DUAL REVIEW: Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon

Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon
Buffalo Trace/Age International — 93 Proof

In honor of the Derby, we’ve decided to run our first ever dual review. RCP and I each sampled and reviewed Blanton’s separately, and combined our thoughts here. We’d like to thank John Shutt at Age International for generously providing our review materials.

RCP

Blanton’s just seems right to review for Derby week.  I know it’s not the official bourbon of that most historic of horse races, but with its dapper stopper series depicting a horseback jockey in stop-motion stride, it seems fair to call it the unofficial bourbon of bluegrass horse racing.  So after you don your seersucker and quaff that annual mint julep, there’s no need to drop the equestrian tableau just because you bet on some bob-tailed-nag in the hopes of a 50-1 payout.

Blanton’s enjoyed a reputation as “the original single barrel whiskey” prior to the bourbon craze that caused markets to boom, prices to rise, and shelves to empty.  Considered a high end bourbon even before it had so many labels to compete with, its reputation (among consumers and popular media alike) has made it increasingly scarce.  Finding a bottle isn’t the impossibility it has become with Buffalo Trace’s Antiques, but you might just find the one.

The nose is pleasant and warm to me, oaky with notes of orange and lemon and honey, almost like a hot-toddy.  The palate actually is a little hot, still smooth, but the spice seems to drive some of the caramel and vanilla flavors underground, leaving you with fairly flat corn.  The finish is pretty stiff, too, and lasts.  I’ve read others describe this as “lean,” and I taste the appropriateness of that adjective, almost like a scrappy boxer that doesn’t have the moves for a KO but won’t stop punching, either.  There’s something here I can’t quite put my finger on, either, in how the sweet nose turns so hot on the palate, or how that caramel chew tastes different at each stage.

Value: Medium – at $50+, this has some stiff competition in its price bracket from both craft and big name brands.

Drinkability: Medium – this isn’t a beginner bourbon, but it’s challenging without the complexity that some more critical bourbon fans are looking for.

Overall Rating: 8.5

*****

MCH

There’s an indisputable “entity”—equal parts history, nostalgia, and maybe something best described as good taste—that tethers thoroughbred horse racing and Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey. No label exemplifies this connection more than Blanton’s. It’s the granddaddy of modern single barrel bourbon as we know it. And it’s known the world over for the series of seven jockey figurines, one which adorns the cork of each and every bottle.

Your first sniff is going to be oaky, but not earthy. There are strong notes of spicy citrus—which is what I think gives the wood a “cleaner” character. A discerning drinker will pick up slighter hints of caramel and vanilla through the spice, but it’s definitely not a candy store nose. The spicy citrus is a harbinger of things to come: your first sip will produce a medium heat on the tip of the tongue, but that will quickly dissipate. The main flavor of Blanton’s is a mixture of oak and peppery citrus—those hints of caramel on the nose are mostly drowned out of the profile, but manage to peak through every so often. The finish on Blanton’s is, in my humble opinion, it’s most endearing quality. Expect a long, warm finish—this isn’t a flamethrower (i.e., Booker’s), though, so think “low and slow”—paired with a much sweeter aftertaste that offsets some of the lingering spice very nicely.

If you’re not initially thrilled with Blanton’s flavor profile, I would urge you to add a dash of water or a pair of rocks. The water will help unlock a little bit of the sweetness hidden down deep in the bourbon and add just a little bit of balance to the wood and spice. At the end of the day, Blanton’s flavor profile makes it a bourbon drinker’s bourbon. And, contrary to what you might be thinking, this is actually a very, very good thing. As the bourbon craze continues to spread and old middle of the road drinks suddenly reemerge as “luxury labels” (with costs to match) and the price tags on more established premiums jump from obscene to outrageously obscene—assuming you can even find it to bankrupt yourself paying for it!—there is something timeless about Blanton’s. There’s something very comforting in the fact that there will always be a consistently good, single barrel bourbon with a great history that I won’t have to win at a raffle or fret about the demise of its “original stock.” In other words, there is something comforting in the fact that there will always be Blanton’s on Derby Day. And perhaps more importantly, on the day after when you find those losing tickets in your coat pocket. (A maiden to win the Derby? What were you thinking…)

Value: High – I’m bullish on Blanton’s as a value buy—there’s an intangible mystique to Blanton’s, something about it paired with a well-lit Hemingway Short Story, that just feels worth the $50-$60 price tag.

Drinkability: Medium – This isn’t a great “starter bourbon,” mainly because some of the flavor profile is fleeting and/or difficult to locate. I would bump this rating to high, however, when rocks are added to the equation. Just a touch of cool water seems to cut some of the spice and lets more of the sweetness – mostly caramel to me – shine through.

Overall Rating: 8.6

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REVIEW: Michter’s Single Barrel Rye

Single Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey
Michter’s Distillery – 84.8 Proof

michrye1.jpg
Michter’s Single Barrel Rye, 42.4% ABV

It will come as a surprise to some of you—and I’m sure is fully expected by others—that there are bartenders out there who do not like to see me walk through the door and claim an empty stool.  This has nothing to do with endless questions about the bourbon list or repeated requests for peanut bowl refills (though both will occur).  Since I generally keep to myself, I doubt it has much to do with irksome inanities (“Some Brave’s game, right?”), and my preference for neat bourbon and traditional cocktails doesn’t send them diving into Mr. Boston’s table of contents or the downstairs buffet’s pantry (“What do you mean no freshly grated cardamon?”).  But when I do order a cocktail, I utter words that cause bartenders and bourbon snobs alike to cringe, the occasional jukebox to halt mid-song and skip.

“Well whiskey is fine.”

I do not call whiskey for mixing.  I will gladly call for something neat or on the rocks, but when adding a hefty dose of sweet liqueur, plain old cane sugar, and garnish, the first thing behind the bar will be fine.  If it’s on a shelf—even the bottom one—I consider pouring it in Coke or ginger a criminal offense.  There is a rule of diminishing returns at work here, in which I hypothesize that the more flavors a whiskey is going to be mixed with, the less you get out of using an expensive whiskey.  This hardly seems controversial, but it’s never that hard to find someone at the bar who’ll brag that they won’t touch a Manhattan without a fifteen-year-old base.

But at home, or in the hands of someone who really knows what they’re doing, this rule doesn’t always apply.  While traveling a few years ago I happened into an establishment of the type where the bartenders prefer to be called mixologists and the bar approaches the realm of chemistry lab.  Trusting in their skills I relayed some of my preferred tastes and left the final product up to them.  It was delicious, and my first question was about the rye they used.  Michter’s Single Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey has been a staple of mine ever since.

In case you missed our sampling of their Small Batch Bourbon, we’re pretty big fans of the Michter’s brand at B&B, and this second review from their US 1 lineup is no different.  Like the bourbon, the rye was only bottled by Michter’s, not distilled by them, and there is no age statement on the bottle.  And, as with the bourbon, I recommend you get past that.  Sure, there’s something to be said for shepherding your product from farm to bottle, but there’s also something to be said for being able to purchase premium distillate with a flavor profile you’ve sought out, to say nothing of the skill involved in proofing—and this rye is a very specific 84.8 proof.

The nose on the Single Barrel Rye is heavy with vanilla bean, a flavor that carries through the first sip, and light with cured tobacco, which does not.  Sweet and aromatic, this opens on the tongue with sugary cola, like an old fashioned vanilla Coke mixed fresh in front of you at a drug store soda fountain or diner.  There’s macerated black cherry and a campfire char—not the smokey peat of a scotch, but something sweet, more maple than oak—just before you swallow, when you get some rye spice but very little burn.  I love the complexity of this stuff.  Neat, it reminds me of some of my favorite challenging bourbons—a compliment that I wouldn’t give out lightly—and it won’t hide in a mixed drink but will noticeably elevate it.

michrye2.jpgValue: Very High—At around $40, this is like going to the track with an inside tip on an unlikely horse that will pay off big.  My advice is to bet on it.  I could see this leaving empty shelf space at $60-$65, though I hope it doesn’t happen.

Drinkability: Medium-High—This is a bold and chewy rye with some of the most distinct flavors I’ve come across.  The thin, airy, constant notes of a highly drinkable whiskey can be easily missed, which is why I give Michter’s Rye a lower rating here.  This stuff reminds you that you’re drinking it, but if you like fuller whiskies, you’ll be glad it did.

Overall Rating: 9.0

* Special thanks to Lillie O’Connell and the folks at Michter’s for a review sample.

Christmas Spirits: The 2015 Bowtied & Bourboned Holiday Shopping Guide

Christmas Spirits:
The 2015 Bowtied & Bourboned Holiday Shopping Guide

5d31dc860ea7fd604a4e279e14f65cc4.jpgHave someone on your Christmas list that you know would love some whiskey, but not sure what to buy? You aren’t alone. Not everyone can win—or afford to win—local raffles for Pappy 15, Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, or a Four Roses Limited Edition. Or maybe you’d like a bottle for yourself, but need to give St. Nick some options? It’s easy to get overwhelmed: new labels seem to appear on liquor store shelves daily; bottle art gets fancier and fancier (while providing less and less information about age and distillation); and prices seem to be rising steadily. So let Bowtied & Bourboned help make sure you get the most bang for your buck! Below are our recommendations for thoughtful holiday shopping on a range of budgets. We guarantee these spirits will keep everyone jolly enough to ward off a visit from the Krampus!

MCH – Picks

Henry McKenna Single Barrel ($25-30) – Henry McKenna isn’t as sought after as its cousins, the older and rarer incarnations of Elijah Craig, but that’s not necessarily to say it shouldn’t be. It’s aged 10 years and smooth enough to constitute a perfectly respectable offering for both friends and family. (Or to keep for yourself!) Moreover, McKenna has the added cache of being a single barrel selection, which is admittedly rare in this price range. At the end of the day, it’s a great workhorse bourbon. Drink it neat, on the rocks, or, at around  $28 in most markets, mix it without an ounce of guilt. This is a widely available label and a very thoughtful choice for smaller budgets.

Basil Hayden’s ($40) – Though priced in the mid-range, this small batch bourbon punches above its weight class. Don’t let 80 proof fool you, this is a smooth sipper but its rye content gives it a spicy, peppery flavor and makes it anything but bland. This one is on similar footing with the E. H. Taylor Small Batch (see RCP’s comments below) and it also happens to be one of the more attractively packaged bourbons in this price range.

WhistlePig Straight Rye ($75) – If you’re looking for whiskey in the upper echelon but can’t track down something from the Antique Collection or a Special Edition, this is your ticket. (And it might be a better choice than some of the aforementioned even if you can get your hands on them.) An incredibly smooth blend of caramel, vanilla, and rye spice, this is a can’t miss gift—and as WhistlePig isn’t as well-known as its counterparts in Kentucky, you might get the added bonus of introducing the label to its lucky recipient.

RCP – Picks

Bulleit Kentucky Straight Bourbon Frontier Whiskey ($20-$30) – Bulleit checks several boxes on the list of “gift bourbon” criteria. Aside from being an easy but respectable pour, it has that unique ubiquitous-from-the-fringe reputation that will engender an “Oh I’ve heard of this but haven’t tried it yet” upon opening. At $25, you won’t swear at the host who spills a dram of your hospitality into their eggnog. Finally, since ‘tis the season for honesty, the bottle actually is cool, and it matches the moniker “Frontier Whiskey” so well that you can be sure they’ll proudly display it and hope guests ask about the time they arm wrestled John Wayne—and won.

history-print-ads-from-wild-turkey-bourbon.w654.jpgRussell’s Reserve 10 Year Small Batch ($30-$40) – Wild Turkey is a household name in the bourbon industry, and this small batch stands on the shoulders of giants and takes a big leap. Russell’s Reserve isn’t like some of the “craft” offerings from other big family name distilleries that taste like leftover well-pours. It’s original and delicious at a responsible value, the kind of bourbon you give your boss or father in law to prove you don’t have to concede quality to stay on a budget.

Colonel E. H. Taylor, Jr – If you’re keeping up with MCH’s serialized biography, “Becoming the Colonel,” you have all the reason you need to be enthusiastic about this nattily attired offering from Buffalo Trace Distillery. A unique bottle and container make the introductory Small Batch ($40) a great gift, but I wouldn’t put it in the stocking of a bourbon novice: It’s chewy and spicy, with more nutmeg than cinnamon, but its complexity and 100 proof bottling can be challenging. If you don’t have someone to wrap this for, hope a bottle finds its way under your tree. If your name’s squarely on the “Nice” list, you might just earn the Single Barrel ($70) or Rye ($70), with Happy New Year included.