Blanton’s – The Whiskey That Began The Bourbon Premiumization Revolution

Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon continues to be a sought after bourbon in today’s bourbon boom. Some folks love it, some folks think it is over-hyped. But, one thing is for certain, Blanton’s began a premiumization of bourbon that took hold and changed bourbon and how we consume it.

Elmer T. Lee created Blanton’s in 1984, during some of bourbon’s darkest days. Back then, the number of bourbons in the market had dwindled, and most bourbon producers focused on making a consistent product for mass production, rather than specialty products aimed at individual tastes. Single Barrel and small batch bourbons were not a thing. The Weller distillery shut down; Four Roses was made solely for export.

Blanton’s started it all. A timeline:

1984 – Blanton’s Single Barrel introduced by Age International

1986 – Elijah Craig Small Batch introduced by Heaven Hill

1989 – Van Winkle 15 Year old released by Van Winkle (1994 – became Pappy Van Winkle)

1992 – Jim Beam creates the Small Batch Collection (Booker’s, Baker’s, Knob Creek, and Basil Hayden’s, with the first three being age stated)

1994 – Wild Turkey releases Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel

1996 – Brown-Forman introduces Woodford Reserve and restarts distilling in Woodford County.

1999 – Sazerac gets into the distilling business, buys Ancient Age and renames it Buffalo Trace, buys the Weller brand name, and the premiumization of bourbon really takes off among all of the different major producers. Bourbon brands begin to multiply at an exponential rate.

There may be some others I have missed in the timeline, but, in my view, this fifteen year period was when things really started to change in the bourbon world. I peg this time period as the time when bourbon finally began to recover from prohibition and those damn boomers who started drinking cheap white wine as a cocktail. I started drinking all manner of bourbons in college, from 1989 to 1993, but mostly on the cheap end. Jim Beam, Henry McKenna, Maker’s Mark, Jack Daniel’s, and Evan Williams were all on my bar. Jim Beam Rye was a thing after a fraternity convention in Florida. Weller was a common purchase that I mixed with coke or put in a shot glass. Hard to believe now. But, going to a southern college in Tennessee and being from Louisiana, bourbon was definitely the thing, when obviously it wasn’t in the rest of the country. In 1993 I tried my first Booker’s bourbon, not long after it came out. It became a special occasion bourbon for me and my friends – getting married, scoring a new job, or a long awaited guys trip to somewhere. After law school in the late 1990’s, Woodford Reserve was really becoming a thing among me and my bourbon drinking friends. Law firm retreats were often marked with copious amounts of this bourbon. The 2000’s was a golden age for long time bourbon drinkers. Buying a bottle of Weller, Blanton’s, Elmer T. Lee, or Booker’s was easy. They were just on the shelves and easy to get. Picking up a bottle of Weller 12 for a weekend was not a big deal. It was special, yes, but it was merely saying, hey, I am going to spend a few bucks more for something really good.

I don’t know if it was the financial crisis, the cocktail movement, the general “foodie” trend in society, or me being made a brand ambassador for Buffalo Trace (Friend of the Trace) in 2010 (lol), but starting in 2010 bourbon demand skyrocketed and over the last ten years has outstripped supply. Bourbons that were easy to get and considered by me to be daily drinkers are now allocated, including Sazerac’s mainline bourbon, Buffalo Trace. Fellow Friends of the Trace have questioned as to whether we are our own worst enemies in this time of increased demand for bourbon. If you keep telling everyone about the good bourbon, you may find yourself unable to get that bourbon anymore. This blog, for sure, is definitely self defeating if my goal was to ensure supply of my favorite bourbons. But, I continue to be an optimist – the more bourbon demand there is the better, as it will ensure good supplies long into the future. Some folks regret premiumization and “hype” of bourbon. I am all for it. Given where bourbon came from in the 1980’s compared to what we have now, and the fact that aged bourbon is a long term investment for producers, I want that demand to be there to ensure I can still get great bourbon twenty years from now.

So, what is Blanton’s Single Barrel, exactly, from a technical standpoint? It is the “high rye” recipe bourbon at Buffalo Trace distillery, that is also used for Elmer T. Lee, Rock Hill Farms, and Ancient Age bourbons. Sometimes this “high rye” recipe finds its way into Eagle Rare or Col. E.H. Taylor bourbons but most of these bottles are from the low rye recipe. Some of my bourbon drinking friends dispute that Buffalo Trace’s “high rye” recipe is really high rye compared to say Old Grand Dad or others, but I detect heavier herbal notes in bourbons from this recipe than I do in “low rye” recipe bourbons from Buffalo Trace. The labels with the “high rye” recipe that predate Sazerac’s purchase of Buffalo Trace are still owned by Age International in Japan and licensed to Sazerac to produce. Someone posted this funny cartoon in a Facebook bourbon group, and it is surprisingly accurate despite the fact that it is poking fun at Blanton’s for being overhyped.

Blanton’s is Ancient Age juice, and it is aged in Warehouse H at Buffalo Trace, which is a metal warehouse that retains more heat. Further, Blanton’s comes from what is called the “Prime Cut” of the warehouse, which is the center racks (aka not close to the floor or the ceiling). While it is “allocated”, it didn’t use to be. It was generally available and I remember when Hokus Pokus was hand selling it to customers to get them to try it. There may be a “false value” but it isn’t the product of allocation by the distillery, it is a product of America’s recent and seeming insatiable demand for quality bourbon. Buffalo Trace never intended for this bourbon to be allocated, much less its regular Buffalo Trace bourbon. As I was told at Buffalo Trace a few years ago, “Y’all keep drinking everything we make!”

The standard Blanton’s release in the United States is 93 proof, and soon Blanton’s Gold will be released in the U.S. at 103 proof. Blanton’s Straight from the Barrel is only available in international markets at this point, but I did get to sample some. Really good stuff that deserves a place in the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection.

In December, Hokus Pokus did a barrel pick of Blanton’s that was sold out quickly primarily to customers who bought tickets to a whiskey tasting even in December. This is the first store pick of Blanton’s I have ever tried, so I am interested to see how it tastes.

Color is a medium amber; this was aged for probably seven years or so and watered down from a much higher proof. Very nice thick legs on the swirl though. On the nose is apples and mild cinnamon, herbal tea, honey, and vanilla. On the palate, this bourbon is medium bodied tending toward being a little thin, with the herbal notes being very prominent but nicely balanced with fruity sweetness. On the finish, the flavors continue but some black pepper shows up. The finish is dry and very long. The finish is definitely high class.

Pretty good bourbon. Not my particular favorite bourbon sipping it neat – I prefer higher proof and more full bodied bourbon, 100 proof or more. But the finish is amazing.

I decided to compare the store pick to a bottle from 2016 I have on my bar.

For being single barrel bourbons, these two bottles are very consistent in flavor. The store pick tastes a hair better, and the finish is a little longer, but not markedly different.

But, is Blanton’s over-hyped? Not really, given what else is allocated nowadays. But, back in 1984, when most bourbons were 80 to 86 proof and aged only about four years, this bourbon would indeed have been something really special. It has a fruity herbal profile, which a lot of bourbon drinkers like, and has this extremely long quality finish.

Five years ago, if someone had asked me if they should buy Blanton’s or not with its hefty price tag, I would have recommended they go with say Eagle Rare, Elmer T. Lee, or Col. E.H. Taylor Bottled in Bond, as a value proposition. But now, these are all bourbons that are harder to get than hen’s teeth, if you can find a bottle of Blanton’s at regular retail, yes, pick it up. It has an elegant long finish and its initial release represents an important moment in bourbon history, that definitely changed bourbon for the better.

One thought on “Blanton’s – The Whiskey That Began The Bourbon Premiumization Revolution

  1. Pingback: Drinking with the man himself: Elmer T. Lee and Elmer T. Lee 100 Year Tribute | The Whiskey Jar

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