July 2017 by Michael Pendley
Even the occasional whiskey drinker is probably familiar with Blanton’s bourbon. Since Elmer T. Lee bottled those first three barrels back in 1984 and named them in honor of his long time boss Col. Albert Blanton, the familiar faceted round bottle with its horse and jockey bottle top has been a fixture on bars and store shelves everywhere.
But what you might not know is the familiar 93 proof version we see on the American market isn’t the only bottling available. For those traveling abroad, several different proofs and ages of Blanton’s Bourbon can be found.
These bottlings range in proof from an easy sipping 80 up to an uncut version that tops out in the high 120s to 135 range. While most are aged a minimum of 6 years, two Japanese bottles are aged a minimum of 8. Despite these differences, all Blanton’s bourbon share a few common traits. All begin life as Buffalo Trace’s famed #2 Mashbill, a higher rye recipe than some of Buffalo Trace’s other bourbons, and all are aged in the famed Warehouse H, the only metal clad warehouse at the distillery. Warehouse H is also heated with steam during the cold winter months while the other warehouses are unheated. Colonel Blanton felt this combination of extra summer heat from the metal exterior and warmer winter temperatures produced the best bourbon, and he chose his personal bottles from there.
So how did it come to be that bourbon crazy United States has only one bottling available while the rest of the world has several? According to John Shutt, International Sales and Marketing Manager for Blanton’s Bourbon at AGE International Inc., it all goes back to a time when bourbon wasn’t so popular here. In 1991, bourbon sales in the U.S. were low, but international demand, particularly in Asia, was strong. That is when a Japanese company took ownership of what is now Buffalo Trace. In 1993, the distillery was sold again to current owner Sazerac but Takara Shuzo kept ownership of Blanton’s, Elmer T Lee, Rock Hill Farms, Hancock Reserve, and Ancient Age brands.
“At the request of Japanese ownership, a second label was created, Blanton’s Gold Edition 103pf in 1995 for the Duty Free market. Due to international popularity, this label ended up finding its way out of Duty Free and into the European markets, (France, UK, Germany, and Spain).
I’ve always described Blanton’s as that American rock band that took off in Europe before anyone back home was listening….We developed a cult following throughout the late 90’s/early 2000’s in Asia and Europe. During this time and at our customer’s request, the other labels were created. Straight From the Barrel, Gold, and Special Reserve (this is referred to as our 80 proof “green label” and it was created for the Australian market due to extremely high taxes.)
The “Red” and “Black” labels were also created during this time, but specifically for the Japanese market. Red 93pf and Black 80pf are the same mash bills as our other Blanton labels with one difference….there is an 8 year minimum aged barrel selected. Our other Blanton labels require a 6 year minimum. Regardless, you won’t find an age statement on any Blanton label. We bottle by taste, not age,” says Shutt.
So how do the different versions stack up? Besides the 93 proof U.S. version, we obtained 5 additional bottles from overseas. Hailing from France came Special Reserve 80 pf, Blanton’s Gold 103 pf, and Blanton’s Straight from the Barrel labeled at 128.8pf. Out of Japan came a Red label 93pf and a Black label 80pf. The tasting panel consisted of myself and my wife, Cheryl. We tasted in order of proof, starting with the two 80 proof versions.
Photo: Michael Pendley
Green Label Special Reserve 80pf: The lightest of an overall light-colored bourbon. Color could be described as very pale amber.
Nose: Light and fruity. Not much alcohol. Apple and vanilla.
Palate: Very smooth mouth feel. Light honey, some citrus. What warmth there is hits late and in the back of the mouth/upper throat area.
Finish: Short, no lingering heat. Very smooth.
Overall: A very nice bourbon, but not remarkable. A perfect choice for a new bourbon drinker to sip neat.
Japanese Black Label 80pf: The same 80 proof as the Special Reserve, but with a couple extra years in the barrel. That extra time translates to a slightly darker bourbon.
Nose: Apple, floral, honey, vanilla, slight banana. You can pick up more oak in the nose, probably due to increased aging time.
Palate: Slightly more intense than the Special Reserve. Not as sweet, but still with a fruitiness and vanilla flavor. More woody oak.
Finish: Finishes with more oak and vanilla than the Special Reserve. Heat lingers a bit at the back of the throat.
Overall: Very nice. The extra warehouse time adds quite a bit of character to an 80 proof bourbon. Drinks like a higher proof bourbon.
U.S. version 93 pf: The one that started it all and a staple on our bar. Color similar to the Japanese Black Label. For some reason, the 93 proof Original version, to our tastes, seems to vary more from barrel to barrel than most whiskeys. Some barrels are remarkable, some are just good. This barrel, number 855, was dumped on 11/18/2016 is pretty good, but not one of the best we have tried.
Nose: Vanilla, Fruit, tart apple, I get a bit of peach cobbler, but Cheryl doesn’t.
Palate: Slight heat starts immediately at the front of my tongue. Fruity, not as sweet as the Special Reserve. Vanilla and honey linger.
Finish: Very smooth. Cheryl says this one finishes smoother to her than the Black Label 80 proof. Both the heat and the vanilla linger longer on the finish. Interestingly enough, what was one of our favorite bourbons actually finished fourth for both of us in this taste test.
Japanese Red Label 93pf: The Original 93 proof with two extra years in the warehouse. This is one of the darkest bourbons of the bunch, almost a deep amber.
Nose: More oaky than the previous samples. Fruit and honey underlie the wood. Cheryl says it smells like a bourbon warehouse. More banana.
Palate: Instantly one of the more intense Blanton’s I have ever tasted. Very warm from the beginning, flavors of honey, banana, apple.
Finish: Finishes with vanilla and honey, the heat lingers in the back of my mouth and down my throat. Despite the slightly increased heat, the finish is still very smooth.
Overall: I think this might be my new favorite Blanton’s bourbon. Tons of flavor, great mouthfeel.
Gold Edition 103pf: The first of the overseas renditions launched in 1995. Color is about the same as the Japanese Red Label.
Nose: Oak and vanilla, more alcohol, not as much fruit or honey as the lower proofs.
Palate: Instantly more intense than lower proofs. The higher proof is immediately evident with more heat all over my mouth. The fruit and vanilla are less noticeable, the rye comes through at the end.
Finish: More rye burn on the finish, the fruit finally starts to show back up and lingers several seconds. Probably my close second to Red Label Japanese bottle. A really nice bourbon experience from start to finish. Cheryl’s favorite of the bunch, with the Red Label Japanese bottle finishing second.
Straight from the Barrel: The darkest color of the bunch. Deep amber, slightly cloudier than the other samples when held up to light.
Nose: Intense, but less oaky. More fruit, Cheryl says banana ice cream. You can pick up the additional proof in your nose with a slight burn. Strong scent of butterscotch.
Palate: Back to a sweeter flavor at the beginning, warm, vanilla, caramel. The sweet quickly gives way to a slightly bitter rye. Raisins and oak are apparent.
Finish: Hot, lingering raisins and rye, bitter chocolate on the tongue. The heat goes all the way down with this one and lingers several seconds after the swallow. Intense bourbon feel. Great, but the heat overpowers some of the flavor. I added a few drops of water to mine and it opened it up considerably, allowing other flavors to shine. Cheryl, forever a bourbon neat fan, kept hers pure and was very impressed with the mouthfeel and finish of this one.
Michael Pendley lives in the heart of central Kentucky’s bourbon country. When he isn’t poking around local distilleries, he can usually be found searching for dusty bottles of old whiskey that might be hidden in the back rooms of liquor stores. He, along with his wife and three children, are very active in the outdoors. Michael also writes the twice-weekly wild game cooking blog Timber2Table at Realtree.com