Benchmark Collection: Full Proof and Bonded

Benchmark has been by go to cheap mixable bourbon for a long time. After I got introduced to the good folks at Buffalo Trace by a friend who worked for Sazerac as an accountant, I had asked them which of their low end bourbons they would recommend, Benchmark or Ancient Age. They recommended Benchmark, which is a bourbon they own, while Ancient Age, like Blanton’s, is owned by the former owners of the distillery, Age International. Benchmark is made from the same low rye mashbill for which Buffalo Trace and Stagg are famous. Until recently, it had only been offered in an 80 proof version. I used Benchmark when creating my Bourbon Baller daiquiri recipe. Even at 80 proof, it has a lot of great bourbon flavor. Benchmark is labelled as a straight bourbon whiskey, meaning that if there is no age statement, it is at least four years old.

In line with Buffalo Trace’s expanding warehouses and even the addition of a new still, they have expanded Benchmark from a single bottle to a collection of different bourbons. Now there is Top Floor (86 proof), Small Batch (90 proof), Single Barrel (95 proof), Bonded (100 proof, of course), and Full Proof (125 proof). Hokus Pokus recently got some of these new releases in, and being the proof hound I am, I bought the Bonded and Full Proof. What is absolutely stunning is the price. The Bonded was no kidding $20 and the Full Proof was $23. In other places you might see these marked up a little bit, but probably no more than $30.

Benchmark Bonded – The label reminds us of an element of the Bottled in Bond Act, meaning that the whiskey must be distilled by a single distiller during a single season, which now means a year. The bonded designation also assures that this whiskey is four years old. The color on this is a medium amber, with some shimmers of straw and mahogany. On the swirl is a thin film but with very slow almost gravity defying legs. On the nose is lots of caramel, some vanilla, and citrus notes. Very nice. On the palate, the citrus notes are met with brown sugar, caramel, vanilla, and some nice baking spices. On the finish, vanilla and clove linger and linger, although there is a slight youthful bitterness of the finish. Yes, this $20 screw top bottle of bonded bourbon is perfectly quaffable neat. At 100 proof this would be a go to for a cocktail. If this ultimately becomes something I can get all of the time I could see this being my everyday cocktail hour bourbon.

Benchmark Full Proof – Sazerac has really made full proof one of their go to products in the 1792 and Weller lines. So it is fitting they have added a 125 proof bottling to the Benchmark lineup. A $23 bottle of close to cask strength bourbon is unheard of. The color on this is much darker than the bonded, owing to how very little water they added when they proofed it to 125. They probably added maybe a thimble of water to the whole barrel. Very solid amber. On the swirl this bourbon has big thick oily legs. On the nose brown sugar is the dominant note, along with some vanilla and caramel. On the palate, On the palate, the brown sugar persists but is now intertwined with Caribbean vanilla, caramel, milk chocolate, and cinnamon. On the finish, the cinnamon starts turning to clove and really lingers on with some vanilla notes in the background. This is a really good high proof bourbon.

Six years ago, Stagg Jr. (now Stagg) was my go to after dinner cask strength bourbon. Hokus almost always had it, it was around $40, and it was awesome. When Stagg became super allocated, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel became my go to. When I couldn’t get that anymore on the regular, Knob Creek Single Barrel became my go to. Both are in the near $50 range. When I can’t get Knob Creek Single Barrel, I typically opt for Four Roses Small Batch Select, which I did the other day when I bought the Benchmark bottles. If Benchmark Full Proof becomes something I can get off the shelf whenever I want at Hokus Pokus (which is possible given Sazerac’s new distributorship scheme), then this $23 bottle of really good bourbon is one I will start buying by the case.

I know that some have given Benchmark Full Proof negative reviews; palates do vary. But I think this is excellent and likely constitutes Sazerac’s latest attempt to upend the bourbon market. They have continued to maintain reasonable prices on their products (I recently bought a bottle of George T. Stagg for $150 at Hokus, which is unheard of and only happens because Hokus applies their regular mark up to what the distributor charges, which is set by Sazerac.) Even though demand currently vastly outstrips supply for Sazerac products, they are playing a long game by ramping up production to meet that demand and keeping prices reasonable so the demand will still be there when supply finally meets demand.

I had my wife, Catherine, who truly has a better palate than mine, try both, and she liked them. I have her try all manner of whiskies I review blind, and she is quick to say if something is not good or has something off putting.

Benchmark Full Proof, Bonded, and the other releases tells me that Sazerac wants their products to be every drinker’s go to. While they make most of their money on Taaka Vodka and Fireball, they continue to innovate new whiskies at affordable price points to get bourbon drinkers, including aficionados, as their regular customers. As I have been told when I have visited Buffalo Trace distillery, “y’all just keep drinking everything we make!” Yes, we do, because everything you make is really really good. Benchmark Full Proof and Bonded are no exceptions.

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