Today, we're reviewing Benchmark Small Batch, the second whiskey in the new collection of special-edition bourbons bearing the Benchmark name. After last week's Benchmark Top Floor impressed us at $15, we're looking for bigger an better things from this $18, 90-proof Buffalo trace bourbon.
The following review is taken from our episode "Mystic River / Benchmark Small Batch." Click the link to listen to this review in audio format.
Brad: Alright everybody, today we are talking about Benchmark Small Batch. Now Bob, this is the second expression of this five-tiered Benchmark lineup we are investigating. And this one comes in at a bold 90 proof.
Bob: Yeah, four proof points higher than last week's Benchmark Top Floor. So we're moving our way along, moving up by proof point. Brad, I got to say, man, I'm really enjoying this so far. We tried the original Benchmark way back in season one, and for $10 we said, okay, you could do worse. And then we tried this Top Floor last week and at $15, you can't really do any better. I mean, it was really good given the price point.
Brad: Yeah, and I'll just give the price here. This is $18 in the state of Ohio, so we are jumping up $3 from our Top Floor. And if that's going to break the bank for you, then perhaps whiskey is not the world that you should be inhabiting. Not that we like spending lots of money on whiskey, but, you can't really get much cheaper than an $18 bottle of whiskey.
Bob: So once again, this is a non-age stated bourbon, meaning that when you pick up the bottle, there's not an age on it. It doesn't have a big number five or anything like that on it. Legally, in order to not carry an age statement on the bottle, the youngest whiskey in this blend has to be at least four years old. So when we don't see an age on a bottle, we assume (usually) two things about it. A, it's probably blended, because if it's not blended, they usually put the age on it. And B, it probably skews more towards the young side of things because again, it's a huge selling point for whiskey makers to be able to say, “this is 16 year bourbon.” So when you don't put an age statement on it, it usually means “We might have had some pretty good 16 year bourbon in this, but we're also cutting it with four-year bourbon that kind of just came of age,” and in order to avoid putting “four years” on their label, they just don't put anything on the label. And that's that's probably what we're getting here, Brad, with an $18 whiskey.
Brad: And I think also the “small batch” designation here would usually indicate that a company is taking a smaller batch of their whiskey to blend with, rather than the typical Woodford Reserve, the Jack Daniel’s of the world, which are blending from thousands and thousands of barrels to create their flagship product. And small batch, they're probably blending from 200, 300 barrels instead of thousands, right?
Bob: Which is still much, much larger than most craft whiskey makers would consider their largest batch. Small batch really means nothing, but it's just another way for them to get a label out of this brand. I'm cool with it, man. We'll see what happens when they start taking barrels from different floors than just the top floor here.
Brad, as we get into this Benchmark Small Batch, what are you picking up on the nose?
Brad: This is a really nice, soft, sweet nose. Right off the bat, I got some red apple. It turns into almost like a raw lumber that I'm kind of iffy on. But then after my third and fourth nosing, I just got a massive whiff of brown sugar, and brown sugar's a pretty common note on bourbons, but this one really came through strong for me. And then there's a little bit of vanilla that hit after a little while as well. So I give this a 7.5/10 on the nose.
Bob: Yeah I'm with you on all of your notes, man. The red apple peel is pretty prominent on this. I will say, when I first poured it out, before I gave it a minute to breathe here, it had a note on it that was a little concerning to me.
A few seasons back, we tried a whiskey that we have since proclaimed as probably the worst whiskey we've ever had on this show. Brad, I don't need to mention what the name of that whiskey was, but there's a very prominent note of wet cardboard on it. And this had that kind of cardboard mixed with a note I also get on some young, astringent, cheap whiskeys, which is the chemical cleaner, Tarn-X. And I was like, oh gosh, this is going to be really bad, isn't it?
But given time, it really did open up. It became super pleasant. There was a lot of brown sugar on this. And you're right, like a big glug of vanilla extract right on the end of it here. I like it quite a bit. I'm going to give it a 7/10.
Brad: And then we get into the palate. Bob, this is just a really nice, classic bourbon. There's caramel, there's vanilla. For me, the apple kind of softened and it almost reminded me of a sugary cinnamon-apple dessert. And then--I was searching for it, because the longer I drank it, the more it just gave me a whipped cream flavor. And once again, I'm going to give it a 7.5/10. This is a really nice experience.
Bob: I think I'm going to diverge from you a little bit here, because last week, my main note on that Benchmark Top Floor was that it just wasn't sweet at all. And if you like a spicy bourbon that will give your cocktail a backbone and that you can add the sweetness to later on, then it was a good whiskey for you. I'll say that this time around, the front part of the palate, there is a sweetness to it. It's not really noticeable, but it's kind of a generic, bland, almost simple-syrup kind of sweetness. But then towards the back end of the palate, it goes away again.
I think the finish is exactly the same as last week's finish, but because this time it had sweetness up front, it actually tastes more bitter and more sour because it's so much more noticeable that there's a lack of sweetness there, and it really bums me out.
So I'm going to give the palate just a 6/ 10 here, and I'll also give the finish a 5.5/10.
Brad: That is brutal. Bob. I gave the finish a 6.5/10. I think that you get oak, peppercorn, and vanilla for me. I'm with you: it slightly sours on the back end, like you would expect with a cheap whiskey, but I did not experience it nearly as much as last week's Top Floor. So I think that this was a decent finish. Definitely the weak point of the whiskey, but when it comes to balance, I think that this is really an impressive amount of flavor, even if it's not super complex. And it doesn't fall off in the same way that the Top Floor did. I give it an 8.5/10 on the balance.
Bob: Yeah. I'm going to come back up to a 7/10 on the balance. Even though I'm not a huge fan of this whiskey, I do think it's well-balanced and once again, I think it's really punching above its weight here in terms of being able to use it in a cocktail, because usually 86- or 90-proof whiskey just doesn't have enough to it to hold up in a cocktail. It gets way too diluted.
I think this is a big, bold (honestly, bitter enough) flavor that it would really make a pretty darn good cocktail. And I'm going to reflect that here in the balance and give it a 7/10.
Bob:As Brad already said, this is an $18 bottle of whiskey. I don't think it's quite as good of a value as last week's and especially since I actually think last week's was the better whiskey. I'm going to ding it just a little bit here, but I'm still going to give it an 8/10 on the value.
Brad: Yeah I think you're crazy, Bob. This is a 10/10 value. Like, for me, last week we spent $15 on that bottle and it's a solid 9.5/10 value. That was a really solid whiskey for 15 bucks. I think that this small batch is a $23-$25 whiskey that you're getting for 18 bucks. For me, this is the king of the lineup so far.
Bob: All right. I am coming out to a 33.5/50. Brad, what are you coming out to?
Brad: I am way higher than you, Bob. I'm at a 40/50. And I was at a 30/40 without the value category.
Bob: Yeah. And that's a pretty great score. So I think it's pretty clear that you think this is by far the best of the three Benchmarks we've had so far.
Brad: Easily. I think that this one stands up to any $20-$30 whiskey that we've had in a while. And dare I say it, I think that this is probably like my number-two budget whiskey, next to Rebel 100.
Bob: I'm not feeling it as much as I was last week, and maybe it's just the miser in me that is even oh, $15 versus $18. Would I pay $18 for last week's whiskey? I don't know. But at $15 I was like, heck yeah, man. Let's do that all day. This one at 18 just isn't doing it for me as much, but hey, we're coming out to a 73.5/100, or a 36.75/50.
I'm still going to recommend buying it. It's $18. If you don't like the way it tastes neat, I do think it'll make a pretty killer cocktail.