These days, there are a handful of “unicorn” bourbons. Names like Weller or Pappy Van Winkle immediately bring a tear to the eye of whiskey drinkers, both for the beauty of the contents and the sharp pain to their wallet. One of the more recent additions to that list is Blanton’s, a whiskey that has been around since the 1980’s but only has become truly popular in the last decade.
Back in the 1980’s, whiskey wasn’t really that popular. Distilleries were going out of business left and right, but two businessmen named Ferdie Falk and Bob Baranaskas saw an opportunity. They had spent their careers in the beverage business and decided to quit their jobs, purchase the Ancient Age brand and the George T. Stagg Distillery, and try to make the business (dubbed Age International) work. They found success by focusing not on the American market but instead on exporting American whiskey overseas.
Noting the success of brands like Four Roses, they saw the need to produce a premium brand of whiskey. Drawing inspiration from a former master distiller of their facility named Col. Albert Blanton, they created a new line of bourbon that did something new: nothing. Literally, nothing. No blending or mixing the contents of the barrel. Instead, the contents of selected barrels that were of a superior quality were poured directly into the bottles and shipped out.
The newly minted Blanton’s bourbon was released first in Japan in 1984 as the world’s first generally available single barrel bourbon, eventually making its way to the United States and being available worldwide. The brand continued to see increased success and popularity, but things really started taking off as the bourbon craze in the US kicked into high gear.
Starting in 2013, each run started to be “allocated” — meaning that each store could only order a limited quantity in an effort to make sure there was enough to go around. But even that effort wasn’t enough, and ever since about 2016 the bottles have been nearly impossible to find on store shelves. That scarcity has only added to the appeal of the bourbon and, as a result, the bottle commands a considerable price on the secondary market at whiskey auctions.
Age International was sold in 1992 to the Japanese spirits company Takara Shuzo, who still owns it to today.
The whiskey that eventually becomes Blanton’s is produced under contract by Buffalo Trace. It’s the same distillery where it has always been produced, but over the years the distillery was sold to Sazerac. This whiskey uses the “mashbill #2” formula for the grains, which is reportedly a high rye content version of their grain mixture — but the exact proportions are not disclosed. This is reportedly the same whiskey source as Ancient Age, the original whiskey produced by Age International.
Once the grains are milled, cooked, and fermented they are distilled and placed into new charred oak barrels to age. Those barrels are then placed into Warehouse H, which is the only warehouse at Buffalo Trace with metal walls.
While there’s no indication of when this barrel was placed into the warehouse, the general understanding is that they sit there for about nine years before being bottled. In this case, this bourbon comes from barrel number 740 which was emptied on November 16th, 2020.
There are few bourbon bottles as iconic as the Blanton’s bottle. It’s one of the (many) reasons why this whiskey is as popular as it is today.
The bottle is a “hand grenade” shape, generally round and ball shaped with multiple facets. The bottle is topped with a short neck, and then an iconic metal and cork stopper. There are eight versions of this stopper, denoted by the letters in the name “BLANTON’S”, that depict a horseback rider racing towards the finish line. It’s a wonderful nod to the horse racing history of Kentucky.
The bottle is wrapped with an aged paper wrapper that has some basic information about the contents, including the hand-written details of where and when the whiskey comes from.
Everything about this packaging shows the highest level of care and attention that goes into the bottle. Even the smallest detail, like the wax seal on the bottle, is designed to come apart in a wonderfully easy and aesthetically pleasing manner.
For me, this packaging is as close to perfect as I’ve seen.
The bourbon here is an absolutely beautiful, dark amber color. It lightens up a little bit when you pour out just a glass, but its still just the perfect shade.
Taking a whiff of the glass, it smells just as a nicely balanced and well-saturated bourbon should. There’s some darker notes up front, starting with something that’s just on the edge between “toasted caramel” and “charred wood.” From there, a little bit of brown sugar and vanilla joins the mix, along with some cinnamon spice and some fruity aspects like cherry, fresh pear, and a little hint of apple.
The weight of the spirit is right on the money for sipping, but it might prove to be an issue with cocktails. While this is a single barrel expression, it isn’t “cask strength” — the whiskey has been diluted or “proofed down” to 46.5% alcohol by volume to improve the experience and to make the whiskey last a little longer on the bottling line.
As for the flavors, they are once again spot on for a good bourbon and follow pretty well from the aroma. The charred oak notes cross the line more towards the charred side of the flavor spectrum here, but that cherry flavor remains from the darker aspects. The brown sugar is more of a sticky toffee caramel with a hint of vanilla, sweeter and richer than usual, and is accompanied by a hint of sourdough bread. On the finish, there’s a little bit of pear and some black pepper spice from that rye content, which lingers nicely into the aftertaste.
Usually, adding a little bit of ice washes out the weaker flavors while toning down the more annoying or richer aspects. For a bitter or overly dark whiskey this can be a good thing, but for something that is already pretty well balanced and delicious when taken neat, it can be a real buzzkill.
That’s partially what is happening here. The darker aspects of the charred wood have all but disappeared, leaving only a bit of brown sugar and caramel vanilla in their place. There’s still a good bit of cinnamon spice in there, and the black pepper from the rye content is still present at the end, but overall this a more mellow and less exciting version of what we saw when taken neat.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
This is pretty good. It isn’t great, but it’s damn drinkable.
Usually, I like a bit more of the darker tones to be present in my old fashioned cocktails, providing a richer experience overall. In this case, though, those darker tones have been pretty much wiped out by the ice, leaving behind only the usual suspects from a bourbon (the caramel, vanilla, and black peppery spice). Those flavors do pair nicely with the fruits in the angostura bitters to make a drinkable and enjoyable old fashioned, but it just isn’t something that will blow your socks off.
I realize that using Blanton’s in a Kentucky Mule might seem sacrilegious, but there’s a reason we use a mule as the final test. It’s a tough challenge, with a whole bunch of loud flavors that need wrangling and usually only a really good bourbon can tame that beast.
In this case, we come through with flying colors. The caramel and vanilla notes pair wonderfully with the ginger beer, adding a bit of sweetness that is much appreciated. But that’s not all: the fruity aspects from the whiskey also make a strong appearance, and that cherry flavor in particular shines through nicely to add some complexity to the drink. And, finally, the peppery spice from the rye content adds a little bit of a kick at the end.
It’s surprisingly good.
This is a really good bourbon. It isn’t amazing, and I didn’t feel like I had a religious experience tasting it. But it was damn good. It seems purpose built to be a good sipping whiskey, perfectly balanced and delicious right out of the bottle with nothing added. But if you do choose to make it into a cocktail, there’s some good flavors that it brings to the party. Not my favorite old fashioned, but a surprisingly great mule.
What really elevates this bourbon is the packaging. The experience is a huge component of whiskey drinking, and some really good packaging and bottling can definitely take things to the next level. In this case the bottle is truly unique and looks great on the shelf, offers a nice conversation piece for parties, and feels good to pour. For sure something to chalk up in the win category.
Something I do need to note, however, is that we evaluate whiskey relative to the listed MSRP of the bottle. A three star whiskey at $40 might be a five star whiskey at $10. So while this is absolutely a great bourbon to pick up at the ~$60 MSRP, I’m not sure it is worth the ~$160 I see it going for on auction sites. I think the cachet of the brand and its scarcity are driving up prices, which is unfortunate. It really isn’t worth all that fuss, and there are much better bottles up at that price point on your store shelves.
|Blanton's Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey|
Kentucky, United States
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 46.5% ABV
Price: $66.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 4/5
A truly great bourbon for your collection… if you can get it for MSRP.