In real estate, it is all about location, location, location. If you take two identical houses and place one in South Central, and one Malibu, the house in the Malibu will fetch a lot more money than the house in South Central. In some instances, this premise works with bourbon as well.
If you take two identical barrels of Buffalo Trace’s mash bill #2, and age them for the same amount of time and then cut them to the same proof, you might expect those barrels to sell for the same amount when they make it to retail. More importantly, you might expect them to taste about the same as well. Because not all aging warehouses are created equal, this is simply not true.
A prime example of this is Elmer T. Lee and Blanton’s. They are both made from Buffalo Trace’s mash bill #2, they are approximately the same age, and they are within three proof points of each other. The main difference? Location, location, location.
The Buffalo Trace rickhouse system is like a Swiss Army Knife. The materials used to build the exterior walls and floors varies from rickhouse to rickhouse, and each rickhouse produces a different environment for the barrels resting inside. The direction the walls face, the number and location of the windows, the insulation materials, the foundation type, and number of stories also play a roll in determining the expectations of a barrel.
Buffalo Trace buys in to this so much that they went and built a customizable rickhouse called Warehouse X.
For example, Elmer T. Lee barrels are traditionally pulled from Warehouse D, which was built in 1907. It is seven stories tall, has a steam powered barrel elevator, and holds a total of 22,500 barrels. Warehouse D has brick walls and recently (relative to the total number of years) added concrete floors. This combination of brick walls and concrete floors creates very slow, mild temperature swings because brick and concrete absorb and store heat and cold. This is known as “thermal lag”. Simply put, thermal lag is best demonstrated by putting your hand on a brick wall at night after a hot day. Hours after the sun goes down, the brick is still warm. The same applies to brick after a long, cool night. Hours after the sun comes up, the brick will be cool to the touch.
Thermal lag also means it takes longer for the interior of a brick building to warm up during the day and cool down during the night. This causes lower highs and higher lows which causes the pores of the oak barrels to expand and contract less. The end result is a slower, more controlled aging process.
On the other hand, Blanton’s ages in Warehouse H. Warehouse H was built in 1935 shortly after the repeal of prohibition. It is four stories tall and holds 15,000 barrels, most of which will become Blanton’s. What makes Warehouse H unique from the rest of the Buffalo Trace barrel houses is that it has a wood frame with corrugated metal cladding as the exterior walls instead of brick.
Metal walls create larger temperature swings because they do not have the thermal lag that brick does. Simply put, when it is cold outside, the metal is cold. When it is hot outside, the metal is hot. The external temperatures are adopted by the walls almost instantly and then transferred inside Warehouse H with very little delay. This environment heats and cools the oak barrels faster and with greater ranges of temperature, which then results in a more active rate of fluid transfer between the whiskey and the barrel during the normal cycle of a day.
In short, barrels of Elmer T. Lee and Blanton’s have matured to approximately the same age and are cut to the same range of ABV, but the whiskey in a bottle of Blanton’s has interacted with the wood more than the whiskey in a bottle of Elmer T. Lee. Aside from the cool grenade shaped bottle, handwritten label, and the horse and jockey cork ornament, the location of the barrels is a majority of what you are paying for when you decide to buy a $55 bottle of Blanton’s instead of a $25 bottle of Elmer.
The advantage of Warehouse H is that you can age a barrel quickly, reaching a very mature profile after just 6 to 8 years where it might take 10 to 12 years in a warehouse like Warehouse D. The disadvantage is that a barrel of Eagle Rare 17 and Pappy Van Winkle 20 would suffocate in oak if they spent that long in Warehouse H. This is why the cooler, more narrow temperatures of the brick warehouses like Warehouse D are more conducive to longer ages and probably why Warehouse H only has four floors. If Warehouse H had a seventh floor, it would sweat a barrel to char black in a few short years.
Review of the 2013 Davidson’s barrel of Blanton’s Single Barrel
This particular bottle of Blanton’s is from Davidson’s in Highlands Ranch. Last fall, they pulled a bunch of barrels from Buffalo Trace, and I was fortunate enough to get an Eagle Rare, Elmer and Blanton’s while they were still around. These guys take selecting whiskey very seriously, and they have gotten pretty good at it.
Unless you are traveling and stop in a Duty Free, Blanton’s is 93 proof, and approximately 6 to 8 years old. Elmer T. Lee has been estimated to be slightly older than Blanton’s, and has been age stated at 15 years in a special release a few years back, but because of the magic of Warehouse H, Blanton’s tastes much older.
Color: Maple syrup, slight rust.
Nose: Immediate rush of dark berries, honey, dark chewy caramel, vanilla toffee and some peppery char and toasted oak.
Sip: The most emblematic notes of a traditional bourbon are right here. Big caramels, buttery toffee and rich vanilla hard candy load a very sweet front. The obligatory corn notes for any Buffalo Trace bourbon are very limited. The middle has a wonderful dark berry and apricot that sweeps to a nice rye back. Cinnamon and a full spice box help mediate sharp notes of dark, slightly sweet charred oak.
Finish: The profile is so dry that the better parts of the finish flash quickly, leaving very little sugar or spice notes behind to enjoy.
Overall Grade: B+
The funny thing about this bottle is that when I first opened it, I was not a fan. It was muted, flat, had way too much corn, and lacked any notable characteristic that would warrant $55. Luckily, I revisited it a few days ago and found that comforting profile that has made Blanton’s one of the most loved bourbons around. There are not any flavors in this particular barrel that differ from a standard Blanton’s, but it is much more vivid than I remember Blanton’s being. Everything is very strong, from the nose to the last part of the sip, but the finish is very, very short. Everything else is quite enjoyable.
Drink this, not that: You have three options from Buffalo Trace’s #2 mash bill. Elmer T. Lee is $25, and low in dark sugars, high in spice. Blanton’s is $55 and high in dark sugars, moderately spiced. Rock Hill Farms is $48 (give or take) and has spice and sugars in equalled measure, but is also 100 proof. Between these three, they are all enjoyable, and I like them all more than any #1 mash bill bourbon.
In the price range, you don’t have a lot of options. It seems like bourbon is either under $50, or over $100. Jefferson’s Reserve is normally up on the top shelf with Blanton’s, and I like Blanton’s more.
Russell’s Reserve 10 Year is a great bourbon, and normally $40, so if you like a slightly higher proof, and a slightly lower price, Russell’s Reserve is a great option if you want to save some money. For the same price, you might be able to find the cask strength single barrel version of Russell’s Reserve.