Usually, a 1-liter bottle of bourbon with a nondescript black label and a pricetag of $15 would set off warning bells, but some less-cautious part of my brain said “hey, even if it’s awful we can make a lot of Old Fashioneds… at like, $1 apiece!” Luckily for me, it’s not awful. In fact, it’s shockingly, inexplicably NOT BAD.
Before we all join in on a chorus of “ding, dong, the expensive bourbon witch is dead” (is that too tortured a metaphor?), I have to point out that Benchmark is weirdly good, as in it doesn’t really taste that much like bourbon. It’s more like a… thin fruity corn brandy, if you will. The specs all add up, though. It’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (meaning minimum 3 years in new oak barrels) from a sour mash, and it’s made by that paragon of bourbon virtue, Buffalo Trace. In fact, it’s made from the same mashbill as Buffalo Trace, the Staggs, and Eagle Rare: 75% corn, 10% rye, and 15% barley (for enzymes). Despite the big “8” on the front (for “Old No. 8 Brand”), it’s definitely not 8 years old. I’d guess 3 to 5. It’s bottled at 40% ABV in a bottle with a plastic screw cap. Did I mention it’s $15 a liter? It’s $15 a liter.
The Benchmark Old No. 8 brand was purchased by Sazerac (Buffalo Trace) from Seagram in 1992, when it was originally distilled at the Four Roses distillery. Sazerac moved production to the Buffalo Trace Distillery and tacked “McAfee’s” onto the name, in honor of the McAfee brothers who surveyed the site of the Buffalo Trace Distillery in 1775, long before it was built.
Nose: A piercing tangy note of – I kid you not – Bubblicious watermelon bubblegum. That cannot be natural. Fruit punch, cotton candy, and Sour Patch Kids round out the trip down the candy aisle of my adolescent memory. One-dimensional and almost cloyingly sweet-smelling. Floral.
Palate: Thin watery body. Sweet corn (cornbread), plain bubblegum, marzipan, blanched almonds, and some light oak.
Finish: Short. Reminiscent of the aroma – slightly tangy and quite sweet in a high-fructose corn syrup kind of way. Ends quickly with more bubblegum, and no bitterness.
With Water: Water intensifies the weird artificial fruit notes in the aroma, and adds a layer of fresh creamed corn on the palate. At 40%, this definitely does not need any water.
Overall: This stuff has a powerful memory trigger for all the sweet fake sugary stuff I ate as a kid. If it weren’t… you know… alcohol it could almost be marketed to children. I would be totally unsurprised to learn that some loophole in the TTB labeling laws had allowed Buffalo Trace to tip a couple of ounces of bubblegum artificial flavoring into each vat. As it stands, I have no idea how they got this stuff to taste like this. I said earlier that it barely tastes like bourbon, with that wateriness and weird candy notes, so don’t buy this if you’re expecting a cheap-but-solid bourbon.
At any rate, it’s one of the cheapest bourbons on the planet, and it’s super easy to drink, even neat. It’s light enough to shrink in on itself in a cocktail, so if you like to taste the bourbon in your Old Fashioned, you might want to look a shelf or two higher up. If you don’t care about that, this is definitely not swill. How’s that for a recommendation?