Benchmark … the name alone gives me shivers. Modern-day, 80-proof Benchmark is so low on my enjoyability scale, James Cameron can’t reach it. But how might a full-proof version with an extra year of aging fare? Let’s give this so-called “Baby Stagg” a try and find out.
Pour: Benchmark Full Proof
Age: at least 4 years
Nose: (grainy) corn, green apple, faint spice
Taste: (somewhat sharp) vanilla, tart oak, nutmeg
Finish: long w/ candy apple, caramel syrup, white pepper
Overall: If you’re looking for a young, high-proof bourbon for $25, Benchmark FP is here for you. Personally, Old Grand-Dad 114 is a better option (even if priced higher), but to each their own. It’s better than its 80-proof cousin, for whatever that’s worth.
Of the annual Buffalo Trace Antique Collection expressions, Thomas H. Handy rye is the undisputed underdog. One could even say it maintains a cult-like appreciation, with some veteran enthusiasts claiming it’s the best of the lineup. But is 2021’s release up to snuff?
Pour: Thomas H. Handy Straight Rye Whiskey (2021)
Age: not stated (reportedly 6 years)
Nose: ripe pear, dried pineapple, vanilla frosting
Taste: lemon cookie, boozy fruit rollup, sweet herbs
Finish: long w/ zesty citrus, vibrant oak, cayenne pepper
Overall: A fantastic example of what a six-year, barrel-proof rye should taste like – vibrant, complex, and dynamically spicy. If found at its $99 retail price, Handy is worth a purchase. Outside of that, there’s considerably better options.
Rating: It’s good, but settle down.
When you see Eagle Rare, you probably don’t think “Wild Turkey.” Yet, it’s generally accepted the 101-proof bourbon was created by Seagram’s in 1975 to compete with Wild Turkey 101. The brand was sold to Sazerac in 1989, its proof lowered in 2005, and the rest is hooch history.
Pour: Eagle Rare Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Age: 10 years
Color: rich amber
Nose: cherry-vanilla, sweet oak, hints of ripe orange
Taste: buttery caramel, honey-glazed apple, mild spice
Finish: moderate length – toasted sugar, charred oak, leather
Overall: I find it a bit funny that my favorite Buffalo Trace distilled whiskey started as a Wild Turkey knockoff. Nevertheless, Eagle Rare is a quality pour – an excellent representation of what well-aged bourbon should be. Sweet, balanced oak for $40.
Ever see what people are paying for Rock Hill Farms on secondary markets? Pathetic, right? I’m guessing they’ve never tasted the $50 John J. Bowman, a lesser-known, 100-proof, single-barrel bourbon from another Sazerac brand. Oh, well. As you’ll soon find out … their loss.
Pour: John J. Bowman Single Barrel Bourbon
Age: not stated (reportedly 9-10 years)
Nose: cherry-vanilla frosting, caramel, cream soda
Taste: dried fruit, butter toffee, nutmeg, sugar glaze
Finish: moderately long – sweet oak char, Luden’s cherry, faint pepper
Overall: They say John J. Bowman starts out as Buffalo Trace distillate. It’s redistilled twice over by A. Smith Bowman, then aged and bottled in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Whatever the process, it not only tastes like 100-proof Buffalo Trace, it tastes better.
Rating: Horsey killer.
Anyone dipping their toes into the bourbon enthusiasm pool will quickly learn that Weller is Pappy. Okay, maybe not Pappy, but kind of the same as Pappy. Okay, maybe not kind of the same as Pappy, but dammit they need it because it has something to do with Pappy.
Today, I’m tasting Weller Special Reserve. That’s right – the supposed-to-be-priced-at $25, 90-proof, wheated mash bill, Buffalo Trace distilled bourbon phenomenon. Unfortunately, thanks to Pappy hysteria, its price is often as inflated as its mythos.
Pour: Weller Special Reserve
Age: at least 4 years
Nose: vanilla, honey-glazed apple, buttery rolls
Taste: caramel drizzle, sweet oak, hints of cherry
Finish: moderate length – confectioners sugar, light baking spice
Overall: A well-balanced, easy-sipping, sweet and buttery bourbon. I completely understand why folks love this stuff. All the same, I discourage anyone from paying a premium for Weller Special Reserve. It’s good whiskey, not great whiskey.
Rating: Weller Lite.
There was a time when one could find Col. E. H. Taylor Straight Rye collecting dust on retail shelves in my area. (True story.) Those days are over. Hell, it’s probably been two years since I’ve seen *any* Taylor tube sitting on a liquor store shelf. Such are the days we live in.
Pour: Col. E. H. Taylor Straight Rye Whiskey
Age: at least 4 years
Color: dark honey
Nose: maraschino cherry, vanilla wafer, blood orange
Taste: fruity caramel, lemon-honey, sweet oak char
Finish: moderate length – creamy cake frosting, ripe citrus, holiday spice
Overall: It might surprise some on first taste, but E. H. Taylor Rye isn’t distilled by Buffalo Trace. It’s distilled by Barton from a mash bill containing no corn. Unsurprisingly, it’s one uniquely tasty bottled-in-bond whiskey. If found at its $80 SRP, buy.
Rating: Damn ryet.
Benchmark is one of two brands acquired by Sazerac from Seagram’s in the 1980s (the other being Eagle Rare). Today, it’s distilled by Buffalo Trace and is commonly found for less than $10 in liquor stores nationwide. Sounds like a deal, right? Don’t get your hopes up just yet.
Pour: Benchmark “Old No. 8” Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Age: 36 months
Nose: margarine, strawberry Greek yogurt, apple juice
Taste: canned corn, sour pears, pasteboard
Finish: not short enough – Lemon Pledge, sadness
Overall: Rarely can I not finish a bourbon. Benchmark is one such pour. Yes, it’s labeled “Kentucky straight,” but three years in oak just doesn’t cut it here. It’s thin, youthful, oddly sour, and unpleasant. If this is a benchmark of whiskey, I’m Tom Handy.
Rating: Gag Jr.
The eponymous whiskey from the enormously popular distillery, Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon was once commonly found and appropriately priced. Now … not so much. Such is the state of bourbon at the onset of 2021. Is the feeding frenzy worth the fuss? Let’s find out.
Pour: Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Age: at least 4 years
Nose: apple pie, honey-butter, caramel drizzle
Taste: vanilla, honeysuckle, confectioners sugar
Finish: moderate length – sweet oak, lemon peel, faint spice
Overall: If it weren’t hell to acquire, I’d recommend Buffalo Trace as an ideal starter bourbon. Unfortunately, that would only prompt frustration for beginners. As is, it’s a tasty sipper with enough complexity to keep things interesting for the seasoned drinker.