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A Group Buy In Action (or: Behind The Scenes of a BTSO Blog Post)

Buffalo Trace Single Oak 3 landed a week ago, and in my original plan, I would have had a blog post up tonight discussing the ins and outs of release 3. Unfortunately, things transpired differently and I spent the better part of the last week with a cold that required acetaminophen (a terrible mixer with alcohol) and also killed my palate.

However, in my downtime I prepared the Buffalo Trace Single Oaks to split among our group buy. I thought since I’ve written about group buys before, I’d take the opportunity to show you what goes into one like this. I should also say this is, in my opinion, the very best way to do the Single Oak Project, given that there are 192 375mL bottles being released over a four year span.

Last fall I got a lead on a full case of the first release of the Single Oak Project. I contacted some of my friends – former coworkers who had some cash to burn and an adventurous spirit, as well as a couple guys in LAWS including (as always) Sku, who has been writing about this project as well over at Recent Eats. We did the math and figured that splitting a case 6 ways gave everybody just over 2 ounces per bottle, just enough to fit in the usual 2oz bottle you can get from Specialty.

From that point on it’s become a quarterly routine which should continue through until summer 2015 if my math is right. Twelve bottles become 72 sample bottles which are boxed up and handed out.

One of these boxes arrives every quarter and it’s hard to keep it closed for long. There’s something about the process of preparation that, while time-consuming, is an enjoyable ritual.

The bottles are numbered on the exterior and accompanied by a release number sticker. It seems that they planned to release them quicker initially than they have been doing. All of these have had release dates that are much earlier than they’ve actually been coming out.

Twelve bottles just waiting to be opened... the anticipation is overwhelming.

The bottles, unsurprisingly, come in standard Buffalo Trace fancy-bourbon-bottle tissue paper, which seems to only serve the purpose of obscuring barrel number (on BTSOs) or hiding valuable proof/release info (on BTACs).

Each bottle, as you’ve likely seen by now, is screened with the Single Oak Project logo and has a sticker with the barrel number.

The back label is the same for all bottles and has some information about the project. It’s worth noting that none of the Single Oak Project bottles contain any reference to the variables present on any given bottle. The intent is for you to taste them blind and learn about them on the Single Oak Project website.

Once they’re all removed from the package and paper, I then move onto the next step – photographing the bottles. I like doing this so I can have my own photographs of the bottles. Product photography is something I’ve never worked with (I studied photojournalism) so it’s an interesting challenge. Every time I set up, I tweak something different.

By real standards my approach is hopelessly low-fi. A few 200w balanced fluorescent lights, an off-camera flash, and some posterboard to provide a backdrop. I’m tolerant of some flaws in the photograph given that I also worked as a production artist for a while, so I have plenty of tricks to get the photos where I want in a matter of minutes.

A small piece of paper acts as a reflector to help pick up color.

It’s not much but there’s satisfaction in having the ability to shoot without taking up much space storing the gear in our apartment, and without having spent much money. (I think the bulbs were the single most expensive cost in the shooting setup).

I usually take the opportunity to shoot a couple other bottles that I may have soon so I can include them in posts. All in all it’s a fun diversion but it moves quickly. For the technically minded, I’ve been shooting on a Nikon D40 (due to the fact that it’s small and light) with an older 85mm f/1.4 lens which has been one of my favorites for a long time.

After the fun of photography comes the part that is both exciting and nerve-wracking: filling 72 small bottles. Making sure there are enough bottles, caps and labels on hand is important. I usually do a quick inventory beforehand. One thing that some guys are doing in our group buy is recycling their bottles. It helps, especially if they return them as I sent them, as there’s less prep work. Plus, less bottles equal less wasted cash and space – at least to my mind. I’m also not one to keep these lingering around for a long time.

The filling station, where the next two hours will be spent.

Filling is an interesting balancing act. You need to quiet the part of your mind that says “what if I spill this?” – a voice that is very loud when you know every drop is accounted for and finding these bottles is not exactly easy. If you don’t spill something with a missed pour, maybe you’ll knock over a sample bottle – or worse yet – THE bottle. I’ve found the best thing for me is to just breathe slowly and evenly, move very deliberately and not let go until I know things are stable and flat on a surface. Moving without hesitation on a pour also helps.

This is probably the most nerve wracking process and the best thing to do, at least for me, is to try and remain present and focused strictly on the mechanics of what’s going on. Tracking your progress on the bottle or the set of bottles can cause you to lose focus and make mistakes. It’s this exercise in grounding yourself and being present that is the most difficult part but simultaneously one of the most rewarding.

This would be a hell of a time to get the yips.

After two ounces have been poured in, the remainder of the bottle is poured in in small measures using a plastic 5mL pipette that came with some whisky glass order. I don’t think I’ve ever used it for the intended purpose of painstakingly measuring artisan waters flown in from the north of Scotland, but it’s useful here to get everybody full and even.

After filling, bottles are capped and labeled.

After about six bottles I need to stop and clear my head and get a breath. I take the opportunity to clean up the counter where I’m working and wash out the bottles so the bourbon smell isn’t too overpowering in the kitchen. Sometimes I get clear notes off of the bourbons (release 2), sometimes I don’t get much unique from bourbon to bourbon (release 3 didn’t have an overwhelming character aside from one bottle that smelled great). I usually will take a break at this point because it’s been about an hour – each bottle takes roughly 10 minutes to fill, counting cleanup time after each bottle.

Using the whole buffalo: Box parts are used as dividers.

After pouring and cleaning up, the next step is to parcel each set of 12 bottles into a box that will be given to each of the six guys. To protect the bottles, I cut up pieces of the box that the bottles shipped in to act as dividers among the smaller bottles.

Heat shrink wraps are used to further protect the contents as well. After all of that, it’s basically done aside from the delivery of bottles to their recipients.

I hope you enjoyed the opportunity to see a bit of an unboxing and some of what goes into these BTSO releases. It’s a few hours of work but it’s a really enjoyable process and heightens my anticipation as I go through it. I’m sure in a year or two I’ll be singing a different tune, but for now it’s a very exciting point on my calendar.

I’ll be back soon with reviews of Round 3 as well as other whiskies. Until then, after all this work (and now getting over the cold) – it’s time for a drink.

Don't forget to recycle!

Single Oak Project – Quick Notes

As some people have found, I’ve added a condensed scorecard page with the ratings of all Single Oak bottlings I’ve had to date. If you are trying to figure out if the bottle on the shelf is any good (at least, according to me), I hope it’s useful.

Also a note for my LA based friends – The Wine House has a large selection of the Single Oaks on their shelves right now. I’ve seen a mix of release one and release two. If you’ve wanted to try one – or better still to split one among friends (they can be odd) – this is an easy time to pick one up. If you’re not in LA, unfortunately Wine House doesn’t ship spirits.

Single Oak Project release 3 will be reviewed shortly after I receive it. Stay tuned, as always.

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
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

Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20y

It’s currently Van Winkle season in bourbon land. That means that grown men are hunting for bottles of whiskey and doing everything they can to get them. In many ways, it’s like the Cabbage Patch craze of the early 80s – except it’s a longer-lasting craze at this point. Instead of downplaying things and telling everyone to be calm, I figured I’d just pour some gasoline on the fire. After all, if I say they aren’t that great, people will cynically assume I’m just trying to downplay interest so I can find some for myself.

The Van Winkle bourbons are some of the most sought-after bourbons on the market. They’ve rightfully gotten a collective reputation as some of the most consistently excellent bourbons on the market. Add to that reputation some extremely tight allocations (stores in California don’t get more than a handful of bottles, and some charge ridiculous prices) and you have the right elements for retail insanity.

Recently, the Van Winkle bourbons have been some of the most visible remaining sources of whiskey distilled at the Stitzel-Weller distillery. Stitzel-Weller ceased production in the early ’90s and now, 20 years later, some of their last remaining bourbon is being bottled as Pappy Van Winkle.

The Van Winkle bourbons are a wheat recipe, meaning they use wheat as the flavor grain instead of rye. They can have a more soft, less spicy quality than rye-recipe bourbons. The marquee expressions of Van Winkle are aged to 15 years and 20 years; there are also 10, 12 and 23 year old expressions.

Today I’m looking at the 20 year old expression, for no other reason than it was the first Van Winkle expression I ever tasted. Perhaps for that reason – or perhaps by its character – it’s remained my favorite.

The nose on the 20 year old is initially sweet, but presents some wood that is good and not overbearing. Then the clay and earthy notes pop up and dominate – this is a note very similar to the notes I’ve found on the bottom cut barrels of the Buffalo Trace Single Oak experimental releases. Providing some brightness on the nose, a faint trace of orange and cinnamon, as well as a faint dusting of white pepper.

The palate is all cherries initially. The earthiness and clay continues, as well as a hint of marshmallow. Some light maple syrup is in there, and even a touch of bubblegum – think soft Bazooka bubblegum. There’s a gentle grainy character to it, and a medium wood presence that isn’t overbearing. A dash of white pepper on the palate provides a reasonable heat.

The finish is great – it’s light and smooth and lasting. There’s wood initially but the earthy notes dominate. Some brightness is again provided by oranges, and it’s all tied together with a bit of black cherry and bubblegum.

Pappy 20 is a great bourbon. I prefer it to other Van Winkles (and many bourbons) because everything tucks together nicely. Everything is in balance and it just works perfectly in unison. I often think bourbons of this character (earthy, bubblegummy, with cherries and wood) need to have something turned up. In this case, it’s so perfectly balanced that I don’t think I’d change a thing. Everything is well worn but not tired.

Now, all this said: is Pappy the perfect whiskey? No, I’ve liked others more. I admit they could be stunt bourbons or one-trick ponies. Pappy 20 is a refined southern gentleman, with polite manners and reminding you of a bygone era. That said, he’ll talk your ear off with some great stories. The mania surrounding Pappy can be off-putting (even I am less interested this year), but when you put it all aside and pour a glass, it’s hard to deny the greatness of this bourbon. It’s an easy A- for me.

At a glance:

Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20y – 45.2% ABV
 Initially sweet; some good, aged wood. Faint hint of clay and other earthiness. The faintest trace of oranges and cinnamon. A bit of white pepper – the faintest dusting.
Palate: A fair amount of cherries; the clay earthiness continues with a hint of marshmallow. Some light maple syrup as well, and a touch of bubblegum. Gentle grains. Medium wood – present but not overbearing at all. A dash of white pepper heats things up gently.
Finish: Light and smooth; a bit of wood shows up here as the earthy notes dominate. The orange notes are nicely present on the high end, providing some brightness. The black cherry lies underneath it all, tying it together.
Comment: This is a great bourbon, of course. I personally prefer it to other Van Winkles because everything tucks together nicely. I often think bourbons need to have this profile turned up. In this case, this one is at the perfect intensity – everything’s got the edges rounded off, well worn but not tired, and in great proportions.
Rating: A-

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
  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. 
  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. 
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-