It is tough to think of another distillery that sells better products – from top to bottom – than the Buffalo Trace brand. They are practically the gold standard of the industry. How do we know that? Because every Buffalo Trace product they put out seems to be instantly allocated.
Allocated means that stores can only buy a certain amount from their distributor. And once they’re gone, they’re gone. Even lowly Buffalo Trace Bourbon, their namesake, now has “Limit 1” signs on it whenever you can find it on a shelf.
Buffalo Trace has two solutions to their problem. The first is to build more capacity (warehouses and distilling equipment) so that they can make more. The second is to release products with less age so they can make it faster.
We won’t be able to experience the result of their expanded bourbon production for several more years. However, we are seeing the results of the latter right now. Say hello to Benchmark bourbon.
Benchmark Bourbon has been around for decades. It wasn’t always owned by the Sazerac company (the parent company of Buffalo Trace) but was acquired by them in 1989 from the Seagram Company. Since that time, it’s always been a budget bottle.
The areas that they cut costs on are not hidden either. You can see or taste them all. First, they proof down Benchmark Old No. 8 (also known as adding a little water to it) to the bare minimum allowed by law – 80 proof. It’s also bottled at only 3 years old (the label states “at least 36 months old”).
In terms of packaging, the glass bottle design hasn’t changed in forever which allows Buffalo Trace to buy in bulk over a long time. Finally, the topper is the cheapest design in the industry – a foil screw-cap. Be careful when tightening it or you’ll ruin the threads!
The Original Benchmark Lineup expands
Buffalo Trace spent some time trying to figure out how to get more people to buy Benchmark. They knew they couldn’t cut the price range any more than it already was. They also knew that even if they did, the kinds of people who buy it aren’t going to buy more bottles until they ran out.
But research shows that those same customers could be more inclined to buy a new version of their old standby if they saw the same kind of value in it. So Buffalo Trace decided to test this out by expanding the Benchmark line.
A lot of Different Bourbons
They rolled out with 5 new bourbons called Small Batch, Top Floor, Bonded, Single Barrel Bourbon and Full Proof. None of them were priced over $22 (your store may mark it up more though).
In this way, they hoped that consumers would find more than one to buy. This strategy would still allow Buffalo Trace to keep the masses satisfied with a cheap bourbon (not to be confused with bottom shelf) that they could quickly make a lot of.
This would hopefully take some of the heat off of their more aged options like Buffalo Trace, Colonel E.H. Taylor, Eagle Rare, and Stagg Jr.
Buffalo Trace Distillery Whiskeys
In this review, I’m going to compare Buffalo Trace, Benchmark and Benchmark Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.
All three of these are so similar that they beg comparison. Benchmark is the cheapest, but Benchmark Small Batch isn’t too far behind it. Buffalo Trace is the cheapest bottle outside of the Benchmark line, so it felt right to put it in here too.
Let’s break down what makes them different and I’ll finish with a comparison and a recommendation. Of note: the prices are what I paid for them in 2023 at Total Wine in Indianapolis.
- Benchmark 8 – 80 Proof, Blend of 3 year old barrels, $8 retail
- Benchmark Small Batch – 90 Proof, Blend of 4 year old barrels, $16 retail
- Buffalo Trace – 90 proof, Blend of 7-9 year old barrels, $25 retail
The general trend is that Buffalo Trace increases the price the older it gets or the higher proof it gets – or both.
What I hope to find is just how closely Benchmark Small Batch competes with Buffalo Trace. And does Benchmark 8 even compete at all?
Or is it simply a cheap bourbon designed to be drank in cocktails and/or the parking lot of a Baltimore Raven’s game? Let’s find out.
Mcafee’s Benchmark Old No. 8
Nose: The nose is incredibly light. If you’ve been drinking bourbon over 90 proof for more than a year, it’s going to make you laugh with how weak it is. It’s tough to suss out the notes, but I do eventually get notes of caramel, cherry, raisins and a touch of oak notes. Overall there’s not much here to explore. This is not a bourbon made to nose in a glencairn.
Palate: The first sip is thin and watery and doesn’t improve from there. The flavor profile is weak with notes of caramel corn and vanilla but it gets grainy quick. Perhaps the only redeeming part is that I can taste a little bit of Buffalo Trace’s famous cherry note in the background.
Finish: Grainy and grassy. This finish has no longevity and disappears way too quickly. Weak caramel notes accompany apple juice and cinnamon. Cherry can be found again, but it’s fleeting.
Benchmark Small Batch
Nose: Coming fresh off of my glass of Benchmark No. 8, the nose on this glass of Small Batch immediately smells miles ahead. The same notes are present, but all of them feel stronger – like a real bourbon!
The youthful graininess I observed in No. 8 is still present, but doesn’t seem as bothersome. Caramel, cherry and cinnamon all play nicely with a little bit of seasoned oak spice. Simple, yet effective.
Palate: Switching from an 80 to 90 proof version sure puts things into perspective quickly. The mouthfeel is so much fuller. An extra set of fruit notes can be found too – peach and orange peel. It accompanies the traditional cherry notes.
There is a prickle of rye spice notes that are restrained by sweeter vanilla flavors. I can even find some faint oak as I roll it around in my mouth.
Finish: After the sip is complete, the baking spices begin to reveal themselves. Nutmeg and cinnamon accompany cornbread and caramel. The cherry notes from the palate turn a little more medicinal like a cough syrup.
Nose: Sweet and fruity notes like cherries, raspberries and grenadine syrup. The fruits are given extra depth with stronger vanilla and caramel scents. It should be inviting to both inexperienced and experienced drinkers alike. I even smell some of the oak that surely come from the older bourbon barrels in every batch.
Palate: Much more fruity than you’d think. The fruit comes in two forms: natural (like sweet cherries and a bit of peach) and artificial, like flat Faygo orange soda.
They are surrounded with a touch of creaminess. I am finding a bold taste of caramel and a little bit of tannic oak too.
Finish: A sweet, lingering flavor of muddled cherries and oranges with a sweet caramel sticks around on the tongue, much like an Old Fashioned. There’s very light oak and some vanilla. Overall, this is a very pleasant finish to a very pleasant bourbon.
Having had no experience with either of the Benchmarks before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. After tasting them, the Benchmark No. 8 is definitely my least favorite and it’s not even close. It didn’t even taste like it was supposed to be drank in anything other than a cocktail or with a can of soda.
Moving up to the Small Batch was a significant upgrade. This tasted close very close to Buffalo Trace. The fruit notes were on point, but there was a combination of grainy and cornbread notes that I found here and there that still showed its youth.
Buffalo Trace is really where it’s at in terms of the total package among these three. The fruits, spices and even oak all taste much more developed and mature.
That’s to be expected seeing as how it uses older barrels in its blend. The Buffalo Trace is the one that you want to sip neat but should also provide a more fulfilling experience in a cocktail.
If you are reading this to form an opinion on what bottle to buy, then let me lay it out for you:
Buy the Benchmark No. 8 if you are on a budget and need a passable bourbon for a mixer. If you don’t yet understand the more delicate flavors and nuances of bourbon, at least you know you won’t be wasting money on more than you need. There’s no shame in admitting this either.
Buy the Benchmark Small Batch if you’re a Buffalo Trace fan but want to be a little more thrifty with your purchases. You’ll find a lot of similarities to Buffalo Trace Bourbon inside this bottle. Benchmark Small Batch is a little brighter and more lively than Buffalo Trace, but that’s not always a bad thing in bourbon. What’s more is that it’s easier to find and less expensive – a win-win if you ask me.
Those four will give you a taste of the different characteristics that Buffalo Trace distillate can achieve at different proofs and from different warehouse locations. In Indiana these are at affordable price points of anywhere between $17 to $22 depending on the label.
Buy the Buffalo Trace if you know that straight sippin’ is most appealing to you. Sure, you could mix it because it’s cheap enough to not be wasted, but why would you? Buffalo Trace is not necessarily a great bourbon, but it is a quality product that is much better than a lot of other brands’ comparably priced bottles.
The secret is because Buffalo Trace treats their namesake product as a way to build repertoire with bourbon drinkers. They know that if they buy a bottle, they’ll be hooked on the brand, so they make it the best bottle they can give them for the money.
They figure that if enough people are introduced to a really affordable, good bourbon like that, they’ll want to explore their other products. You can’t deny that it has worked because they are viewed as a premium brand and one of the top Kentucky distilleries and the United States.
In car culture, the common adage is “there’s no replacement for displacement.” This applies in the bourbon world too because there’s often no replacement for higher proof.
No whiskey will ever gain flavor with more water added to it and Benchmark No. 8 shows us that. For No. 8 purists out there, it’s as simple as switching it up to the Small Batch for an experience that’s well worth the money. Happy sipping!
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