We are firmly in my least favorite time of the year in the bourbon world: allocated release season.
On October 9, Buffalo Trace announced its vaunted antique collection, which includes George T. Stagg and William Larue Weller. All of these products routinely get marked up more than five times their “suggested” retail pricing and are nowhere to be found in the wild.
I am torn between annoyance and envy during allocated bourbon season. In any given year, these bottles are generally unavailable at retail price. For those people outside of the industry lucky enough to come across a bottle, it probably required a lot of time and effort to track down a bottle. This problem is compounded by retailers and state-controlled monopolies siphoning the very limited stocks off for their arbitrage value.
The buzz around allocated bourbons in general – and Buffalo Trace’s products in particular – is like advocating private air travel. Sure, it’s good if you can get it without spending multiple paychecks (probably; I wouldn’t know as a middle-seat coach connoisseur), but hyping these bottles is functionally useless outside of pretty small insider communities with access, or those with sufficiently fat wallets to drain into well-stocked bars.
As Ried Mitenbuler mentioned in my interview with him, bourbon really is a story of America. Bourbon’s nominal egalitarianism – terrific, very American products at good prices – is why I made a very conscious choice to start drinking it in the first place, a long time ago, when all of the allocated bottles were just shelfers for special occasions. The egalitarian legacy of American whiskey has degraded in the hype era and pushed me more into the rum category, in part because rum’s pricing in the United States (less so in Europe) is much more in line with bourbon’s prior affordability than bourbon itself is. However, despite the unicorn-bourbon-bunker era we now occupy, I would like to argue that bourbon in the United States is still actually very good for its pricing.
My experience tasting spirits over the years has generally led me to believe that for every spirits category, there are three relevant price components within a range: a price floor for acceptability; a center area of the price range where most above-average products reside; and, finally, a price ceiling above which things rarely get correspondingly or notably better same as they get more expensive. These are personal, arbitrary cutoffs but, for me, bourbon has an exceptionally low entry price, with Wild Turkey 101 as a terrific bourbon.
Almost everything I love drinking rarely costs more than $80, a price point that includes Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel and Elijah Craig Barrel Proof. There are a few bottles that set the high end of my range, such as Four Roses Single Barrel Barrel Strength at $100, but almost nothing I truly love has a suggested retail price above about $135.
Having gone recently to an Ardbeg Scotch tasting at Jack Rose in DC, my wife and I discovered we liked the most breathtakingly high-priced offerings (if you can get your hands on a bottle of Fermutation, please do so with my envy attached). I have discovered that my floor for sipping Scotch is about $60 in the United States before taxes. Similarly, as an Armagnac fan, almost everything I have really enjoyed started around $90 and excelled at $150, though I almost always split these with other fans for affordability.
Rum, on the other hand, is terrific at $20 (Appleton Signature and Doorly’s), exceptional at $50 (El Dorado 15 year single barrels, Hampden releases, Appleton 12, Stolen Overproof, and Rhum Barbancourt 3 Star), and earth shattering around $125 (Hampden Great House, Holmes Cay Belize releases, much of the Velier lineup). In these products’ countries of origin, the prices are a lot more competitive, but you get the gist on my framework here. All of this to say: bourbon is pretty mid-range in cost even with its recent inflation within the global aged spirits category widely available in the United States.
Equally relevant to the broader discussion of whether bourbon is drifting from its affordability legacy, I am beginning to see initial signs the hype machine is breaking down. I have started to see Buffalo Trace’s eponymous product more often than not when visiting local liquor stores for cocktail ingredients in the last few weeks, a fact that would’ve been unheard of just two years ago. Similarly, I have found retail-priced Four Roses Single Barrel Barrel Strength on two separate occasions in just the last week at nearby stores, a stark departure from the robust flipping market it enjoyed as recently as last February, when I saw Kentucky locals stocking up at the Four Roses Bottling Facility gift shop near Bardstown to resell.
Thus, in the spirit of allocated bourbon season, I have decided to review three Buffalo Trace bourbons you probably can find during this least auspicious of seasons for regular spirits consumers. These bottles are: Ancient Age, Benchmark No. 8, and – possibly controversially – Buffalo Trace.
This review continues my (hopefully!) series that I roughly have named in my head “stuff you can find at a well stocked rural liquor store with minimal hassle or shameful requests for someone to check in the back.” It’s part of my broader long-term effort to become king of the bottom shelf and viscount of the mid-shelf.
Ancient Age – Review
90 proof (45% ABV) aged “at least 36 months.” Widely available in the D.C. Metropolitan Area for $15.
Color: New gold.
On the nose: Artificial vanilla extract, marshmallow, sweet corn, raisins, lightly roasted caramel, and toasted walnut. This is all rather difficult to pull out, but there are underdeveloped grain notes underneath everything else.
In the mouth: A very assertive corn flavor is accompanied by vanillin (the aforementioned artificial vanilla) with… not a lot else. I can maybe detect some baking spices from the middle of the palate that carries a touch of rye spice, and cut cedar notes into finish. It’s all quite thin.
I would not sip this, because it has all the hallmarks of the youngest possible whiskey, with the characteristic overwhelming vanilla flavor and little else beyond the aforementioned corn. I don’t hate it, but I certainly won’t seek it out. It’s not bad so much as assertively boring, and its price does not sufficiently compensate, particularly when measured against bottles that cost only a few more dollars.
Benchmark Old No. 8 – Review
80 proof (40% ABV) aged “at least 36 months.” Widely available in the D.C. Metropolitan Area for $13-$15.
Color: Old gold.
On the nose: Freshly boiled buttered corn accompanies a robust sweet cherry, caramel, and gentle wafts of fresh rye bread. Nutmeg undergirds a lot of the nose on the tail end. When allowed to sit for a bit, the pour conveys gentle pome fruit that harmonizes with the caramel that relates an apple pie scent.
In the mouth: The pome fruit undercurrent sustains itself into the finish. The front of the palate and initial taste is pretty undefined beyond a light Meyer lemon note. Caramel, cherry, and black pepper jump out and compete for the dominant note at the middle of the palate, gaining a nutmeg flavor to accompany the black pepper into the finish that provides an exceptionally light hug on the finish with a granny smith apple flavor sustaining itself for minutes afterwards.
Is this a super complex? No. Is this what I would recommend to spirits aficionados looking for something robust and rich to challenge their palates? Also no. Would I happily drink roughly a gallon of this on long camping trips? Absolutely. Benchmark Old No. 8 is notably superior to the Ancient Age, despite the latter’s higher proof. This pour’s low proof, friendly palate and nose, and exceptionally fair price will make it my go-to bourbon in its price range.
Coming off the Basil Hayden’s review, this pour kept reinforcing that it fits the entry level drinker better than almost any other, in stark contrast to Basil Hayden’s. To my shame, after Googling the comparison, I regret to announce that I am once again behind the 8-ball, as Jordan at Breaking Bourbon already had the same thought regarding Basil Hayden’s on this one.
Buffalo Trace deserves a lot of credit for Benchmark Old No. 8’s quality. This is quintessential younger bourbon made by true professionals. There’s no unincorporated raw grain flavors and everything a charred new oak container can impart in a short period of time is inside the bottle in harmony.
If I could mark this up two points on price alone based on the Malt scale, I would, but the whiskey’s simplicity places it at a 4/10, bumped up to a 5/10 for its price. That said, I would recommend this to anyone looking for something friendly to any drinker at any point in their spirits journey, and I plan on keeping a bottle in my house in perpetuity. I look forward to wrangling one of the many other Benchmark expressions (they were weirdly difficult to find in the DC Metro area).
Buffalo Trace – Review
90 proof (45% ABV). No age statement. Purchased for approximately $26.00.
Color: Deep copper.
On the nose: Ceylon cinnamon and wintergreen jump out at the jump. Apple peel is a prominent undertone at the front of the nose along with fresh French bread, clove, cigar tobacco, and cocoa powder. Hiding below this second layer is walnut toffee, tomato leaf, and ruby port (maybe Commandaria).
In the mouth: A touch of maple sweetness and blueberry accompany cocoa powder, lemon peel, tangerine, clove, black pepper, and a bit of that port shining through at the front of the tongue into the middle of the palate. It has a pleasant varnish and ferric note running through it, evocative of some mature Armagnacs that I have always greatly enjoyed. Into the finish, the pour carries a touch of leather, nutmeg, and pine resin. The pour is cohesive, balanced, and even from the front of the palate to the finish, though the finish loses a bit of cohesion and depth before falling off abruptly.
This is a fundamentally balanced and level – if nondescript – pour. Unlike Benchmark Old No. 8 and Ancient Age, Buffalo Trace’s flagship bourbon clearly sat in the barrel long enough to provide some of those more oak-forward notes, albeit a relatively small amount. These components are required for what I would consider a complete bourbon, because those gentle tannins are a prerequisite for at least some depth, particularly into the finish, when I tend to notice the more tannin-driven notes. Buffalo Trace bourbon nonetheless borders on overly sweet and lacks the depth I associate with some of my favorite bourbons from the nose to the finish.
Going into the tasting for this review, I considered conducting it blind to avoid under-scoring this bourbon specifically. I was – and am – exhausted with the insanity around Buffalo Trace, and with many of the distillery’s entry and mid-level offerings selling out the moment they appear in stores. The absurd hype around Weller Special Reserve and Blanton’s drove me to associate other Buffalo Trace products with their many flaws. I have, accordingly, been unfair to Buffalo Trace bourbon. I am nonetheless happy to say that my curmudgeon instincts were wrong in this instance.
Going back over a decade, I exclusively used Buffalo Trace for whiskey sours — high proof spirits curdle egg whites so Buffalo Trace is perfect for these applications — and other citrus-forward bourbon cocktails while I almost exclusively sipped Eagle Rare (then $20 at the Virginia state liquor stores).
Buffalo Trace was my cocktail bourbon, because it was soft and sweet. Those attributes haven’t changed, but I never gave it the appropriate respect until writing this piece. The distillery’s eponymous bourbon is pleasant, enjoyable and – at $25 – solid, for what it is. That said, I would absolutely dissuade a friend from paying anything approaching secondary market prices circa 2022.