Imagine being told, “Son we’re not hiring any hands today,” at your job interview and then 35 years later honoring the same man that turned you down by naming the world’s first single barrel bourbon after him. That man was Albert B. Blanton and the young man he told to take a hike in 1949 was Elmer T. Lee.
In 1984, Lee launched the now-legendary Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon by following the blueprint of its namesake. Blanton aged single barrels in Warehouse H of the George T. Stagg Distillery (now Buffalo Trace), where he believed the best aging occurred. Those single barrels were bottled as a private reserve bourbon for ambassadors, dignitaries and those especially close to him.
As it has continued to earn international awards since its inception, The original 93 proof Blanton’s has been released in different iterations outside the United States, including Blanton’s Special Reserve (“Green”) and Blanton’s Black, both at a lower 80 proof. Without a doubt, the two most intriguing of the international releases has been the Blanton’s Gold (103 proof) and the Blanton’s Straight From the Barrel (proof varies by bottle, but around 130 proof).
Along with the single barrel named to honor Elmer T. Lee, all the Blanton’s are created from Buffalo Trace Mash Bill 2 (Higher Rye 12-15%), are distilled to 140 proof, put into barrels at 125 proof and aged in Blanton’s favorite Warehouse H. Warehouse H is reserved solely for Blanton’s. It is the only warehouse at Buffalo Trace that has metal cladding on the exterior walls instead of brick, creating wider temperature swings. These swings force the whiskey in and out of the barrel at a greater rate, aging the whiskey quicker. This is notable because none of the Blanton’s bottles list an age statement.
Another fact you may be unaware of: Japanese manufacturer Takara Shuzo owns all of the Age International brands (including Ancient Age, Blanton’s and Elmer T. Lee), despite their being distilled and aged at Buffalo Trace. That may help to explain the strong international presence.
Given the lively debate on which of the Blanton’s is the best, I set up a blind tasting so they could all battle it out. I’ve been a huge fan of blind tasting, and Blake’s post last year on Bourbonr.com got me into it. Two of my dependable whiskey friends, Andy Ruback and Brad Curtis, came over without knowing what they were going to be tasting or why. I also participated because, you know, research. The three of us have been drinking a lot of cask strength whiskeys over the past few years, and that should be noted as you consider our tasting notes.
The main event of the evening was clearly Blanton’s Gold vs. Blanton’s Straight From the Barrel (SFTB). I even took an online poll and discovered that each had several fans with very strong preferences for one over the other. In our blind test, neither Andy nor Brad could be influenced by any outside bias, and I would serve as the third judge to break any tie between them. We were going to declare a winner.
Buffalo Trace also released Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel (RHF) in 1990, named after Albert Blanton’s home. Though RHF is not stored at Warehouse H, it does share the same mash bill as the others, is similar in proof to the Blanton’s Gold, and is considerably less expensive. All of that plus the name earned it a spot in the lineup.
We tasted all four bourbons in the order listed below and took notes before discussing them with each other.
THE TALE OF THE TAPE
The Blanton’s Single Barrel I opened for this tasting was dumped in 2015 and was a private barrel pick. Blanton’s is a bourbon that the three of us have enjoyed for many years and with Brad and Andy not aware what it was, I was very excited to see if they recognized it. Spoiler alert: They didn’t. Literal spoiler alert: It was horrible.
The Blanton’s horse is a symbol of quality, but we often forget it is a single barrel, meaning there will be variation among the bottles. In this case, the person who chose the barrel has a very different palate than we do. This really threw a curveball into my whole plan, but we soldiered on.
How we drank it: I generally drink everything in a NEAT glass, but since I only have six of them, I put the Blanton’s in Glencairn glasses.
Color: Clearly the lightest of the group, Andy called it “yellow” and Brad “amber/caramel.”
Our Noses Noticed: Everyone commented on the lightness of it. Both Brad and Andy picked up floral scents and Brad even got a little perfume after adding water. Andy got some fruit and faint caramel, while Brad picked up a dryer sheet scent and lightly tanned leather. I got honey and a little spice.
First Sips: I couldn’t pull any standout flavors from this one, and I actually wondered if something was wrong with my taste buds until the others shared the same sentiments.
The Burn: The consensus was very little burn on this one and a quick finish. With just a little heat, a little flavor and a short finish, nobody thought much of this particular Blanton’s Original.
Neat, Splash or Rocks: Adding water did nothing. “It’s still a mess,” said Andy. Brad even offered, “I sometimes start my tastings with something crappy before moving into the good stuff.” Even though I opened the bottle a half hour earlier, I actually wondered, “Is this really Blanton’s?” Brad rated it an 81, I was a little more generous with an 85 (probably because I was influenced by the bottle) and Andy slammed it with a 75. “Don’t drink ever,” was his final note on it.
After the reveal at the end, both of them were incredulous, swearing this wasn’t Blanton’s. In fact, Andy ran home to get his bottle to prove it. His bottle of Blanton’s was improved in every category from color to finish, and we all enjoyed it much more than mine.
Unfortunately, the surprise was blown by that point, but it is worth providing the post-reveal tasting notes compared to my bottle:
Color: Slightly darker amber than the other Blanton’s Original,
Our Noses Noticed: Caramel and vanilla and Brad noted some butterscotch.
First Sips: Vanilla and a little rye spice. Much better balance than the other bottle.
The Burn: Not a lot of burn but a little longer finish.
Neat, Splash or Rocks: A couple drops of water opened up a little more flavor for all of us, so definitely try it that way. Unfortunately, after drinking the other higher-proofers and pulling the curtain back on the experiment, there was no reliable way to accurately rate Andy’s bottle, more reminiscent of what we’d consider the typical Blanton’s.
Share With: I wanted to share my private barrel Blanton’s with the drain until Andy stopped me. Brad told me to keep it for mixed drinks, low praise indeed for a $65 bottle. If your bottle has the classic Blanton’s taste profile, you can definitely share it with anyone from a beginner to an enthusiast.
Bottle, Bar or Bust: There’s a reason this bottle is getting harder to find. For my bottle, I rated it an 83, Brad gave it an 81, and Andy a 75. For Andy’s bottle, I rated it an 88, Brad and Andy both gave it a 90 . These scores indicate that a good bottle of Blanton’s is well worth the $55 price. From my experience, the odds are strong you’ll get a good one and if so, bottle all the way.
ROCK HILL FARMS (RHF)
Fortunately, my RHF to Blanton’s Gold comparison was still alive and well. Immediately following the universally disappointing Blanton’s Original pick, I expected RHF to get an artificial boost. It really didn’t, earning around the same scores I would have expected it to.
How We Drank It: At 100 proof, I would have preferred a NEAT glass, but due to a lack of inventory we again sipped using Glencairns (which Andy noted he prefers in all cases).
Color: A darker amber than the Blanton’s Original, almost caramel with a slightly reddish-brown hue.
Our Noses Noticed: All three of us got vanilla on the nose. Andy and I both got honey. Andy picked up clove and some citrus while Brad got cinnamon and fig.
First Sips: All of us described it as dry, and both suspected it was at least a higher rye bourbon.
The Burn: A little more burn for me that really kicked in on the finish, but not nearly enough for Brad even at 100 proof. Andy was disappointed in the lack of a finish for the second time in a row.
Neat, Splash or Rocks: A few drops of water definitely brought out some caramel and vanilla for me. Brad thought water actually added to the burn but didn’t draw out any more flavor. We all agree a few drops of water is the better way to go.
Share With: People who really like Blanton’s and want to try the Buffalo Trace Mashbill #2 at a higher proof. As I mentioned, I tossed this one in solely as a comparison to the Blanton’s Gold, just to see if it was in any way comparable.
Bottle, Bar or Bust: Andy gave it an 89. Brad rated this an 87 and noted that he would buy this for $35 as a daily drinker. I rated it an 88. At a $10 premium to Blanton’s Original, and lower scores than a solid bottle of Blanton’s, none of us can recommend a bottle purchase, but it’s definitely worth a glass at a bar.
Blanton’s Gold is sold in select non-U.S. markets in 700 mL label-less bottles, rather than the standard 750 mL. The smaller size means you get a little less bourbon for the buck but the higher 103 proof means you get a little more bang. Plus the gold Sharpie-like print on the bottle and gold horse look really cool.
How We Drank It: NEAT glasses, my preferred glass for all bourbons, but particularly the higher-proof ones.
Color: Andy noted that this was a welcome beauty. Brad felt that its almost bronze color suggested it appeared longer-aged. I thought it had a darker gold appearance but, then again, I knew it was Blanton’s Gold.
Our Noses Noticed: Higher proof was evident. Both Andy and Brad detected the smell of nuts. Brad and I got some rye, while he also found sweet pickles, nutmeg, and wood. After the first two missed the sweetness he generally prefers, Andy finally got some sugar and I also got sweet maple syrup.
First Sips: Brad described this as a flavor explosion compared to the first two and we all noted much more flavor on this one. Brad got caramel and some faint cinnamon. Like Brad, I got the dryness and spice of a rye. He guessed it was a higher rye Four Roses.
The Burn: We all agreed there was a nice, long finish with more burn than the others. Andy felt it wasn’t very distinct with more burn than flavor.
Neat, Splash or Rocks: Adding a little water really unlocked the flavor for all of us. I got butterscotch candy and Brad was reminded of Werther’s candy.
Share With: Someone who likes Blanton’s but would appreciate a higher proof. It’s less expensive than the SFTB but you also get 50 mL less whiskey in the Gold bottle. It isn’t a bottle you open for just anyone, and it’s not easy to replace, so definitely be selective with who you share it with.
Bottle, Bar or Bust: All 3 of us gave this a score of 90. Andy felt he was being nice with that score. It’s definitely a step up from Blanton’s Original, but whether that step is worth over double the price is a decision you’re going to have to make. Bar for sure (if you’re at a bar overseas) and Bottle for sure if someone can get it for you in the UK for $80 like they did for me. I probably wouldn’t pay the $135 price tag it’s fetching in the States. As for my comparison experiment, the taste isn’t very close to Rock Hill Farms.
BLANTON’S STRAIGHT FROM THE BARREL (SFTB)
Also sold internationally in 750 mL bottles is the Blanton’s Straight From the Barrel (SFTB). The handwritten, workmanlike label lends a unique look to the bottle. It’s been viewed as the “Fifth Beatle” of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and, like the barrel proof members of the BTAC family (Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye, George T. Stagg Bourbon, and William Larue Weller Bourbon), the proof varies from barrel to barrel. Ours was dumped in 2015 and weighs in at 128.5 proof.
How We Drank It: NEAT glasses, what else for this beast?
Color: Really dark amber entering brown territory. Andy called it “pretty.”
Our Noses Noticed: The alcohol vapor was strong and I had trouble pulling distinct flavors from it neat. After a few drops of water, I got rye spice and tons of syrup. Andy guessed it might be a rye but predicted a sweet flavor when he tasted it. After some water and a swirl, he called the nose “beautiful.” Brad got caramel, sea salt and some pear.
First Sips: Brad immediately jumped on the mouthfeel: “outstanding.” Andy let it coat his mouth, again and again, enjoying the caramel and cinnamon flavor burst from the higher proof. I got a lot of heat, then wood, caramel, and vanilla. The syrup I enjoyed on the nose lingered into the finish. Brad also tasted the wood and vanilla, along with butterscotch. He wondered if this one was wheated and guessed it was aged longer than ten years.
The Burn: Spectacular. Long finish with some rye spice.
Neat, Splash or Rocks: Like the best barrel proofers, the monster proof is kept in check and no one was even close in guessing the actual ABV. That being said, a little water creates magic with this one.
Share With: Since it will set you back $150 or so, and cannot be purchased in any store domestically, this isn’t a bottle you want to pour for everyone. It’s that rare treat that will be appreciated and remembered for years to come by your closest friends.
Bottle, Bar or Bust: With scores of 94,95 and 96, the SFTB was hands down the champion. It may not reach the greatness of the William Larue Weller, but it’s also a quarter of the aftermarket price. Even at $150, this is an easy Bottle recommendation and should be on the shelf of every serious bourbon enthusiast.
The Battle of the Blanton’s didn’t work out exactly as I had planned, but I still consider it a huge success because of what it demonstrated to all three of us. The SFTB is the real deal. If you learn nothing else from this article, consider yourself duly warned that buying any single-barrel bourbon, even from a longstanding, legendary brand, still carries potential risk.