It’s October, which means that the truly hardcore bourbon dork is hunting for a bottle or two from this fall’s Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. For my friends who are not engaged in this irredeemably nerdy pursuit, here’s the quick and dirty so you can carry on a conversation and impress at cocktail parties:
Every fall, Buffalo Trace releases five bourbons which are some of the most extreme whiskies that you can get with any regularity:
- George T. Stagg, an absolutely overpowering and massive cask-strength bourbon. Cask strength is one thing, but the Stagg releases are regularly over 70% alcohol by volume. This earns them the nickname “Hazmat” since you actually can’t fly with these (… because they’re hazardous materials).
- William Larue Weller, one of the most phenomenal and amazing wheated bourbons. The 2010 Weller is one of my all-time favorite bourbons, and the 2009 is not far behind. Like the Stagg, it’s cask strength (though usually high 50s/low 60s ABV).
- Thomas H. Handy, a bruising cask-strength rye whisky. If I were to summarize this in one phrase, it’d be “like getting hit in the face with a boxing glove covered in cinnamon”. It’s ridiculous and unbelievably powerful.
- Sazerac 18, a sublime 18 year old rye whiskey, which is about as far from the intensity of the Thomas Handy as you can get. It’s got an amazing, soft rye quality to it and is about as close to liquified rye bread as you can get.
- Eagle Rare 17 which.. is… Eagle Rare.. but.. 17 years old… I guess you can’t win ‘em all? Snark aside, I just don’t get this one.
This weekend I unexpectedly ran across the George T. Stagg and got to spend a nice, lazy Sunday afternoon getting acquainted with it.
You can read it there on the label – 71.3% ABV, a ridiculous 142.6 proof. You can interpret this as one ridiculously powerful, he-man bourbon, or two bottles for the price of one… I go both ways on it.
My first encounter with the Stagg was only last year when I got deeper into bourbon. At the time, I didn’t know what to make of it. I thought the 70% ABV was some sort of excessive, hyper-macho “because-we-can” thing. In the time since I had that bottle, I’ve experienced some amazing high-proof bourbons and have learned through experience that despite the ABV, you can actually come out with an incredibly nuanced bourbon.
This year’s Stagg is a massive but nuanced assault on the senses. There’s a lot of grain on the nose, with corn in abundance. There’s tons of caramel and toffee; hints of vanilla and good, well-seasoned wood. It’s kind of like a late summer harvest on the nose.
The palate does not disappoint – it’s warm as you’d expect, as well as rich and buttery, but the heat does not overpower. Toffee starts to emerge just before the heat builds, bringing notes of cinnamon, pepper, and chili oil. Oak balances with some bitterness and then there’s some intensely cherry flavors. There’s a slight bubblegum note that’s perceptible as well.
The finish is initially hot, but loses heat quickly. It remains intensely cherry, to the point that you almost can believe you’re eating cherries. Grain comes back in a big way but doesn’t overpower the cherries. There’s some rye spice after a while, which dries slowly to a corn note.
The other treat with a 2011 Stagg is on ice. The best word to describe Stagg on the rocks is “creamy”. The bitter elements recede and vanilla and cream come to the forefront. The nose gains some molasses and creme brûlée. The palate is toffee, caramel and vanilla, with some cinnamon and nutmeg and a hint of cherries.
Like I said: very nuanced and rich. The 2010 Stagg which I’d had recently prior to this was a little more distinctly spiced with anise very present; also cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. I also thought the 2010 had a trace of saltiness that complemented its caramel notes.
The real joy of the 2010 Stagg was the finish, which had apple pie, mulling spices, toffee, plums and black cherries. As with the 2011, it became really nicely creamy when ice was added, and more of a sweet treat as the wood receded in the presence of ice.
Ultimately, the Staggs are certainly an extreme whiskey – novices may be intimidated or put off. Fortunately, it’s a whiskey that is absolutely able to take what you throw at it – ice, water, air… just don’t add coke.
This year’s Stagg has the distinction of being the first A grade I give out on my blog. There are absolutely more coming from my backlog of notes, but since this is so tasty I wanted to bump it to the head of the list.
If you can find the Stagg, and it’s not an easy find, it’s an amazing whiskey.
At a glance:
George T. Stagg 2011 Edition – 71.3% ABV
Nose: Massively strong with plenty of spice and pepper up front. Corn in abundance initially, giving way to loads of caramel and toffee. Subtle undertones of vanilla; the vaguest hints of black cherry. Some well-seasoned wood comes in and then it all gives way back to corn and grain – smelling like a late summer harvest. With ice this becomes quite creamy and sweet on the nose; ample vanilla and cream. Sweet toffee and a little molasses and creme brûlée.
Palate: Warm on the palate, rich and buttery but not overpowering with heat. Toffee sweetness, growing heat with cinnamon and pepper and a bit of chili oil. Oak is evident and provides a slightly bitter note. After some time some cherry notes emerge as well. Faint hint of bubblegum far off in the distance. Ice makes this amazingly creamy and rich, bringing toffee, caramel, vanilla, heavy cream to the front, with some cinnamon and nutmeg. Some cherries to give a slight cut against the sweetness.
Finish: Hot but losing heat. Intensely cherry initially, almost tangibly so. The grain is evident and the cherry persists. Sweet and spicy, the finish lasts nicely. Some rye spice hangs around and there’s a nice dark fruit sweetness. After a while, corn re-emerges.
Comment: This continues the Stagg tradition of big, bold, spicy, powerful bourbons. There’s a ton of nuance in this one. There’s not a lot to say: it’s great.
George T Stagg – 2010 Edition 71.5% ABV
Nose: Powerful out of the gate (not surprising at 71.5%!) with wood immediately present and toffee right beside it. There is a kind of fall spice element to the nose, with hints of nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and anise. There’s also a butterscotch undertone to it. Big and bold but not closed.
Palate: Warming immediately with more caramel sweetness than the nose would indicate, with wood predominant. Continues to warm, has a molasses hint and a slight amount of saltiness to balance the caramel sweetness. Some dark fruits creep in – plums, black cherries. A little cold water and ice cuts the heat and woodiness and brings the fruitier notes to the front quite predominantly. It also pops out a little vanilla creaminess.
Finish: Cools from the palate, hints of apple pie, wood, mulling spices. Toffee is present as well. Plums and black cherries are also evident as well.
Comment: It’s great. I prefer the WLW for 2010 but this is amazing. It’s a bit sharp for me at cask strength though.