Blanton's Single Barrel
One of today’s most coveted bourbons – beyond the Pappy VanWinkle craze – is Blanton’s Single Barrel. As I slink into hole-in-the-wall locales, I’m carefully stretching tall on my toes to peer behind the counter high and low. One of the small regional chains doesn’t even keep it in the glass case or behind the counter – it’s almost like a secret society and you have to ask the clerk, “Do you have any Blanton’s in the back?” Another offers it for purchase on the counter … after you also purchase a bottle of a low-end selection that they’re trying to get rid of. What started all the craze and who was Colonel Blanton?
Yes Virginia, there really was a Colonel Blanton.
Today, the Buffalo Trace Distillery sits astride the Kentucky River near the state capitol in Frankfort Kentucky. In 1881, Albert Bacon Blanton was born on a farm adjacent to the distillery, then, referenced as the George T. Stagg Distillery. By the turn of the century, Blanton had joined the operations crew at the distillery as an office boy. By 1921, in true Horatio Alger fashion, Blanton had been named president of the distillery, just as Prohibition had cast its dark shadow on the industry.
Blanton kept the operation going, offering medicinal spirits for sale. Following the repeal of Prohibition, a devastating flood in 1937 forced operations to a halt. 24 hours later, through Blanton’s heroic leadership and creativity, the distillery was back online. Much of the beauty of the modern Buffalo Trace Distillery can be traced to his influence. Gardens, a clubhouse, and his own Stony Point mansion all overlook the historic BT distillery today, growing from 14 buildings to a 114-building leviathan.
Blanton’s contributions to the Buffalo Trace Distillery and the industry itself were honored by a spirit as unique and innovative as the man himself. For decades, distillers crafted and blended spirits to maintain a consistent product. In 1984, Master Distiller Elmer T. Lee introduced the world’s first single-barrel bourbon and christened it “Blanton’s”. The packaging was unique as the spirit inside – a pineapple-shaped octagonal bottle adorned by a jockey and rider with a tiny letter at the base. If you’re able to find enough bottles, with the right letters, you’ll spell B-L-A-N-T-O-N-S.
Just a few short years ago, Blanton’s was easily found for around $50. I even found it at a local grocery store in copious quantities. Today, due to an ever-increasing demand, expect to pay $100 or more for this coveted bourbon.
Buffalo Trace is mum on the contents of its mash-bill other than indicating that it is a low-rye mash that is also shared with siblings Elmer T. Lee and Rock Hill Farms. Blanton’s is aged in a humble sheet-metal rick house, subject to weather extremes, near a building providing a video history of the distillery for visitors. The bottle is hand labeled indicating it was dumped on 5-18-18 from barrel number 214 and was stored on rick number 30 in warehouse H. Blanton’s does not carry an age statement, though most agree that this 93 proof bourbon is about 9 years old.
Color: Red amber with slender legs in the glass.
Nose: Vanilla and caramel with citrus zest.
Palate: Caramel and more citrus flavors are soft, gentle and balanced. The taste takes me back to my childhood days when we’d share slices of the English confection called “Terry’s Chocolate Orange” at the holidays. There is a slight spice and also some lighter floral notes.
Finish: Long with more vanilla, caramel and orange notes. Oak and spice cascade at the end, but in a gentle and well-balanced manner.
Overall: Remember that this is a single-barrel expression. Some bottlings will be better than others or will have slightly different notes based on where they rested in the warehouse. It’s a testament to the Master Distiller to try and retain some semblance of consistency across individual barrels.
I do like Blanton’s Single Barrel. So much, in fact, that my wife surprised me a few years ago with one of the best gifts ever – a Blanton’s ½ barrelhead with a spot for a bottle, a couple of Blanton’s rocks glasses, and spots for a full set of horse and jockey stoppers.
It’s one I’d drink every day if it were more easily sourced. At $50, it’s a steal. As it approaches $70, I cringe, and beyond $100, it’s hard to justify the hype. There are such strong competitors at that price point and beyond, including the Knob Creek Single Barrels, Henry McKenna 10-Year Bottled-in-Bond, and some of the Four Roses Small Batch Select, not to mention the Weller 12-Year.
If you can find this elusive unicorn, definitely snag a bottle. Grab a second one for a friend, but please don’t be greedy and leave some on the shelf for those in line behind you. Enjoy this slow-sipper and raise a glass to the man and legend, Colonel Albert Blanton, and to the distiller, Elmer T. Lee, who breathed new life into the bourbon industry with a single barrel innovation.