The annual Buffalo Trace Antique Collection drop has turned into a complete circus within the last two years. Once upon a time, I found a bottle of Thomas H. Handy Rye just sitting on a major liquor retailer's shelf......at its original price......in Los Angeles. That ain't happening again. But for all the running and the stealing and hurting and the pushing, the BTAC contains some genuinely excellent whiskies. Though I haven't been too excited by Eagle Rare 17yo, the Sazerac 18yo rye is usually good, William L. Weller is probably better than the current versions of Pappy, and Handy is f***ing dandy. Then there is George T. Stagg (Sr., not Jr.).
I think that most of Stagg's notoriety comes from its massive alcohol content, topping 70% in nine out of twelve years. The 2007 version sits at the apex with a 72.4% ABV. Staggy's ABV number was so important to some people that this year's 64.1% ABV sounded like a letdown. Even though the damned release sold out instantly and has topped $450 in some secondary markets, I heard this same comment at three whisk(e)y events: "This year's Stagg sucks." Each time I inquired, "Oh cool, you've had it?" "Nah, I'm not opening mine," was the gist of each of the responses. So these...people...were lucky enough to have an opportunity to buy a bottle, went ahead with it, then sh*t talked it without tasting it, and won't drink their own bottle. Two things wrong with all of this. Firstly, if you're hoping to flip your "sucks" bottle, you might not want to act like a snoot, instead you should be talking the stuff up. Secondly, these people should probably just stop talking about whiskey altogether.
I have tried Stagg 2013. I've also sampled 2012 and 2011. They're all excellent. Seriously, Stagg is my favorite non-dusty bourbon. My sense memory says the 2013 does taste different than the previous two, but sadly I didn't have those previous versions on hand to compare and contrast. You drink Stagg when you can. And then you don't drive.
One month after first sampling Stagg 2013, I was given a Hanukkah surprise. My own bottle of Stagg 2013. It took a village to get this to me.
Here's how a person comes to have a bottle of George T. Stagg:
--My brother in-law's (in Colorado) father in-law (in Wisconsin) owns a large grocery store in the Badger State. Despite his very good connections with distributors, he has to enter a lottery to get even a single bottle of BTAC. So they generously entered the lottery to get a bottle of Stagg for my birthday. In 2010. In 2013 he won the Stagg lottery.
--He shipped it to my in-laws' home in Upstate New York so that I could open my Hanukkah present on Christmas morning.
--Open the box I did. And there was much rejoicing.
--Because there was a lot of travel ahead of us, my in-laws said they would ship it to our place in California. But in January their local UPS store said they could not ship alcohol to California.
--So, in early April they played booze mule and wedged the Stagg bottle into their luggage and checked it. They, their luggage, and the bottle arrived in California safely.
At least eight people in four different states were involved in this. That's what it took.
I held off opening it until the next time Andrew (my brother in-law) was in town. Now that he and his wife, Leslie, are expecting a little son soon, it gave us an even better excuse to open it when they were here on July 4th.
Brand: George T. Stagg
Region: Kentucky, USA
Type: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Release: Fall 2013
Age: approx. 15 years old
Mashbill: Buffalo Trace #1 (lower-rye; about 8%)
Alcohol by volume: 64.1%
Here were my notes from the original tasting with the SCWC on November 24, 2013. It was a crowded room, my palate may have been questionable as I tried it last. After the bourbon an hour of air:
Nose -- Big and fresh, totally noseable. A little cask-strength-scotch-y. Figs, prunes, toffee, a little baking spice, and banana bread.
Palate -- Huge-er, almost medicinal. Band aids. Rich, cakey, big corn and rye, big oak.
Now, for my bottle, I'm doing a little experiment within my controlled setting. I'm going to line up one glass neat, one with a few drops of water, and one watered down to the usual Buffalo Trace 45% ABV level. I'm going to try (and list) these lightest to strongest because Stagg neat is a palate-ender.
ABV LOWERED DOWN TO 45%
Nose -- Still quite strong. Rose blossoms, clay, caramel sauce, and sweet corn. Cardamom mixed with nutmeg. Hints of leather, fudge, and barbecue sauce. Caramel rules the glass.
Palate -- Texture is a little thin, but there's lots of flavor. Very tannic, but some corny sweetness comes to the rescue. Then cracked peppercorns and fruits in sugar syrup, like black cherries and dates.
Finish -- Moderate length. Hot pepper sauce. Tree bark. Caramel arises again.
WITH ONLY A FEW DROPS OF WATER
Nose -- Starts BIG, then tapers off. Toasted whole wheat bread, carob, citron, corn syrup, sticky sugar, fresh banana. Some beef notes. Caramel sauce, again.
Palate -- Oh man, it's so rich at first blush. Figs, dates, and currants (maybe) in a pool of liquid brown sugar. A rye liqueur. A spiced muffin (had one of those recently) with salty honey butter.
Finish -- Some pepper, some vanilla, lots of corn and sugar. Lingers and lingers. A brief note of the fruits.
Nose -- There it is again, the scotch thing. This time it's that big fruity character that I've sniffed in old bourbon cask malts. Something along the lines of citronella and tropical fruit, but then that's met with apples, bananas, and golden raisins in caramel sauce. Then along comes some perky spice (is that from the oak or rye?). Roasted corn. Mushrooms. Clay. Roses.
Palate -- It's a little hot, and not just ethyl but spice. If I sampled it blind, I'd probably think it was rye. Oooh, big medicinal burst. Flashbacks to old-school Robotussin. Toffees and caramels, both slightly salted. Remarkably sugary sweet through all of the heat. A light smoke from the barrel char, or the inside of my mouth.
Finish -- Sweet, spice, sweet, spice, tannins, sweet, medicine, orange rind, sweet, spice, sweet.
This swims pretty well, holding its nose up above the water the best. But if you have an opportunity to drink Stagg, you've got to try it neat. The rye, considering its small quality, is very expressive. The corn and sugars are thunderous. If you haven't tried barrel strength American whiskey before, then the oak may be too much. But for me, at this size, it is part of the beast.
Is this better or worse than its high-ABV brethren? Well, I think it's a little different. As it apparently sat in a lower, somewhat cooler, warehouse position, a bit of medicinal phenols built up in the barrels. I love that sort of stuff and it creates another level of complexity (oh, that word), but someone just looking for a face full of hot caramel may be unpleasantly surprised. Quality-wise it's very similar to the other Staggs I've had, maybe 1 or 2 points of difference in either direction.
While the current secondary market prices on this whiskey are nutty, I'm happy with its actual MSRP ($79.99 or $89.99). It's legitimately limited, it's aged, it's in demand, and it's very good. A lot of retailers ignored the MSRP and just doubled the price because they could. And people bought it. Such is the market. I just hope people open it and drink it with friends because that's the best way to appreciate whiskey.
Availability - To quote Edna Krabappel, "Ha!"
Pricing - MSRP was $79.99 or $89.99, it has been sold for up to $450
Rating - 92 (downgraded to 88 in December 2013)