Tag Archives: Buffalo Trace Antique Collection

Finding The Heir To Pappy

Everyone’s Van Winkled out this year, and it’s not likely to get any better. What options do we have out there?

To be clear, this isn’t a search for the next best wheated bourbon. I’m simply trying to get to the bottom of the question of what we should turn our focus to in the absence of any sort of reasonable shot of finding Pappy Van Winkle. What’s the absolute best bourbon out there on the shelves that you have a snowball’s chance in hell of finding?

To make sure one particular tasting session doesn’t sway the results, there are a few criteria we’re going to be judging this one on.

Appropriately “Bourbon-y” Name: “Pappy Van Winkle” is practically the picture of southern bonhomie. “Pappy” as a word alone just works. Append it to anything and you’d swear it was from south of the Mason-Dixon line. For example, “Pappy’s Village Vanguard.” Holy crap, hard swinging bebop in an Atlanta speakeasy. Done deal.

Availability: If it’s as hard to find as Pappy, then just buy Pappy.

Rugged, Cool Persona: Look, you may love Evan Williams Wild Honey. Fact is, it’s just not going to pass muster. Honey undermines the entire thing. Whiskey is as much the wild west as it is the deep south, and Lee Van Cleef would have shot Blondie dead if he found out he was sucking down some artificial-cherry-flavored monstrosity. And rightfully so.

Smooth, Easy Drinking Character: While I’m not a fan of lionizing “smoothness” as the end-all, be-all desirable trait in a bourbon, the simple fact is that Van Winkle is tremendously easy drinking. If it’s not agreeably drinkable all night either neat or on the rocks, it’s just not going to be a worthy heir.

Unlikely To Be Usurped By Foodies: I love a good meal as much as the next guy. But let’s not kid ourselves, the celeb chefs helped drive the mystique of Pappy, which got zillions of foodies interested, which no doubt got the New York Post writing about it. Ideally this will either fly under the radar or just not work for that crowd.

Finally, we will of course score with an eye to taste because that can’t be ignored.

Our whiskeys of choice:

George T. Stagg – We’ll use the 2012 edition of this perennial favorite for this article. The 70-something-percent bruiser routinely tops aficionados’ lists of best whiskeys of the year. Is it time to trade wheat in for rye?

Rock Hill Farms – A 100 proof rye recipe bourbon made by Buffalo Trace. Maybe you’ve tried it. Maybe not. We’ll see how it stacks up.

Baker’s – Not rare by any stretch, a 107 proof rye recipe from Beam.

Basil Hayden’s - Relatively easy to find, one of the lesser-heralded Beam small batch whiskeys at 80 proof.

Elmer T. Lee – a beloved (by those in the know) 90 proof Buffalo Trace sipper.

Old Weller Antique 107 – Another 107 proof entry, from Buffalo Trace and a wheater. If you aged this, theoretically it could become Pappy.

Jim Beam White Label - Utterly available. Maybe the love of our lives has been right in front of our eyes in this 80 proofer.

That’s more than enough entries. Let’s begin the competition!

Appropriately Bourbon-y Name

We’re looking for a certain rustic charm, something that suggests classic Americana, southern tradition, but a certain aged wisdom. By the numbers:

Whiskey Comment Score
Baker’s Middle of the road. I don’t know Baker, but it does make you think of apple pie, which is pretty darned American. However, there’s no big Southern call to arms. 6
Basil Hayden’s Not quite there. It evokes Basil Rathbone, who is certainly old-timey but decidedly not American. If you don’t think of him, then you’re probably thinking of Italian herbs, which clearly means this is a miss.  4
Elmer T. Lee Now we’re getting somewhere. Elmer probably word-associates to “Fudd” for many of us, that works. Lee, of course – the General Lee or Robert E. Lee – if your mind goes to Hazzard County or history class, we’re in the deep south. High marks. 7
Jim Beam White Label  It’s hard to dock the name “Beam” any points, and Kid Rock’s recent association has certainly bolstered attempts to reclaim the South, but – wait a minute — Kid Rock is from Michigan! This really is like “Johnnie Walker”: A lot of people don’t even know it’s scotch. Middle of the road.  6
George T. Stagg (2012) An undeniable, huntin’ kind of name, this brings to mind camping, deers, elaborate outdoorsy designs burned into leather belts, and so on. What goes better with cowboys than whiskey? I don’t know what.  9
Old Weller Antique This isn’t bad. “Old Weller” both sounds old and has history; you might also mishear it as Old Yeller. It could be improved by dropping the “d” (“Ol’ Weller”) or getting a little more colloquial – “Ol’ Timey” – or moonshiney-misspelled (“Anteek”). “Weller’s Ol’ Timey Whiskey” would have scored higher. 8
Rock Hill Farms Sounds like a premium lunchmeat. “Rock Hill Farms Black Forest Ham” sounds more accurate than “Rock Hill Farms Kentucky Straight Bourbon”.  2

AVAILABILITY

What good is the heir to Pappy if it’s just as hard to find as Pappy?

Whiskey Comment Score
Baker’s Reasonably easy; you won’t necessarily find this at a convenience store but certainly anything decently stocked (BevMo, BevWa, K&L, Wally’s, Wine House, etc) is going to have it.  7
Basil Hayden’s A little less common than Baker’s but still roughly as available. Rumor has it that this may be dropping the age statement which could contribute to the mid-grade challenge of finding it.  6
Elmer T. Lee Slightly less common than Basil Hayden’s and occasionally off the shelves; mentioned as a shortage possibility by David Driscoll earlier this year. Perhaps the word of this one is getting out there. 5
Jim Beam White Label  I think McDonald’s and Starbucks now sells this stuff. Ubiquitous.  10
George T. Stagg (2012) I’ll trade you 180 hen’s teeth for your Stagg. 1
Old Weller Antique Again, reasonably common anywhere Buffalo Trace is sold. This would generally be in the class of a Baker’s.   7
Rock Hill Farms Roughly as common as Elmer T. Lee – one of those secondary brands that is available when there’s shelf space to spare. Frequently crowded out by an undistinguished, overpriced micro.  5

Rugged, cool persona

Them good ol’ boys drank whiskey and rye. They didn’t have themselves none of those city-slicker artisan whiskeys with labels designed by guys in San Francisco who were busy checking Twitter. We may love SoMa, but Pappy can’t be replaced by some dude giving you an elevator pitch for his startup before he hops on his bike to go back to the Mission.

Whiskey Comment Score
Baker’s Familiar. “Who brought this whiskey?” “Oh, it’s Baker’s – you should ask him where he got it.” Also, baking is a hands-on job, so I’ll give it that. However, the name doesn’t involve cowboys, meat, fistfights, wranglin’ cattle, or anything like that.  6
Basil Hayden’s Too busy playing the grand piano to be evaluated.  2
Elmer T. Lee He may be an older dude, but ol’ Elmer could have kicked your ass back in his day. This is spiritual kin to Pappy. Old Grand-Dad would have scored similarly but that particular old dude’s deeds weren’t heroic enough for us to remember his name. Now Elmer just hangs out on the porch, tells you stories about the war, and makes cultural references that predate you by a couple decades. Southern cool. 8
Jim Beam White Label Rugged for sure; Jim Beam would fistfight a riding lawnmower and win. However, Jim Beam is a kissing cousin of tequila: things might just get a little out of control when he shows up to the party. Rugged, yes. Cool in the Paul Newman sense? Maybe not so much. 7
George T. Stagg (2012) With a name like George T. Stagg you’re pretty much destined to win any “rugged, cool” competition.  9
Old Weller Antique Not bad. This is what the younger guys go for when they want to seem older, but not disrespectful to tradition. Rough and tumble but with some refinement – that’s what we’re looking for.  6
Rock Hill Farms Bristol Farms, Rock Hill Farms. Overpriced, slightly upscale grocery stores with small selections and smaller parking lots. About as ruggedly cool as an NPR pledge drive. 2

SMOOTH, EASY DRINKING CHARACTER

Again, the hunt is for something that’s as easily quaffable as Pappy. Ultra high proof may be enjoyable on its own, but it’s not something that fits the Pappy mold. Which of our bourbons scratches that itch?

Whiskey Comment Score
Baker’s Runs a bit hot. If you’ve developed your manly bourbon drinking skills, this should be no real challenge though. Impress your friends as they choke on their weak 80 proof drinks.  5
Basil Hayden’s  More “watery” than “smooth”. Has that kind of weird disagreeable character that ruins Irish whisky as well.  6
Elmer T. Lee  Sweet and rich. This is right down the line of “easy drinking”. However, as a single barrel with no real information on the label, you might get stung by an odd barrel.  8
Jim Beam White Label  The secret weapon of drinkability. Identifiably bourbon, no strange grain, massive batches for consistency, but low proof enough that you can drink all night. It may not taste like much, but it’s easy to drink.   7
George T. Stagg (2012) About as “smooth and easy drinking” as a salad of cinnamon and fire ants. Hellaciously good but even the most hardcore of bourbon lovers will admit to giving this one a splash of water.  4
Old Weller Antique  Given that this stuff eventually becomes Pappy, it should be no surprise that it’s an easy sipper. Like Baker’s, can run a touch warm.  7
Rock Hill Farms No! At least the barrel I tried was harsh and tannic – barrel variance here may kill you if you’re trying to look cool and get a mouth full of black tea and wood shavings.  4

UNLIKELY TO BE USURPED BY FOODIES

There’s no doubt that the shortage of Pappy has been in part driven by the embrace it’s received from celebrity chefs and foodies outside of the bourbon circle. More buyers on rare stuff means less to go around, which potentially puts any of these in the same crunch as Pappy. Let’s check.

Whiskey Comment Score
Baker’s Second fiddle to Booker’s, lacks glamour in its price tier – outgunned by the more popular Woodford and Maker’s options. Probably safe for some time.  6
Basil Hayden’s Mentioned in passing in a food diary by Alton Brown, though not praised or reviled. Uncomfortably close but safe. Seems to have more traction among the cocktails crowd than epicures.  5
Elmer T. Lee Quietly under-appreciated though spoken of highly when mentioned in foodie contexts.  7
Jim Beam White Label Broadly safe. Yes, a likely pick for more honest-to-god homestyle cooking when making bbq, but when elevated to higher cuisine, Jim stays home and his older brother Knob Creek or that Woodford guy gets the call.  8
George T. Stagg (2012)  Clearly the next big thing.  3
Old Weller Antique DISQUALIFIED.
Mentioned by David Chang in the Fallon video. Technically he’s holding a W.L. Weller, but he’s talking Old Weller. Having made the cut to be in the video, it’s already in dangerous territory.
 0
Rock Hill Farms Tumbleweed. Maybe safer than even Jim Beam white.  9


TASTING

This is where the rubber meets the road. While we may be tired of the Pappy hype, it’s undeniable that its reputation has been earned thanks to the consistently great taste it delivers. In this set, we will assign numeric scores to the letter grades – F is 0, D- is one, and so on, up to A+ being worth 12 points.

Baker’s 7y 53.5% ABV
Nose:
  A light sweetness, with a good hearty dose of wood, some caramel and a touch of vanilla. Familiar beam sugary notes come through after a minute. Gets a bit thin and slightly peppery. Softens with a bit of time in the glass.
Palate:  A little cinnamon up front, some heat on the lips. Lots of caramel, some wood, a very little bit of dried orange. Slightly leathery and a hint of tobacco.
Finish:  A little kick of black cherries upfront, some vanilla behind and then a little light pepper.
Comment: This drinks a little hotter than it should, but it’s one of the best Beam products I’ve had. Nice caramel body.
Rating: B-

Basil Hayden’s 8y 40% ABV
Nose:
  Slightly watery and thin upfront; caramel and a reasonable amount of wood. Lightly peppery, a touch of orange. A fair amount of vanilla.
Palate:  Thin on the palate, leads slightly sweet with a little bit of caramel and sugar; a little hint of orange. A little slight sour corn note that is more classic bourbon than new make. A little wood but it’s kind of a waterlogged oaky note. Vanilla fairly abundant.
Finish:  Thin, a little cinnamon heat but it’s kind of quick. Surprising heat given the mellowness of the rest of it. A slightly nutty note late. A touch of vanilla, the faintest hint of black cherry.
Comment:  This is just kind of bland and OK. Decent if you’re maybe trying to graduate to bolder bourbons and you’ve been drowning bottom-shelf stuff in cola.
Rating: C+

Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel 45% ABV
Nose: 
Light and sweet. Caramel upfront with a faintly floral and piney rye presence. a very faint touch of black cherries, lightly dry tobacco, a touch of black pepper. 
Palate: 
Light but not entirely thin. Caramel and vanilla lead with some gentle wood influence behind; a light dose of oranges and a faint touch of orange zest. Suggestions of cinnamon, a hint of black cherry and a faint bubblegum.
Finish: 
Black cherry surprisingly leads with an unexpected heat. Goes back towards caramel and vanilla with a faint hint of pineapple (pushing slightly towards Juicy Fruit gum). Gentle wood influence. 
Comment: 
A nice easy sipper. Very well done with some good dimension. It’s possible that if some of the edges were sanded down this could be a B+. 
Rating:  
B

Jim Beam White Label 40% ABV
Nose: 
Lightly spiced with a very faint touch of nutmeg, pepper, mainly a light bit of rye. Some caramel. Thin, a bit watery, some more straight alcohol notes on the nose.
Palate:  A light trace of wood, corn sweetness, slightly vegetal. Caramel creeping in at the edges. A bit of the Beam raw sugar taste and some building heat. Watery and light.
Finish:  A bit hot, slightly peppery, with a little show of wood. Again a slightly sour presence. Faintly doughy.
Comment:  Watery and unremarkable. Fine for mixing, mostly unobjectionable neat but an awful boring pour.
Rating: C+

George T. Stagg 2012
Nose: 
Familiar Stagg nose – tons of caramel and a good bit of wood with a very heavy dose of cinnamon on top. Black cherries,  some toffee. 
Palate: 
Rich mouthfeel, fairly caramel heavy with a touch of corn sweetness, seasoned wood, cinnamon, and chili oil. Plenty of heat!
Finish: 
Black cherries and black tea lead, wood right behind. Quite woody and a touch tannic. Caramel and corn. Lasts and lasts. 
Comment: 
Sweeter than some previous Staggs with lots of caramel, but an unexpected tannic element this year. Good but not as gloriously complex as in the past. Water, unlike the past, does this no favors at all. 
Rating:
B+

Old Weller Antique (Private Barrel Selection) 53.5%
Nose:
Slightly dry with wood and black pepper; a light but dry hint of black cherries on the back end. Almost medicinal, like a Luden’s cough drop. Lightly vegetal – slight corn husks and turbinado; a hint of romaine heart and celery root. Light cinnamon.
Palate:  Light in the mouth, leading immediately with the black cherry note but then the cinnamon takes over with some heat which increases. Some light corn; a boozy buttercream character balanced with some raw sugar.
Finish:  Black cherry, dry wood. Corn sweetness. Lasting and resolves to wood.
Comment:  This is just a touch drier than I prefer but nice. An interesting nose – though it’s got a strongly vegetal component, it’s not necessarily new-makey or funky… it just has that character.
Rating: B

Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel 50% ABV
Nose:
  Dry and slightly piney, lightly peppery, heavy rye influence. Woody and slightly funky. Dark, dark, dark black cherry note. After a bit, a slightly caramel top note but it’s watery and blown out by the tannin bomb.
Palate:  Mouth coating, a little vanilla upfront but then dominated by that almost oppressive wood and rye note with a piney kick. Fairly tannic.
Finish:  Warm upfront, fades – black tea in huge measure initially, then wood, pepper, rye, a touch of black cherry. Slightly astringent.
Comment:  I’ve seen more positive reviews elsewhere and since this is a single barrel product there will obviously be a large amount of variation. However, this one absolutely doesn’t do it for me.
Rating: C-

 

Name Available Rugged? Smooth Foodies Taste Total
Bakers 6 7 6 5 6 7 37
Basil Hayden’s 4 6 2 6 5 6 29
Elmer T. Lee 7 5 8 8 7 8 43
Jim Beam White Label 6 10 7 7 8 6 44
George T. Stagg 9 1 9 4 3 9 35
Old Weller Antique 8 7 6 7 0 8 36
Rock Hill Farms 2 5 2 4 9 4 26

As we can see, Rock Hill Farms shouldn’t have been in this race. Basil Hayden’s also didn’t really know what it was doing with itself. Old Weller and Baker’s made respectable showings, and George T. Stagg was right there with them (and likely could have won had it been an overall bourbon excellence comparison). That left us with two to battle it out for the top spot. Elmer T. Lee made a respectable showing, but we’re clearly left with one conclusion:

If you like Pappy Van Winkle but don’t want to deal with the cost or hassle, the next bourbon you should be drinking, without a doubt, is Jim Beam White Label.

0

And on that bombshell, goodnight!

 

Thanks to Josh Feldman for the RHF sample!

Eagle Rare 17y (Fall 2010) – 45%

Nose:  Vanilla, wood, light caramel, a definite solvent edge to the alcohol, a little light apple and faint apricot. Some molasses and dust.
Palate:  Wood intially, mildly bitter and astringent, medium-heavy mouthfeel, virtually no burn, a vaguely salty sweetness, some later vanilla and fruit. Light rye spice.
Finish:  Light, somewhat spirity, medium finish, bringing the fruit up. A little rye.
Comment:  It doesn’t stack up nor really rate against the rest of 2010′s BTAC. It’s a fine whiskey, doesn’t really merit the price . Unfocused and lacking real complexity. Thin and a bit of a mess.
Rating: C+

Rather than integrating this into the 2011 post, I wanted to provide these notes for reference on the 2010 whiskey which was markedly inferior.

Eagle Rare 17y (Fall 2011) – The Rebuttal

In previous posts on this year’s Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, I haven’t hesitated to poke fun at Eagle Rare as not deserving to be part of the collection. After last year’s collection I felt rather confident in my assertion that the Antique Collection consisted of four great whiskies and Eagle Rare 17.

When the opportunity presented itself to try this year’s Eagle Rare, I figured it was only fair to give it a taste. If it was underwhelming again, I’d feel confident in all future write-offs of Eagle Rare.

I poured the Eagle Rare into my glass this evening ready to be underwhelmed – what’s to like? – and prepared to nose it in all of its 45% ABV glory. After a summer of high-proof bourbons, a bourbon under 100 proof seemed like a painfully unfunny punchline.

Immediately I was surprised by this year’s nose. There are sweet notes of corn in abundance and a slightly floral rye note. That is a promising start for me. Wood was certainly present as you’d expect with a 17 year old whiskey, but not out of balance or overoaked. A slight hint of white pepper provided a faint prickle. Black cherries gave some depth and darkness to the flavor, and there was a faint marshmallow hint. This was starting to hit all of my buttons. A little maple syrup could be detected at the edges, as well as some fresh cedar and pine on the nose.

To my personal taste, this had a nose that was dangerously close to being in line with my preferred profile. `Maybe not turned up to eleven and rocking out, but balanced nicely.

The palate entry was very light. Extremely light – my first impression was that it was almost watery. I thought this was where it would all fall apart. Much to my surprise the white pepper notes were the underpinning for some faint and agreeable warming. The corn sweetness was at the center, balanced by a moderate note of oak. For a fleeting second, a faint vegetal corn note could be perceived, reminding me of the youth and fire this once had. The floral bloom of rye was again evident as well.

It wasn’t the most impressive palate, but far from the worst. Drinkable in the extreme. My personal preferences run towards a weightier and bolder palate, but it was hard to deny the overall balance and well-constructed nature of this whiskey. My only quibble really was the mouthfeel which struck me as thin.

Unsurprisingly, this carried into the finish. Being a lighter whiskey, it didn’t have a long-lasting finish, nor was it particularly bold. The sweetness was again the center of attention. Wood was present as was the pepper note. After a moment or two, there were some black tea-like tannins. For the most part, this finish was OK.

As I continued to sip I was forced to really examine this whiskey. Was my negative impression of Eagle Rare a sign of my own biases? Was I perhaps more strongly prejudiced towards bruising, 65%+ cask-strength whiskies despite my protestations to the contrary? Honestly, I concluded, I was (and I am).

The fact is that I would pour this Eagle Rare for virtually any bourbon aficionado and it would do well. It’s not going to knock over the most die-hard, extreme taste adventurer (which I’m forced to admit includes my personal preference). However, it is utterly agreeable and easy-drinking.

What would I change? Well, I think it would benefit somewhat from a slightly thicker mouthfeel. The sweetness feels somewhat detached – for some reason, sweetness works better for me when it’s a full, mouth-coating bourbon. I also think a slight tweak of the ABV – perhaps to 100 proof – would help bring things into clearer focus.

All this is a long way of saying that I’m forced to admit that I’ve been unfair to Eagle Rare and that it doesn’t necessarily deserve to be a whipping boy. I do think it has a tenuous claim to being part of the BTAC – it’s less dynamic than powerhouses like the Weller or the Handy. But perhaps it’s there because it’s a very well executed, easy-drinking bourbon for the average joe. I can’t really see what would be objectionable to the average palate on this one, unless you simply didn’t like whiskey.

At a glance:

Eagle Rare 17y (Fall 2011) 45% ABV
Nose:
A rather pleasant nose – sweet notes of corn and a slightly floral note of rye. Reasonable wood balance, certainly not overoaked. Slight hint of white pepper; slight hint of black cherries and the faintest whisper of marshmallow. Maple syrup is lightly present. A bit of cedar and pine.
Palate: Light on the palate. Gradually warming. Nice corn sweetness. A moderate oak note; the faintest hint of a vegetal corn note. A bit of floral rye. Faint dusting of white pepper.
Finish: Short-ish. Not very bold, not very lasting. The sweetness takes the forefront. Wood present; the pepper is there. A little bit of black tea tannins.
Comment: The nose is great. The palate and finish are a little lightweight for me with this profile. I honestly wonder if this might sing at 100 proof. This is better than last year’s for sure.
Rating:  B

William Larue Weller: 2009 • 2010 • 2011

As I noted recently, it’s Buffalo Trace Antique Collection season, which means that the utter insanity surrounding a few great bourbons and ryes (and Eagle Rare 17) is in full swing. Friday morning I received an email from K&L letting me know my pick in their raffle had arrived. Yes, this is how sad and over the top the mania is: they have to raffle off spots for whiskey. I told you this was impossibly nerdy.

Having found by chance the George T. Stagg, I had one other high in my sights: The 2011 release of William Larue Weller. More people seem to prefer the completely massive, totally over the top profile of the George T. Stagg, but I have a definite preference for the William Larue Weller. It’s a wheat recipe bourbon (versus the rye recipe of Stagg) and it’s everything I like about wheaters.

The 2010 release is still high on my list of favorite whiskeys around; it’s just totally stunning. I’d also done a trade recently and got a sample of the 2009, which is great but definitely different from the 2010. I was looking forward to the 2011 release.

Now that it’s here, I decided to take the opportunity to taste it against the last two years’ releases to see how they stack up and to provide some context. William Larue Weller happens to be one of my absolute favorite whiskeys ever, so this had a very lofty heritage to live up to.

The 2010 Weller was actually the first I’d tasted and remains one of my absolutely favorite whiskeys, despite its somewhat extreme profile. The 2009 was acquired via a sample swap with Sku and the ’11′s provenance has been discussed.

The 2010 Weller is an absolutely ridiculous whiskey. It’s one of the most woody bourbons I’ve ever had, but surprisingly it doesn’t go over the line into being too bitter. It’s not like sucking on a cheap pencil… it’s more like being in an old wood-paneled study where the wood and furniture polish smell just permeates the room. It’s rather warm on the nose, which is to be expected given its strength. The wood and furniture polish are rounded out by a slight hint of toffee and just the faintest hint of apples. The palate continues with the warmth, but it’s not overpowering. It’s spiced with cinnamon and star anise; grain and corn are also predominant as well as the wood notes. It’s syrupy and rich and has just a hint of molasses. The finish is grainy and warm and dries ever so slightly. There’s some corn sweetness as things taper off as well.

While the 2010 is all about wood, I found the 2009 to be a showcase of grain. The nose has corn, caramel and toffee in abundance. There are light hints of cinnamon and clove and it seems less hot on the nose. However, the palate is where things heat up quickly. Wood is noticeable, as you’d expect on a Weller, and there are dark fruits – plums, black cherries – as well. There’s some corn sweetness as well. The palate is a little lighter and not as syrupy, with some general grainy notes (no doubt the wheat). The finish is long, rich, full, and lasting, but slightly dry. It’s a great whiskey overall and I think it’s a little more lively than the ’10.

Which brings us to 2011′s entry. This year is notable for the increased ABV – Weller is now 66% ABV which puts it ever closer to George T. Stagg territory. The nose immediately presents huge toffee notes with some caramel; it’s buttery and has a definite pecan note. Maple syrup is in abundance; wood is present but not overbearing. There’s some white pepper and cinnamon as well as some black cherries at the edges of this one. The palate continues the rich, buttery experience of the nose – it’s sweet as well with toffee in abundance again, some wood and some vanilla. There’s molasses, oranges and pepper to be found as well. As it finishes, the cherry moves center stage initially, and there’s wood at the forefront for the first time as well. There’s vanilla, a faint hint of corn sweetness and some slight hints of marshmallow.

Another way the 2011 Weller shines is with water. It simplifies its character – much more caramel and corn on the nose; on the palate it’s all caramel and toffee with a buttery mouthfeel and a hint of cherries. With water it’s insanely smooth.

To be honest, I think the 2011 Weller is superior to 2010 and 2009. 2009 is good but is a bit fiery and hot. 2010 can be overly bitter and a little closed off. The 2011 is warm, open and inviting, very balanced in flavor and with a lot more going on in the nose. It is extremely enjoyable neat; it’s also phenomenal with a bit of water. Really, you can’t go wrong with it unless you decide to mix it with Coke.

These bourbons can be costly and an extreme style exercise. However, they stand up to the price tag in my opinion. It’s not an everyday sipper, it’s a great one for a special occasion – just don’t let those occasions be too far apart!

At a glance:

William Larue Weller 2009 62.4% ABV
Nose: Corn, caramel and toffee in abundance. Lightly dusty with some woody notes. Mild burn given the ABV. Light hints of cinnamon and clove.
Palate: Much warmer and bold on the palate. Strong burn, wood notable, some dark fruit notes like plum and light hint of black cherry, definite corn sweetness, mildly syrupy, some general grainy notes (no doubt the wheat).
Finish: Strong, a moderate heat, lasting, but somewhat dryer than the palate. Warm, rich, full, syrupy.
Comment: This is much, much livelier and does not have the deep hints of age that I think the 2010 had. Very heavy, pleasant and notable grain and corn notes. Really solid and a heavy hitter. Pleasant nose.
Rating: A-

 

William Larue Weller 2010 63.3% ABV
Nose: Quite hot on the nose. Less corn evident, more wheat. A smoothly integrated wood note with kind of a dusty, polished furniture note. Smells like an old study. A somewhat bright sweetness that brings some toffee notes with it.
Palate: Warm but not overpowering. Lightly spicy – some cinnamon, hints of star anise, some grain and some corn, medium wood notes, syrupy with the slightest hint of molasses. Ever so slightly salty.
Finish: Grain and warmth which give way to wood, which dries slightly on the palate. It also has a slight corn sweetness to it.
Comment: This is really good. Less grainy than the ’09, more woody and dusty, it’s old and sedate. Of the two this wins by a whisker but I wouldn’t turn either down.
Rating: A-

 

William Larue Weller 2011 66.75% ABV
Nose:
  Big toffee notes initially with some caramel beneath. Slightly buttery; hints of pecan. Maple syrup in abundance; wood is present but not overbearing. Some cherry notes hanging out in the background as well. White pepper and cinnamon. Water opens up more of the caramel notes and brings some corn and grain to the front. 
Palate:
  Warm and rich; slightly buttery. Sweet with toffee; some wood present; maple syrup; some vanilla. Light molasses and a hint of oranges. A light dusting of pepper. Water makes this ridiculously smooth and buttery, there are some cherry notes but it’s dominated by toffee and caramel. Insanely smooth. 
Finish:  Black cherry and wood in abundance, some vanilla at the edges; slightly bitter; the slightest trace of corn sweetness. Some slight hints of marshmallow. 
Comment:  
This is easily the best Weller of the last three, in my opinion; balanced and clean. However, where that would make it an A based on the previous years, it just feels slightly restrained. Water makes this an absurdly syrupy, buttery, rich whiskey – I don’t know if I prefer it more with or without the water. Dealer’s choice.
Rating: A-

Stagg Sunday

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.
But this is too much fun to waste time on snark.

This weekend I unexpectedly ran across the George T. Stagg and got to spend a nice, lazy Sunday afternoon getting acquainted with it.

2011 Stagg

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.
Rating: A-

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.
Rating: A-