known as “the middle”) of Warehouse H. This hastily-constructed metal rickhouse had no effective climate control, meaning the full variation of seasonal temperature fluctuations was felt by the barrels inside. This effect was thought to hasten and deepen maturation, and has subsequently been intentionally replicated by J. Henry & Sons, among others.
Bourbon matured in this microclimate was reported (by Elmer T. Lee) to be the favorite of Col. Blanton, supplying his private stock of personally-bottled single barrels. Thus, Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon was released in 1984, comprised of the same type of “honey barrels” that its namesake used to cherry pick.
Whether or not Blanton’s was truly the first single barrel bourbon, it certainly isn’t the only one anymore. Four Roses, Evan Williams, Russell’s Reserve, and even the bourbon Leviathan (Jim Beam) all have widely-available single-barrel expressions. That doesn’t even start to address the growing list of store picks, which might be considered the proper heirs of Col. Blanton’s discerning selections of choice casks (if only that were the case).
If you’re thoroughly confused by now: welcome to the party. Reading about last century’s corporate machinations always makes me reach for the nearest stiff drink. Oh, how about this bottle of Blanton’s?
I picked this up from my neighborhood sleeper whisky treasure cove, at a price of $70. It is, per the label, barrel #2921, stored in warehouse H on Rick #1, “dumped” on 12/14/18, and bottled at 93 proof (46.5%). In the UK, Master of Malt do also offer a single barrel release.
Blanton’s Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Review
On the nose: Robust red fruit packs the initial whiff. Quickly turns into a trip to Wisconsin, full of cherries and cheddar cheese. A spicy-smoky mix of cinnamon, paprika, and charcoal asserts itself. Densely savory smells of meatloaf emerge, with a floral topnote. All of the sudden, subtle hints of fluoride and menthol. Sunday dinner meets a trip to the dentists’ office? Uncanny, in a bizarre way: a dreamlike juxtaposition of the incongruous.
In the mouth: Round and rich to start, with plenty of red fruit. A burst of heat punctuates the transition to midpalate. Some tartly fruity and gently woody flavors emerge. Finishes long, with more mineralic flavors, some medicinal cherry notes of Robitussin, and a hint of pine sap.
Aw, jeez, I dunno. It’s got some of the richer fruity flavors I really enjoy in bourbon. Also some more savory notes, and a counterbalancing mineral-driven sternness. At the same time, these never really knit together cohesively. It’s not bad, just a bit awkward.
The single barrel nature of this keeps me from asserting too strong a conclusion. For all my extolling of the better examples of the single cask format, I am the first to concede that the lesser offerings weaken the case. Thus, I don’t know if this is better-than-normal Blanton’s, worse-than-normal, or about the same? I guess I can just judge it on its own merits as bourbon for the price, in which case the verdict is…
There is a commission link within this review – such a thing, doesn’t influence our opinion.