Buffalo Trace is renowned for high-priced bourbon whiskey that, these days, is damn near unattainable (Weller, Pappy, Stagg, Eagle Rare…). The thing is, Buffalo Trace is a massive distillery operation with 19 brands coming off their stills, which means they’re also producing plenty of inexpensive bourbon whiskey. Benchmark is just such a whiskey, and today I’m going to rank the whole line.
Benchmark is one of the many brands that come from Buffalo Trace’s “Mash Bill no. 1,” which is their low-rye bourbon mash (one of Buffalo Trace’s four core mash bills overall). Of course, Buffalo Trace doesn’t divulge the exact parameters of any of their bills, so we don’t know how “low” the rye content is or how “high” the corn content is. We do know that the same mash bill is used to make Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Stagg, Eagle Rare, Old Charter, and Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. bourbons.
While using the same mash bill doesn’t quite make Benchmark the “poor man’s Eagle Rare,” it does speak to the quality of the spirit that goes into the barrel and eventually the bottles. Each of the bourbons from that famed mash bill are still all housed and aged in unique ways that inform the flavor profile of the final product. Benchmark is batched, proofed, and bottled to match Benchmark’s flavor profile, not Taylor’s or Stagg’s.
That said, Buffalo Trace is still a business with a bottom line too. If, say, a few barrels of Eagle Rare or Old Charter don’t quite meet the flavor profile standards of those brands, those barrels will likely end up (ie, be blended out) in a Benchmark, which is still a bottom-shelf whiskey. That said, this is also a cheap bourbon that’s having a bit of a moment thanks to awards love over the last year or two (it’s still a Buffalo Trace product after all). Multitudes, folks!
Alright, let’s dive in and rank some great bourbon — on taste alone — from the bottom shelf.
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6. Benchmark Old No. 8 Brand
Average Price: $10
The juice in this bottle is from the aforementioned Buffalo Trace Mash no. 1. This is a standard straight bourbon. Once the barrels are vatted, the whiskey is proofed all the way down to 80 proof for bottling.
Faint lemon candies and honey lead to an old vanilla wafer and wet cornmeal on the nose but not much else. The taste is “classic” bourbon with very watery hints of leather, spice, and cornmeal next to vanilla extract, caramel, and old buttered popcorn. The end is very faint and almost vodka-like with a tapwater vibe.
This isn’t great. It’s pretty watery and faint overall. It might be fine for a shot and a beer but that’s about it.
5. Benchmark Small Batch
Average Price: $19
This is a standard “small batch” though there’s not a whole lot of information on what that entails exactly. The “batch” could be 20 barrels or 200. The bourbon is cut down slightly less to a bolder 90 proof.
Vanilla extract, slightly wet oak, and that Buffalo Trace Bourbon raw leather/wet grain dominate the nose. The taste pretty much stays in that arena with caramel apples and floral honey popping up next to a slight metallic note and soft mineral water mouthfeel. The end is short and sweet and leaves you with that leather, oak, and vanilla primarily.
This feels like a good shooter or mixer for a whiskey and Coke. Beyond that, it’s a little watery still for highlighting in a cocktail.
4. Benchmark Top Floor
Average Price: $17
This expression says it all in the name. The barrels are pulled from the top floors of the Buffalo Trace warehouses. Essentially, heat rises and the barrels on those top floors age/mature more quickly and can have a deeper flavor thanks to that accelerated process. This whiskey vatted from those barrels and proofed down to a slightly higher 86 proof.
There’s a mild sense of orange oils and Christmas spice on the nose with a touch of buttery yet sweet caramel and a whisper of raw leather. The palate follows along that path pretty closely as butterscotch and orange marmalade with a hint of sourdough pancake lead to caramel corn and subtle “oak” on the finish.
This is simple but good. I could see drinking this in a highball or maybe even on the rocks as an everyday table bourbon.
3. Benchmark Bonded
Average Price: $20
This is a four-year-old bonded bourbon that’s not that far off the Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. line, as all of those bourbons are bonded too. That also means that this bourbon is only proofed down to 100 proof, far above the Old No. 8 entry point above.
This is surprisingly bright with a nose full of lemon-honey tart sweetness, a touch of vanilla extract, a hint of charred wood, and maybe a little wet leather. The taste keeps it simple and really leans into the oak and vanilla while the honey sweetness mellows to a standard caramel with a hint of spicy tobacco. The end is pretty short but leaves you with that vanilla, honey, and tobacco.
This is actually good. For $20, this is great. I’d mix an old fashioned with this in a heartbeat. I’d go a little easy on the sugar as this is already on the sweeter side, but it’d be a good cocktail.
2. Benchmark Full Proof
Average Price: $22
This is the standard Benchmark bottled at barrel proof. Well, it’s more than that. Only a few barrels of Benchmark make it to a flavor point that’ll allow full proof barreling. So, this batched bourbon is all about the pure juice from the barrel with no cutting with water to tame it.
There’s a mild intensity with notes of spicy dry tobacco next to dark chocolate, a hint of eggnog spices, and creamy vanilla. Overall, it’s creamy on the nose with that leathery/wet grain note completely gone. That all delivers on the palate with the addition of spicy stewed apples soaked in brandy, a touch of dark fruit leather chewiness, and a long, spicy tobacco finish with a hint of orchard fruit in the background.
This is where things get interesting. This is a really solid mixing bourbon for cocktails. Those high ABVs are almost non-existent (to me) but really pop in a cocktail format. The flavor profile also feels very “classic” bourbon, which would make a hell of a Manhattan or old fashioned.
1. Benchmark Single Barrel
Average Price: $25
This expression is from the single barrels that actually hit that prime spot/flavor profile to be bottled one at a time. This is the best of the best of the barrels earmarked for Benchmark in the Buffalo Trace warehouses. Those barrels are watered down slightly before bottling at a healthy 95 proof.
That orange and caramel really come through on the nose with a thin line of creamy dark chocolate and some nutmeg and cinnamon. The palate largely adheres to that flavor profile while adding in layers of dark fruit, old leather, mild oak, and orange cookies. The finish arrives with a sense of winter spices and dark chocolate oranges next to a twinge of cherry-kissed spicy tobacco chew and a final note of old porch wicker.
This was hard to place. I really like it but it’s not quite as bold as it could be. That said, this is a perfectly fine on-the-rocks sipper or cocktail base. It’s complex enough to handle mixing while also blooming nicely with a little water or ice. Plus, come on! That price for a single barrel bourbon in 2022? That’s pretty amazing.