Typically my reviews are geared towards wrapping a bourbon tasting inside a story of historic nature and context, or various other experiences….that’s always been the goal at least. But due to the size and nature of this tasting, I’m gonna attempt to limit that and stay with my notes as much as possible….
So with that:
George T Stagg – 144.1 Proof
I’ll start my review out with the lead dog of the pack, at least what’s always been considered the lead dog. This year’s GTS came in at a whopping 144.1 proof. I’ve always been a fan of high proof, it just speaks to my palate, mostly because I feel like the flavors are amplified (to 11). On the whole I have loved just about every GTS release I’ve had, and was only underwhelmed by the 2013 edition, and even that one was pretty damn good.
My anticipation could not have been higher as I tore through the box marked BUFFALO TRACE. The Stagg bottle was the first one I went for, cracking it open at the home bar as soon as I could.
The nose on the 2016 GTS is, well, great as expected. You have to be careful of how hard you inhale due to the proof. There is an immediate punch of cocoa cream and juicy purple tobacco. There is a minor scent of caramel and citrus wafting around, followed by a burst of anise and ending in heavy oak.
It smelled delicious to me, but that’s where Elvis left the building. Being that this was an old bourbon of high-octane, I let it air out for about 30 minutes before sipping, which I felt was appropriate. I didn’t douse it with water, because I typically drink everything straight (no limestone spring water or ice). But even after the air time, when I went in for the sip it was just too damn hot, to the point that the heat over-arced and drowned out the flavors, save for the smoldering oak. I’ve had so many other high-proofers of similar make-up where there was an immediate balance of heat and flavor, for instance last year’s William Heavenhill green label, 15yrs at 144 proof. But the 2016 GTS seemed to miss the mark a little bit on balance. The mouthfeel was typical GTS, straight up incendiary, sizzling off the tongue like cayenne cotton candy. I do love that.
The finish was also hard to decipher, except for the raging forest fire in my mouth.
Just for fairness, I went back for another pour, and added a few drops of limestone spring water. I found that proofing it down adversely impacted the nose, but did nothing to quench the heat or bring out the traditionally robust GTS flavors. Well, there is slightly more flavor present in the form of sugar, but it’s still just an undertone to the explosive nature of the beast.
Now all that being said, this is not bad bourbon. As usual, the experience of drinking GTS is exactly that, an experience. But this experience doesn’t stand up to past ones, the standouts like 2014 and 2005. If you are a fan of high heat above all else, this is right up your alley. But for me, I have grown accustomed to robust GTS flavors, and missed them here. However, I believe that if I had a bottle of 2016 GTS open for a while, it would probably mellow and little and come around to my liking.
William Larue Weller – 135.4 Proof
People, listen up. For everything that the George T Stagg lacked in immediate flavor and refinement, the 2016 William Larue Weller made up for that in spades, and then some. From the initial pour and smell of the heavenly aroma, it was a true eye opener. My mental catalogue of experience with WLW is not as vast as the GTS, but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve tried. But this release, this is a real gem. I thought it was exceptional.
To me, William Larue Weller has always been the classiest of the bunch. It just has an aura of cool. There’s something about it that says “I’m not for slogging, I’m for enjoying.” As much as George T Stagg is the rough and tumble man’s man bourbon of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, William Larue Weller is the bourbon of classier man’s man, like Dean Martin or Paul Newman. The guy that knows which fork to use at dinner, and keeps his cigarettes in a small case in the inner pocket of his daily-wear tuxedo jacket.
Let’s be honest, what’s not to love about a 135 proof, uncut, unfiltered, 13 year old wheater?
The nose emanated with that glorious soft wheated structure. Lots of baked goods and sugary spices, and confectionary dream. There was a great component of oak that was prominent but not aggressive. It’s showed off a lovely char quality that accentuated the aroma, rather than stepping on it. It’s resplendent. Gracious. Balanced.
The sip is seems bold at first due to the proof, but after the initial liquid fever breaks, everything that was underlying becomes prominent, rising up like cookie dough in the oven. It’s immediately sweet and produced gobs of vanilla and what I tasted as a dollop of caramel. The vanilla and caramel is not at all subtle. It’s like a vat of something you want to dip into with an apple on a stick. But there were also lots of the dark tree fruits. Buffalo Trace indicated these as fig and plum. That assessment is pretty spot on. Maybe fig newton would be even better, as that grainy wheated flavor was still obvious to me.
The finish is nice and deep, right into the chest, radiating out, back into the taste buds.
I could write and write and write about the WLW. I could put together never-ending strings of superlatives and prose. Perhaps I will. The good money says I will. But until then I will remember this pour as being awesome.
Eagle Rare 17 – 90 proof
I have so many good things to say about the ER17. For some people, ER17 is kind of the overlooked little brother of the BTAC big boys, the 4th child, the one that went off to LA and became a film star, but when he comes home for visits, he is still expected to mix drinks for Uncle Carl and mow the lawn. I’m not sure why, but it’s true.
The 2016 ER17 is quite damn delicious. It’s got that fantasmic scent of minty evergreen and caramel. Fresh barrels in the cool rickhouse. It’s so, classic….. Almost like AH Hirsch 16 on steroids. I mean that.
The flavor was full of sweet purple tobacco. A fragrant, mouthwatering component of vanilla rose like a cloud of dust wafting behind an old pick-up truck barreling down a dirt road. As expected there was the classic leathery dynamic that accentuated the oaky char, all of which combined and evolved into gooey caramel toffee. It’s not juicy, it’s more dry in my opinion. But the flavors are heady.
I thought to myself, “This is really, really good bourbon. “
As expressive as the flavors are, the finish is quite light, and compared to the atomic Stagg and sublime Weller seems almost non-existent. But it does let more of the flavors linger for a greater amount of time. It evolves into an almost creamy and buttery aftertaste, resonating with mild oak. So pleasant.
The only thing I really, and this is kind of petty, but I wish the Eagle Rare 17 was a higher proof. Even if it was 100 or 110. Just a little more gas to crank up the flavors. I know that’s not the point or purpose of this bourbon, and there is a reason the master distiller chooses to roll production at the lower proof. I normally “trust the chef”, but I’m certain more proof would turn this superb bourbon into a true game changer.
Sazerac 18yr Rye – 90 proof
This was one of the more anticipated releases, as it represents the first batch of distillate cooked up at Buffalo Trace, rather than the old tanked juice everyone had come to know and love. Actually “love” isn’t a strong enough word. People were downright fanatical for the old juice.
I wouldn’t call myself a fanatic, or even in love with the old Saz, but I always recognized its qualities and beauty. So maybe that makes me a little more unbiased.
I sipped this one as if it was just any other rye, not just the Emperor’s new clothes. Personally, I thought it was a good pour. Lots of classic rye traits. Cinnamon spice. Not overbearing on the aftershave. Not tart. Not undrinkable.
But neither is it classic Saz 18, unfortunately.
At the end of the day, Buffalo Trace had a really hard job to do, as far as releasing this rye. While it can be as good as it can be (which is still pretty good), it could never be the original. That makes it the bourbon equivalent of a tribute band.
This is a big change, and sometimes change is hard to adjust to. Eventually everything becomes the norm. For people just getting into bourbon and rye now and over the next few years, this Saz is the only Saz. It’s their normal. They won’t compare it to the old stuff.
Because this was a “special circumstance” release, I gave it two grades:
On it’s own merits: B
Compared to old Saz: C
Thomas H Handy Rye – 126.2 Proof
Good old THH, with its old New Orleans house right there on the label. I’ve never felt the overwhelming desire to drink Handy straight up, and have always considered it the King of Mixers. That’s not meant to be an insult to the brand at all, and I say it with ultimate respect. That’s just what it is for me, the foundation of some epic beverages. It makes them special.
Most people would stir Handy into a Sazerac or and Old Fashioned, but for me, there is a drink I like just as well. Actually, it’s called “Just As Well”. There is a little restaurant in the French Quarter called Tableau, one of the myriad of Brennan-family establishments there. Once my wife and I stopped for drinks on the balcony that’s perched precariously over the street, the rusty rails hanging on to the building for dear life. We both ordered a Just As Well at the bar while waiting for a seat. What a fantastic little find. I scribbled the recipe down on a cocktail napkin, and it’s hanging on my fridge to this day, right between some kids artwork, a State Farm Insurance magnet calendar from 2014, a photo of my wife’s grandmother getting surprised by having her photo taken, and assorted bills yet to be paid.
Well, I came around on Handy this time. Buffalo Trace’s tasting notes really describe this one perfectly, especially with the flavors of fig and clove and candied fruit.
Take a stiff pour of delicious Handy over ice, mix in rosemary syrup, lemon bitters and a mint sprig, and you have an awesome summertime sipper. Or take it on its own in a Glencairn. It’s a good one.
Once again, Buffalo Trace has graced the world with some real winners in the 2016 Class of Antiques. My favorites were the William Larue Weller and the Eagle Rare 17. The Weller was especially good, and was my pick for the best of the bunch. I absolutely have to find a bottle of this one. It will be a contender for the Epic Bourbon 2016 Bourbon of the Year.