There are some things that grab my attention and make me want to check out a bottle of whiskey I’ve heard about. Sometimes it’s an interesting background. Sometimes there’s a distillation process that I find intriguing. In this case, it was something on the bottle itself. Benchmark claimed that this was the benchmark against which all other whiskey is judged. With a bold claim like that, I knew I needed to put it to the test.
The Seagram company started as a Canadian distillery in 1857 and grew to become one of the biggest spirits companies in Canada. During prohibition in the United States, the owners of the company reportedly participated in bootlegging operations to bring their product into the US, and as a result paid $1.5 million in fines in 1930 (significantly less than the $60 million the US government asked for).
Post-prohibition, once again able to do business unimpeded in the United States, the Seagram corporation decided to create a couple new brands of whiskey to satiate the American market. The two brands they developed were Seagram’s 5 Crown and Seagram’s 7 Crown. Those two brands would continue to be their biggest revenue generators throughout the rest of Seagram’s history.
Sometime in the late 1960’s, though, Seagrams decided to start a premium brand labeled as Benchmark Bourbon. Produced at the same facility as Four Roses, the label would never get to the same level as its other flagship brands, but it hobbled along throughout the company’s history.
Over time between the late 1980s to their eventual dissolution in the early 2000s, the various divisions of the company were carved out and sold to larger beverage manufacturers. The mixers division was sold to Coca Cola, who still produces them under the Seagram’s name. As for the classic 7 Crown whiskey, that transferred over to the UK based Diageo, who still produce it to this day in their Norwalk, CT plant.
Benchmark Bourbon was one of the earlier sales, leaving the company for the Sazerac corporation in 1989. Sazerac put the label under their Buffalo Trace brand, producing the whiskey at the same Frankfort, Kentucky distillery as the name brand Buffalo Trace.
Following the move to Buffalo Trace, the name “McAffee’s” was added to the label, named after Hancock McAfee who was one of the early settlers in the area where Buffalo Trace is not produced.
- Learn More: What Is Bourbon Whiskey?
The whiskey is made at the same facility that produces Buffalo Trace. As such, it’s likely that the whiskey comes from the same source, which starts as an undisclosed mixture of corn, rye, and malted barley. And since this is a bourbon, we can assume that at least half of that grain bill is corn, but the exact mixture is not disclosed.
From there, the mash is fermented and distilled before being placed into new charred oak barrels. There’s no age statement on the bottle, but as a Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, that spirit needs to sit in the barrel for a minimum of at least two years.
From there the whiskey is bottled and shipped.
It’s a Jack Daniel’s bottle. How is this not a JD bottle? It’s square shaped, sports a black label with white lettering and has an “8” prominently on the front of the bottle. Which is interesting. Jack is “Old No. 7,” and this is numbered as “8.” Does that mean they’re one better than Jack?
Besides basically being in a Jack Daniel’s bottle and ripping off their trade dress in an almost complete (but legally distinguishable) way, there’s not much unique about the packaging. The glass bottle is capped with a black screw-on top that isn’t shrink wrapped for shipment.
It’s a fine design, but it’s a design that we’ve seen many times before. This isn’t the “original” packaging — that bottle is described more as a decanter — so there’s no history in this except for the “Benchmark” name.
The first things I get coming off the glass are caramel and corn, very sweet aromas with a bit of earthy hay in the background. It’s a pretty standard bourbon aroma, inoffensive but not very complex.
The liquid is fairly light, in both flavor and weight. There isn’t much “punch” to it. The flavor starts out almost the same as a blended grain whiskey, rather bland and uninteresting. After a minute on the tongue, that flavor starts to develop like a Polaroid picture, slowly adding the caramel and the vanilla notes that are more traditionally associated with a bourbon.
Overall, the experience is rather mediocre. It’s not bad — there’s no bitterness or bite, and the flavors are what you’d expect from a bourbon — but it’s not really pulling out all the stops to make the experience memorable.
Typically ice, when added to a whiskey, will dilute the flavor of the spirit and reduce the strength of the stronger elements, washing away the more delicate flavors.
But in this case, it’s like they built a tiny sandcastle, and a large icy wave wiped the whole beach clean.
There’s just nothing left. It’s bland and almost flavorless, almost like if a vodka had just woken up from a dream where it thought it was a whiskey and it’s hanging on to those last couple threads of the dream. There’s a couple hints of what it used to be but that’s it.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
This is literally just a cold glass of bitters and orange zest. There’s barely any flavor here, and the bitters are massively overpowering.
The only difference here is that the liquid is brown. Ish. More like dirty blonde.
The point of the mule test is to find out if the underlying spirit is strong enough to make a showing through the ginger beer, and sweet enough to balance the bitterness within. In this case, there’s just nothing to balance out.
I made a Moscow Mule. But with a weak whiskey instead of vodka. Either way it’s functionally the same, but slightly discolored.
There’s one other bottle that this reminds me of: Evan Williams Black Label. That’s another bottom shelf bourbon that comes from Kentucky, costs next to nothing, and comes in a squared body glass bottle with a black label. But that’s where the comparison ends, because Evan Williams actually brings the flavor.
This whiskey is like you took a batch of Kentucky Deluxe and shoved it into a glass bottle. Nothing to write home about, and distinctly lacking flavor.
|McAfee Benchmark Old No. 8 Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey|
Produced By: McAfeeProduction Location: Kentucky, United States
Owned By: Sazerac Company
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $14 / 750 ml
Overall Rating: 1/5
If this is the “benchmark” then the bench is so low that it has no legs.
Things may have changed in the past few years, but a couple of years ago, I had Benchmark in a vertical tasting flight consisting of Benchmark, Ancient Age, Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Blantons, and Elmer T. Lee. The consensus was that the Benchmark was better than similarly-priced (but more expensive) Ancient age and surprisingly close to the Eagle Rare (90% taste at 33% price?)… the primary difference being slightly more barrel influence (oak and char) and a “wet stone” flavor in the Benchmark that only a couple of us could taste.
I keep bottom-shelf stuff around for mixing and occasional sipping, and bang-for-the-buck, Benchmark usually rates similar to my other stand-bys from Heaven Hill: Evan Williams black (more flavor, 86 proof, $2/L more expensive), Henry McKenna (80 proof, $2/L more expensive), and JTS Brown (80 proof, $1/L less expensive).
I definitely agree that it is better that Ancient Age, but don’t think it is up to Eagle Rare or Buffalo Trace, although it has elements of both, and for me, a pleasant reminder of them. Blantons, IMO is in a whole nother league. Still, when I see it in the 5th size (I don’t like plastic), I pick it up. It is very pleasant on the rocks and think it should at least be a 2 star rating. I also like Evan Williams Black. Both are bank for the buck winners. I probably should give Mckenna another try. JTS Brown is not available in my area.
Benchmark shares the same mash bill #1 with Buffalo trace and eagle rare. Ancient age and Blanton are mash bill #2..
benchmark is essentially just a younger Buffalo trace or Eagle rare. It just comes off the top of the rickhouse instead of the middle or bottom. I’m itching to try some of the new expressions like the single barrel. BT is in the process of doubling its output and should have way more Buffalo trace and Eagle rare in 3-6 years on the shelves.