Whisky and Words Number 91: Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon

Blanton’s – a single cask expression from Buffalo Trace.

This was a gift. I’m not a big bourbon drinker but I appreciate thoughtful gifts: I was told Blanton’s is hard to get a hold of. The product certainly looks impressive in its uniquely shaped bottle and hand lettered label (for when it was ‘dumped’ and from which rick, warehouse and cask). Also, the cork has a pewter horse and rider on it – as cool as the Dead Guy bottle! But none of that affects how a whisky tastes, and if you have been to this blog before you know I look askance at heavy blandishments, both verbal and graphical. After 30 years in the tech industry I know that marketing is a fact of life. But one has to look through the smoke and mirrors and see where the rubber hits the road.

So, what of this spirit? The bottle says it is distilled and bottled at ‘Blanton Distilling’ in Frankfort Kentucky, so you know at least they are not buying spirit in bulk from one of the mass-producers. Note, however, that Blanton’s is produced at the Buffalo Trace plant, as stated on their web site. Buffalo trace produces 10 million liters a year…about on the scale with the largest Scotch producers, such as The Macallan. Not exactly a boutique operation.

They also declare that they believe this is the ‘finest bottle of whiskey ever produced.’ Offered at $60 (Oregon price) that’s pretty frisky! Since they spelled it ‘whiskey’ I can only compare it to other American whiskies. (Up against some of those 25 and 30+ year Scotches I have tried they’d have a hard time convincing me.) As far as the age, we have the ‘Kentucky Straight’ appellation on the label, so it’s got to be at least 4 years in cask (‘straight’ by law means 2 years in cask, but also if less than 4 years in cask they have to state the age). On contacting the company they responded that they do not state the age, as flavor depends on the individual cask, fair enough. I do have a Knob Creek handy to compare, which at 9 years in cask has a decent bit of aging behind it. It’s also much cheaper…$37.

The little card on the neck says “the finest Bourbon in the world comes from a single barrel.” That’s debatable. I’ve had a lot of damn fine whiskies that were single malts (which are from a single distillery but multiple barrels, often of different age) and I have tasted a number of single barrels of Scotch, both bottled and straight from the cask. They all had character, but rarely were well-rounded. Taking from a single barrel guarantees a unique flavor profile, but it takes an unusual cask to be the ‘one cask’ that has everything in it as far as flavors. I’m not saying they can’t deliver the best bourbon, but do they have enough of those rare all-rounder barrels to ship at volume? Also they have 3 other versions that are more expensive and thus even better, which makes this expression what, exactly? Not the best?

My take so far: these guys are heavy on marketing. They’re up against other American whiskies, they are comparatively expensive and have to look the part. A bit of chest-puffing going on I suspect. So, let’s toss some of this in the old Glencairn and see what we’ve got. For comparison, I have the Knob Creek 9-year (100 proof) and also a local boutique bourbon we can compare to.

On the nose, the Blanton’s passes the ‘enough bouquet to notice’ just uncorking it, so that’s good. It’s a fruity bouquet, with citrus and muskmelon, even a hint of sherry (though these would be first-fill American oak barrels they used, by law). There is a faint mineral undercurrent that’s pleasant. Really digging in gets you a bit of a sting to the nose, and the wife said ‘it smells like rubbing alcohol.’ There is a slight rubbing alcohol vibe, that’s the youth of the spirit there. In comparison, the local boutique bourbon ($50, review coming soon) which is aged also in new oak but also pinot noir barrels, has a similar but more laid back nose, citrus and apple, background mineral, and a little sting getting in deep into the Glencairn. The Knob Creek has a nice grainy and oak vibe going and also gives the nose a solid sting if aggressively snorted.

On the palate, straight up the Blanton’s is a harsh dram. Very peppery on the sides of the tongue and a lot of heat everywhere else. There is a good mid-range of toffee and vanilla that’s overshadowed by the alcohol taste, and lots of very fresh tannins. It is a quite bitter finish, probably the most bitter finish I have experienced in a whisky. Cutting it with water allows the toffee to come out and you notice the citrus and vanilla but is still harsh on the throat, even with a considerable splash of water. The Oregon bourbon, also NAS but not ‘straight’ (so who knows how long in cask) has a pleasant palate and does not attack the mouth (even straight up), despite a similar (46%) ABV. It also had a gentle and balanced finish—winner by a landslide here. The old standard Knob Creek, at 100 proof, has as much fire as the Blanton’s, not as much toffee and vanilla but also his much more laid back with the tannins. Better balance, not overwhelmingly bitter on the finish.

Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon Whisky, 46.5% ABV

Nose: Citrus, muskmelon, sherry, toffee, oak and alcohol.
Palate: Good structure—toffee, vanilla, cinnamon, orange marmalade—underneath the fire. Needs ice or plenty of water: harsh even then. A good structure overshadowed by harsh alcohol and an overabundance of tannins.
Finish: Very bitter. There is other stuff going on but the bitterness really dominates.

Bottom Line: despite the heavy marketing, I came into this with an open mind, but in the end was disappointed at how harsh and unbalanced (towards bitter) this spirit is. (And yes, I waited to taste until after I wrote the first half of the review, as I always do.) That is the issue with a single barrel expression—I can believe their are other batches of Blanton’s that are more balanced, as there are some positive reviews for Blanton’s on the web.* But they are shown up quite handily by a local dram for $10 less which, not being a single-barrel product, was produced by the malt master mixing barrels for the right balance. Blanton’s makes a big deal about the single barrel advantage, but that presumes that single barrel has all that the malt master needs for the flavor profile. They do have a more interesting palate than the Knob Creek, if you can get deal with the harshness and bitter finish. But it is a big upcharge from the KC9, so I’d suggest that you save your pennies for something else.

The lovely amber of the spirit is glorious in the afternoon light.

Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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