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Whiskey’s Unlikeliest Unicorn

After a quarter of a century, Blanton’s is finally getting its due.

“Why the hell did Blanton’s just skyrocket in popularity?” Kenny Coleman asked a roundtable of guests on his podcast, “Bourbon Pursuit,” in March. For the bulk of its 26-year existence, the Kentucky bourbon with a horse-adorned bottle topper has been a shelf turd in the United States. But then, suddenly, it transformed into a unicorn, impossible to find. After a quarter-century, Blanton’s is finally getting its due. But why did it take so long?

The Blanton’s story begins in 1983 when Nabisco offloaded Fleischmann’s Distilling to Grand Metropolitan. Fleischmann’s then-CEO Ferdie Falk and then-president Bob Baranaskas resigned and purchased Ancient Age, the key bourbon from beverage company Schenley Industries, as well as the George T. Stagg Distillery. But in the mid-1980s, bourbon was still whiskey non grata at home, and neither brand meant much to consumers.

In Japan, however, bourbon was booming, and economical brands like I.W. Harper, Four Roses and Early Times had become ubiquitous at trendy, American-style bars. Age International, as Falk and Baranaskas styled their new company, saw the opportunity to introduce a premium product, for which they tapped their master distiller Elmer T. Lee. The distiller looked to the memory of his late mentor, Col. Albert Blanton, former manager of the George T. Stagg Distillery, who had been known for hunting down “sugar barrels”—particularly great-tasting barrels—from Warehouse H, his private reserve, to bottle for friends and VIPs.

Released in Japan in the fall of 1984, at around $115 USD per bottle (or about $290 today), Blanton’s was unlike any other bourbon on the foreign market. Its packaging alone set it apart: a specially-made grenade-shaped vessel with a pewter bottle topper molded into the shape of a jockey and thoroughbred. Its waxed neck (which raised Maker’s Mark’s ire) featured a hangtag declaring, “The finest bourbon in the world comes from a single barrel.” Blanton’s was the world’s first widely commercial “single barrel,” a term Age International hoped consumers would associate with single malt Scotch. It was an immediate smash hit, so much so that Age International introduced higher-end labels like Gold Edition, a 103-proof bottling, and Straight From The Barrel, a cask-strength release; in 1992 Japanese company Takara Shuzo, then-known for its sake portfolio, purchased the company for $20 million.

Meanwhile, Blanton’s was released in the United States that same year for $25 a bottle (about $60 today), making it at the time one of the most expensive bourbons on the market. It was advertised in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal and Ivy League alumni magazines, and positioned as a luxury product. But in its initial test markets, Atlanta and Albuquerque, it underperformed, and by 1988 was selling for a mere $19.99 in many places. Though it was a cult hit in Kentucky, most Americans saw Blanton’s as nothing more than a “commercial curiosity,” writes Tom Acitelli in Whiskey Business: How Small-Batch Distillers Are Transforming American Spirits.

And yet, in Japan, which comprised two-thirds of Blanton’s sales, the brand foretold the coming bourbon boom. While 1991 may have been the worst year for bourbon sales in America since Prohibition, in 1992 The New York Times reported on “a growing number of deluxe bourbons that distillers hope will revitalize the shrinking market for bourbon in America,” including Blanton’s. By the aughts, bourbon had returned, and premium releases like Pappy Van Winkle and George T. Stagg wouldn’t last a single day on the shelves in retail outlets. Blanton’s, though, had always been a reliable shelf presence. Until one day it wasn’t.

“At first, I was baffled,” says Kenny Coleman, host of the “Bourbon Pursuit” podcast. “It hit the same level of people buying standard Weller Special Reserve and I couldn’t understand why,” he tells me.

But if you know anything about bourbon, it quickly becomes clear: Though owned by Takara Shuzo, Blanton’s is still made at Buffalo Trace (known as the George T. Stagg Distillery until 1992 when the Sazerac Company acquired it), the Frankfort, Kentucky distillery behind highly allocated items like Pappy Van Winkle and their Antique Collection. Neophyte drinkers reasoned that if you couldn’t nab Pappy or George T. Stagg or Weller or Elmer T. Lee, why not settle for Blanton’s?

“Blanton’s bottles sell instantly without an age statement on the label,” says Coleman, finding that oddly remarkable in an era when enthusiasts have become obsessed with age. “I look at it now as a marketing wonder.”

The brand has other, dorkier allures. Embedded at the base of each bottle topper is a single letter; when collected together, they spell “B-L-A-N-T-O-N’-S.” Each label also contains a hand-written “dump date.” One of the few brands to list the day the barrel was emptied, Blanton’s attracts some collectors in pursuit of specific bottles to commemorate wedding anniversaries or birth dates.

Even if the supply has increased since 2013 (the distillery wouldn’t confirm how much, saying “simply put, we just can’t make enough”), demand among collectors has grown. And though it’s become subject to hoarding, Blanton’s is the odd bourbon that rarely appears on secondary market forums at inflated prices—or at all. Buffalo Trace, for its part, has begun scanning driver’s licenses at the distillery gift store so customers can purchase only one bottle every three months. In the wider market, duty-free purchases at American airports have seen an uptick. (“Blanton’s alert! Duty free in terminal E at IAH. I left four behind,” is a typical cry in many private bourbon-focused groups on Facebook.) When I was flying internationally out of JFK late last year, I came upon a massive cache of Blanton’s, and I nearly loaded up before reminding myself that I don’t particularly like Blanton’s. But hype eventually seduces every bourbon drinker.

An awareness of this impulse is surely one reason why, in late February, Buffalo Trace announced that the export-only, limited Gold Edition would finally hit U.S. shelves later this year for $120. You can bet as soon as it does, it’ll be gone.

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