Today, we're reviewing Benchmark Top Floor, the most inexpensive and lowest-proof offering in the new collection of special-edition bourbons bearing the Benchmark name. Distilled by Buffalo Trace, Benchmark has long been a bottom-shelf staple with a 40% ABV and a $10 price tag. However, the distillery recently decided to expand the Benchmark line, now offering an additional five expressions. Top Floor, as the name suggests, is composed of bourbons taken exclusively from the top floor of the rickhouse, and bottled at 86 proof.
The following review is taken from our episode "Unforgiven / Benchmark Top Floor." Click the link to listen to this review in audio format.
Brad: Alright everybody, today we are talking about Benchmark Top Floor. As I said at the top of the episode, this is an 86-proof whiskey coming out of the Buffalo Trace Distillery, and according to them, it is aged on the top floor of their warehouse and it ages comparatively more quickly because, and I'm quoting their website, “heat rises.”
Bob: I do love the gimmick here, which is “we're going to bottle just the top floor because in theory, scientifically, heat rises.” And so it should evaporate more things out of this whiskey quicker, causing it to expand and contract quicker, causing it to age quicker.
I understand that. But you're not going to sell something on being rapidly aged unless you're kind of implicitly admitting that this is not aged very long. You know what I mean? You're, not going to be like, “Hey, this is Lagavulin 16, but we aged it on the top floor, so it's really like Lagavulin 28.”
There's a reason that they're doing it with the $15 Benchmark here. This is a non-age-stated bourbon, so we're assuming that it is at least four years old, but we don't really know how long it's been aged, and it sounds like they're trying to pass off some really young whiskey that might taste a little more matured.
Brad: Yeah, I was going to say it has been aged long enough to charge $15. So, if that tells you what you need to know, then...here we are.
Bob: So, it's been a long time since we've had Benchmark. Episode 001 of Film & Whiskey was Benchmark. So it's really hard to compare. However, we will be drinking Benchmark here again in a couple of weeks. But for now, Brad, let's talk about Benchmark Top Floor.
What are you picking up on the nose?
Brad: For me, it gets a little bit nutty at the front end. Almost like an almond shavings. I say that because I actually like almonds, but of all the nuts out there, they don't have a ton of flavor or nose to them. They're just kind of generically nutty. And that's kind of what I'm getting here. There's some vanilla going on. There's hints of caramel. It's not overly sweet. But I'll be honest, there's not much to detract here. I like this nose. It's generically pleasant with a little bit of nuttiness. I'll give it a 7/10.
Bob: This is not an overly grainy nose, although I am picking up a little bit of rye here. But where it smells young is kind of like, every once in a while I see this note in bourbon nosing about “green wood,” which is basically just like unaged wood. This does smell almost like fresh-cut lumber. And it almost has that slightly sour smell to it of brand-new chopped-down tree. And so there's a little sour note on the nose for me that is just taking away slightly from the experience.
I'm with you on the almond though. For me it's more like an almond cake. I get a pound cake with almond extract in it. But that sour wood note is making me think that it might carry through a little bit to the flavor. So I'm just going to give this a 6.5/10 on the nose.
Brad: And as we get into the palate, it turns very oaky on the palate. There’s a little bit of caramel, the vanilla turns almost into a bright cream soda.
The part that's hard is that it's like a little bit overly-done toast, kind of slightly burned. I'm coming down a little bit from the nose, but not too far. It's a decent tasting whiskey. I'll give it a 6/10.
Bob: It's not a very sweet whiskey. And I think the first note that I got was that unaged wood and it almost coats your palate. It's kind of oily that way. Then you get that kind of classic Buffalo Trace spicy note to it. Not a bad whiskey.
I feel like this would go really well in a cocktail where you're adding some sweet elements to it. But it doesn't have that kind of classic round caramelly bourbon note on its own. So if you like a spicier, bolder bourbon, I actually think that this flavor profile might be the way to go.
As you know, Brad, I like my sweet bourbons, so this is not like my preferred wheelhouse, but I'm going to give it a 7/10 on the flavor.
Brad: So on the finish, I think I'm going to just cut it down the middle and give it a 6.5/10. It's short and sweet. Doesn't last a long, long time for me.
It almost turned into a tiny hint of tobacco, and the vanilla really stuck through to the end. Nothing to write home about, but, you know, solid.
Bob: Yeah, I think that, this is where this suffers: the wateriness of it really comes through. Even at like 90 proof, I wonder how much better this might be, but it's not unpleasant.
And for an 86-proof whiskey that costs $15, I was expecting a worse finish than this. So, do I grade it objectively or do I grade it on the curve based on what I was thinking I would get? I think I'm with you: I'm going to give it a 6.5/10 on the finish here.
Brad: Yeah and as far as balance goes, Bob, this is just a really honest delivery through the entire experience. The nose sets you up for the taste, which sets you up for the finish, and it doesn't have any really high highs or low lows.
I'm going to give it a 7/10 on balance. There's not enough complexity here for me to give it a higher score than that. I think this is its ceiling as far as scores go, but it's fine. It's a well-balanced $15 whiskey.
Bob: Yeah, I think I'll also give it a 7/10. I was tempted to give it an even higher score than that, because I want to reward it even more on the value.
Now these have just recently started being sold in Ohio. I actually don't know if they're like statewide yet. We had to go to Kentucky to pick up these five bottles of Benchmark, which is just hilarious to say that we went to Kentucky to buy $15 whiskey, but we do it for you, Film and Whiskey Nation.
So in Ohio, it is $14.99.
This is at least an 8/10 on value. And now that they don't make like Heaven Hill Green Label anymore, I don't know what you can get for $15 that's better than this. Even Evan Williams White Label is at least $20 now.
I'm going to give it a 9/10.
Brad: I'm going to give it a 9.5/10. I think this is an incredible value at $15.
This is a whiskey that if you wanted to, you could sip neat. If you wanted to put it in a cocktail, that would be the best place for it. But there's a lot of people who are spending $30 to $40 on cocktail mixers. And I would tell you any day of the week, go buy some Top Floor. It's got some flavor to it, it's got a little bit of spice, and for being 86 proof, it doesn't come across as a low proof whiskey.
So I don't know what better value you could get at $15.
Bob: There are very few 86 proof whiskeys that I think would give a cocktail enough of a backbone to justify themselves. When I make cocktails, I use 100-proof bourbon. But I think that I could get away with this 86-proof because it has so much of that spice to it and it would work really well. I'm going to give this a huge recommendation. It's a 36/50 for me. Brad, what are you coming to?
Brad: Ooh, Bob. The world has come to order at last. I came to a 36/50 as well.
Bob: Oh, nice. Look at us now.
Would you recommend trying, or buying, or both?
Brad: Honestly, I don't think I'd recommend trying, because at minimum it's $3 a pour,
Bob: Yeah, let's call it $5. That's already a third of the price of the bottle, right?
Brad: So, I mean, if you really wanted to buy a pour, but if you want to be wise with your money and steward it well, go buy a bottle.