Blade and Bow – cheap marketing or great bourbon?

BLADE AND BOW
I bought this particular bottle in late 2017 or early 2018

MASH BILL – Unknown

PROOF – 91

AGE – NAS

DISTILLERY – Bottled by Diageo, blending bourbons from (mostly) unstated sources

PRICE – $50

WORTH BUYING? – Yes

Back in the Summer of 2017, I bought a bottle of Blade and Bow and marked it down as a fave. I thought it made an elegant, sweet, clean Spring or Summer sipper. It struck me then as an interesting, more floral variation on the standard release Buffalo Trace bourbon experience. Not too long after, I bought another bottle that I found for a few bucks cheaper than the usual $50 price. But it sat on my shelf for a very long time.

Finally I cracked that second bottle open this past September. Now, with many bourbons imbibed since 2017, my senses went straight to Barton. But there was something else in the mix. Barton with an extra emphasis on chocolate fudge. Also, the experience was more autumnal overall than I recalled, not just Spring or Summer like as before. So, a perfectly excellent pour, most any time of the year.

Tasting it again after so long, and struck anew by how perfectly good it is, I wondered why Blade and Bow isn’t more in demand. The answer may be a banal matter of where FOMO aims its mighty yet fickle forces. If this was released by the people behind Sam Houston or Bardstown Boubon Company it would likely command much higher prices and greater purchase rates. Yet Blade and Bow goes largely uncelebrated.

I won’t explicitly add this post to my Summer 2021 five-part series on familiarity, though I suspect it will relate to those posts. Blade and Bow certainly deserves a spot in the conversation about sourced bourbon and marketing. Controversial for its claims to the fabled Stitzel-Weller distillery, where Pappy Van Winkle once was made, Blade and Bow courts suspicion among bourbon fans. Some people deride the brand for its open capitalization on the famed Stitzel-Weller name. Here’s how the brand puts it on their website:

A homage to the legendary Stitzel-Weller distillery, Blade and Bow Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey uses a unique Solera System aging process to preserve some of the distillery’s oldest whiskey stocks, including some of the last bourbon produced there before it closed in 1992. The solera liquid is mingled with other fine whiskies aged and bottled at Stitzel-Weller…

The Solera System is a somewhat controversial one, used by other spirits makers as well. In principle, it’s an interesting way to blend variously aged stocks. The controversy arises when a brand makes a point that certain prized liquids are involved, yet the exact amount remains unknown. Using the “legendary Stitzel-Weller” bourbon as an example, how much of it could possibly still be swirling in the mix given the limited stocks in use are at best from 1992, nearly thirty years ago, and Blade and Bow has been blending them continuously since 2015?

But this is all marketing. My personal preference is for accuracy and transparency when it comes to whiskey marketing. Not every distillery shares that preference. Not every whiskey fan cares either. For some, it’s ultimately the tasting experience that matters, marketing or brand name be damned. But if one’s personal finances matter, and if getting what you are led to believe you’ve paid for matters, then marketing in relation to the tasting experience does tend to matter.

And so I can understand anyone raising an eyebrow to the $50 Blade and Bow with its overwhelming emphasis on the Stitzel-Weller name. The website and the bottle’s label reference histories that arguably have nothing directly to do with the current product, itself financed by the massive Diageo corporation, which bought and reopened the derelict Stitzel-Weller distillery in 2014. There is something almost openly shystery about the brand.

So here we are, roughly three weeks after uncorking and as many pours into this bottle. These brief notes were tasted using a traditional Glencairn.

COLOR – medium ambers and pale yellows

NOSE – floral, grassy with fresh long-stem and dry grasses, sweet vanilla and caramel, fluffy fresh baked bread, a faint milk chocolate sauce note and some coffee

TASTE – a really nice, sweet caramel current carrying along the herbal and bread notes, some of the coffee and milk chocolate still in the mix, and a soft peppery bloom on swallowing

FINISH – the soft peppery bloom lingers steadily and long, with the caramel releasing from its sweetness a subtle fruit note like warm stewed apricot…

OVERALL – Perfectly nice and easy to sip, neither memorable nor forgettable, yet somehow also special, leaving me curious what a higher proof bottling would reveal…?

Well it’s good. Certainly not worth clamoring over in particular, and people don’t. But considering other bourbon experiences with similar taste profiles—I’m thinking about Wathen’s, 1792 Aged Twelve Years, certain aspects of recent Bardstown Bourbon Company and Sam Houston blends—I can imagine Blade and Bow being met with higher regard and selling better were they to drop the Stitzel-Weller obsession. The name appears nine times on the bottle itself. Okay! We get it, Diageo! You’re making this where other good stuff was once made that has since slipped into eternal legend. But Blade and Bow is not that stuff. Allow it its own identity. Admit who you’re sourcing from, and how much pre-1992 Stitzel-Weller bourbon is actually still at play. We’ll respect you more, and be more likely to buy your product.

Then again, maybe I’m actually totally wrong. Maybe Blade and Bow is selling just fine to suit Diageo’s quarterly projections. Okay. That puts the question back on me. Do I side with my principles of transparency in marketing, and no longer include Blade and Bow among my purchases or recommendations? Or do I side with the tasting experience?

Having posed the two questions, I took another sip. This is actually perfectly great bourbon. There are others like it. Some cost over twice as much. Others cost less. It is not so unique that I personally need to make it a regular return-visit on my ongoing whiskey journey. But I wouldn’t turn down a glass. And on some sips I even find it worthy of “special edition” and “limited release,” those meaningless marketing terms that suggest something uncommon. Blade and Bow is at once common and not.

And I’m grateful for what it’s prompted me to consider in terms of this triangle between theoretical principles, tangible experience, and the elemental nature of whiskey itself. I will enjoy this bottle of Blade and Bow, no question. And I will no doubt enjoy the conversations I have with those whom I share it with. We’ll be as likely to get into ethics and values as much as personal taste and flavor-induced memories. And isn’t that whiskey doing what whiskey does well?

Cheers!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s