The Intrigue of Blanton’s Bourbon
I would never describe myself as a “Bourbon fan” and, although I do love a good Manhattan cocktail, I always prefer it made with Rye. However, I developed a new appreciation for Bourbon after being treated to a ‘Blanton’s & Beef’ dinner, organized by Acker Distilled, at Bobby Van’s Park Avenue in NYC. The entire concept of pairing Bourbon with a meal was new to me, and I was excited to experience it, while also trying to keep my wits about me and learn a thing or two. And learn I did!
First, a little background on Blanton’s, which is currently distributed by the Sazerac Company and distilled at the Buffalo Trace Distillery. Banton’s was introduced in 1984 and named after Colonel Albert Bacon Blanton, president from 1921 to 1952 of what was then known as the George T. Stagg Bourbon Distillery. Blanton guided the distillery through Prohibition, when many other businesses failed, by safeguarding the aging Whiskey so that there would be inventory to sell when the ban was lifted. In 1984, when the distillery introduced Single Barrel Bourbon, Master Distiller Elmer T. Lee named it Blanton’s in honor of the Colonel, who was known to pull a special barrel of Bourbon from the warehouse to share with friends and visiting dignitaries.
I always took the term “Single Barrel Bourbon” as just another marketing label, and in fact it is not a legally defined term, but it was a significant phenomenon in the history of Bourbon Whiskey. Part legend, but mostly fact, before Blanton’s was introduced, all Bourbon was produced by blending the contents of different barrels to create a consistent product with uniform flavors and colors. Blanton’s was indeed the first modern era Single Barrel Bourbon, eschewing blending and creating a premium segment of the market. Interestingly, the Whiskey connoisseurs who were looking for something new and different were not in the United States, but Japan, and the first releases of Blanton’s were export-only products.
As with most Whiskey distilleries, there are many expressions of Blanton’s, from standard bottles to special and rare bottles and exclusive and limited releases. The lineup at the “Blanton’s & Beef” dinner included Blanton’s Black 1994, Blanton’s Red Ink 1986, Blanton’s Red Ink 1990, Blanton’s Takara Red 1992, Blanton’s Takara Gold 2020, Blanton’s Straight from the Barrel 2006, and Blanton’s Straight from the Barrel 2020. To my surprise, they all paired wonderfully with the food, which consisted of seafood towers, thick-cut filet mignon, and all the steakhouse sides you can possibly imagine. More than the pairing, though, I was intrigued by the different aromas and flavors of the various expressions, and the stories behind them. It’s worth noting, since this rye-favoring taster enjoyed all the Bourbons thoroughly, that Blanton’s is what is referred to as “high Rye Bourbon”. This means that the base is still 51% corn, but the secondary grain, rye, is used in higher-than-normal volume, giving more spice and black pepper notes.
Although my tasting notes are not as thorough as I would like, I learned a lot by listening to the aficionados around the table talk about the history of Bourbon and their own passion for Blanton’s. Here are my takeaways:
Blanton’s Black 1994
Very rare, this is made exclusively for the Japanese market and spends at least 8 years in American oak, where the original single barrel is purportedly aged a minimum of 6 years. 1994 was the first year of release so this was special to taste. Complex at first sip, with buttery notes, char, and spice. Adding just a tiny drop of water, as advised, made the flavors sing.
Blanton’s Red Ink 1986
This is what some guys at the table were calling a “dusty” and it’s also a Japanese export, although not a Japanese exclusive. The term refers to older releases that once sat on retail shelves gathering dust and some of those are now rare gems and highly desired. This was one of my favorites because I detected some funky herbal notes, which I enjoyed, and it paired well with what was on my plate.
Blanton’s Red Ink 1990
Another Red Ink, this one from 1990. It had a smoother taste than the 1986, with more richness and less herbal notes.
Blanton’s Takara Red 1992
Takara was introduced in 1990, is exclusive to the Japanese market, and is also aged 2 more years than the original single barrel. I got some toasty notes and honey along with spicy oak and citrus. The brightness and citrus made it my second favorite.
Blanton’s Takara Gold 2020
Introduced in 1992 in Japan and 2020 in America, Takara Gold is very limited, longer-aged, and higher proof than the original single barrel. Rich and smooth, with pepper spice and some heat on the finish.
Blanton’s Straight from the Barrel 2006
Straight from the Barrel was introduced in 2002 internationally, and not until 2020 in the U.S, where it is still sold with very limited availability. This was on the sweeter side with vanilla and maple notes. Perfect to sip later in the flight.
Blanton’s Straight from the Barrel 2020
Again I detected more sweetness in this expression, but also a big pop of spice. The finish was noticeably long and the body full.
Overall, I really enjoyed tasting through all the Blanton’s Bourbons and was surprised at the very different impressions each one of them left on me. Yes, Bourbons have some consistent aroma and flavor notes across bottles and brands, but there are some welcome inconsistencies when they come from a single barrel.
I wouldn’t think of ending a discussion about Blanton’s without addressing the bottle itself. The horse and jockey stoppers are iconic in the world of Whiskey, and they originated to pay homage to Kentucky’s heritage of horse racing. The stopper has been around since the brand’s inception in 1984, but it wasn’t until 1999 that the collector’s set of 8 stoppers was established. Each one has a different letter on it, as well as a distinct jokey pose, and if you collect them all, which is no simple task, you can spell out BLANTONS. Fittingly, the final stopper is the jockey celebrating his victory. Between the stoppers and the rare and limited releases, there are a lot of Whiskey buffs who covet the “full Blanton’s collection”. For now, I’m content that I experienced a full evening of tasting and learning, while staying alert and attentive.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
After graduating from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications, Jennifer embarked on a career in advertising and marketing in New York City. Upon moving to New York, Jennifer became increasingly interested in wine and earned the Advanced Certificate with Merit from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust; she’s been working in the wine and spirits industry ever since. A published author (Wine at Your Fingertips, 2008), Jennifer has led wine tasting classes and events for both private clients and Fortune 500 companies. She has worked in various aspects of the wine business, including managing sales for notable California wineries, and owning and operating her own wine & spirits shop in Lower Manhattan for ten years. Jennifer was thrilled for the opportunity to merge her communications background with her passion for wine in accepting a position as Acker’s Director of Marketing & Communications in 2021. Wine is intriguing to Jennifer in large part because there’s always something new to master, and she’s currently busy learning the auction side of the business as part of the team at Acker. When she’s not holding a wine glass, Jennifer is lifting a barbell or planning her next travel adventure.