I imagine many people look at Benchmark as little more than a meme. Perhaps not to the same degree as Mellow Corn, but it still makes a solid case. Black label? Check. Use of the word “old” and a number (8) on the bottle? Check. Lowly age statement (3 years) written in months? Check. Barely hitting a double-digit price tag? Check. Simply put, Benchmark has all the makings of a typical bottom shelf whiskey. Many companies might be content to let such a product remain in its unflattering light, allowing sales to simply =do their thing. Buffalo Trace and parent company Sazerac clearly aren’t among them.
Benchmark recently went through a brand update, with rollout being quick for some markets and delayed for others. The lineup consists of five new bottles, each with their own proof point and highlighted aspect: Top Floor, Small Batch, Bonded, Full Proof, and Single Barrel. As expected, these carry slightly elevated price tags compared to the original Benchmark, falling around the $18-$25 range, although I’ve seen stores attempt to charge more than twice that. I decided to take a chance on the Small Batch, which retains the straight bourbon whiskey designation while lacking an age statement, meaning the whiskey should be at least four years old. My expectations are on the low side, especially thinking back to the days when I’d buy Benchmark and mix it with Coke.
Nose: Incredibly corn-forward. Candy corn and weak light roast coffee. Maybe butter pecan and vanilla frosting. Simple, sweet, and young. Has an alcohol presence that reminds me of cheap hand sanitizer.
Palate: Thin and grainy; caramel with a weak structure. Like the nose, it’s sweet upfront but quickly makes its rough and flimsy backbone known. Warm cornbread note with scattered hits of vanilla and hay.
Finish: Quite astringent. Corn feels underdeveloped and, ultimately, less enjoyable. There might be light brown sugar, but I’m grasping at straws.
Part of what compelled me to purchase this bottle was morbid curiosity. Could a bottle marketed as a more refined version of a poorly regarded bottom-shelfer prove itself viable in a market with a frankly unhealthy focus on premiumization? In the Small Batch’s case, I wouldn’t rule it out, but I also wouldn’t say it’s a product for me. Buffalo Trace expressions consistently check the sweet profile box, and Benchmark Small Batch is no exception. That and the fact it tastes young should be of no surprise to anyone. However, the fact it executes on both of these personalities is throwing me for a bit of a loop. Much of the younger-tasting stuff I’ve had lately lacks a sweet component to soften the rough edges. Perhaps it has something to do with Buffalo Trace’s largely undisclosed production method(s)?
Regardless, Benchmark Small Batch will likely provide few surprises to its suspecting consumers. It’s about as basic as bourbon comes, save for its somewhat distinct corn-forward character. If you enjoy Buffalo Trace and don’t mind younger profiles, this will likely be up your alley. Everyone else can easily pass and not miss a thing.