"It's a Unicorn!"
Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC) whiskies are highly sought after, rarely found, and cherished by the quarter-ounce when poured. I was at Buffalo Trace Distillery to do a tasting of the 2015 collection prior to release. When I posted a photo of the collection on Twitter, I was challenged with “why bother?" What’s the point of reviewing BTAC when there's so little supply released that it's nearly impossible to get?
Most design and luxury industries have their version of BTAC (often rare, and more expensive). High-end fashion shows present clothing that are rarely sold to the public, and auto shows have concept cars that can’t be driven. These often outrageous designs are influential in the marketplace regardless of their availability.
For me, that's what Buffalo Trace Antique Collection represents. It’s a look into the very best of Buffalo Trace in the categories of straight ryes and bourbons. BTAC whiskies are influencers of the whisky world. This is already evident in Buffalo Trace’s other products, such as the Colonel E.H. Taylor line of rye and bourbons.
Not "Small Batch" Whisky, But Rather "Boutique Batch" Whisky
The term "small batch" is commonly used for premium whiskies. Buffalo Trace does not use this term for the BTAC line. To me, they're a collection of "boutique batched" whisky.
With most single and small batch whiskies, the master blender has a cheat-sheet for their barrel selection. Sure, spectrometers and human tasters validate that Blanton’s tastes like Blanton’s each time. However, for the most part, barrel selection is a matter of picking barrels from the right part of the warehouse at the right (nearly) pre-determined time. This process ensures that Blanton's will taste like Blanton's.
With BTAC, the intended flavours are evolving year after year—There’s a vintage to the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. Each vintage represents an evolution in the flavour profile (with the exception of Sazerac Rye 18, but more on that later). This evolution is decided by the dozen or so Buffalo Trace tasters that help in the blending process. Our tasting was hosted by the Master Blender, Drew Mayville. My thoughts and tasting notes below, with a ranking of BTAC from top to bottom.
Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye
Summary: Uncut & unfiltered 6 year old straight rye
I first sipped Handy Sazerac Rye in the middle of winter during a whisky show. An attendee that had read my book slipped me a generous pour from a tiny vial. Later that year, I tasted the 2014 Handy release at Buffalo Trace. This year’s six year old 2015 Handy Sazerac Rye is the best I’ve tasted.
On the nose, this is a sharp floral rye that leans into these beautiful intense dark smells such as figs and blackberries. On the palate, those yeasty dark flavours come through. It’s wild with rye notes, but there’s so much more going on. Lots of dark fruit flavours mixed with strong rye spice. It all leads to a long smooth cinnamon spice finish. The transition between that rich start and the long (eventually) gentle finish is magnificent. You could sip this one for hours and keep picking out different flavour notes.
William Larue Weller
Summary: Straight wheated Bourbon that’s uncut & unfiltered, matured for 12 years, 3 months.
William Larue Weller Bourbon brings a wallop of flavour. It's a wheated bourbon, meaning the rye is replaced with wheat as the second ingredient in the bourbon mash. On the nose, it’s festively yeasty, warm with blood oranges, and burnt sugar. On the palate, it’s thick, with more of the blood orange notes. Bottled at barrel-strength, there’s this intense undertone of boozy harshness that’s mellowed out beautifully with oak flavour. This is likely the longest-finishing whisky I’ve ever tasted.
It’s intense, so much so, that it’s not a regular sipper. Instead, it’s that outrageous red sports car that you admire in the garage and only take out twice a year. But when you do… Damn, that's good.
George T. Stagg Bourbon
Summary: Uncut & unfiltered straight bourbon aged 15 years
The barrels used this year were mostly empty from evaporation. You’d think all that evaporated water would stress the oak tannins, but the beauty of Stagg is the balance of oak with thick boozy flavours.
However, this Stagg is matured, refined, and not the boozy beautiful mess it once was. I found it surprisingly quiet on the nose, with the vanilla and oaky dark chocolate notes one would expect. On the palate, the dark cherry warmth spreads through, followed by orange zest and a depth of dryness that took me by surprise. The spice is peppery, hot, and the finish is a mixture of that spice and caramel.
On a second and third sip, that dryness continued to surprise me. It only loses a few points for the quiet nose, but otherwise, the refined calmer Stagg is an excellent evolution of uncut and unfiltered straight bourbon.
Eagle Rare 17 Year-Old
Summary: 17 year old straight bourbon that’s filtered and cut
Eagle Rare and George T. Stagg represent the ying and yang of my taste-buds. I absolutely adore the deep dark woody complex flavours of Eagle Rare 17, and yet I’ll keep leaning back toward the Stagg as a favourite of the two. Perhaps, just perhaps, Stagg’s outlandishly attention demanding flavours work better on my taste-buds.
On the nose, it’s grainy, oaky, with dark chocolate. On the palate, we get more dark chocolate, tobacco oaky notes, and a beautifully rich yeasty middle that moves into a long rich spicy finish. If I could have a daily sipper with no price or supply concerns, this would be it.
Sazerac Rye 18 Year-Old
Summary: 18 year old straight rye
The whisky inside Sazerac Rye 18 has an interesting history. The original whisky was aged for 18 years, and then stored in a vat to stop the barrel maturation process. For the last several years, the rye was bottled from this tank. While one would expect the whisky to taste identical, it has changed from year to year due to the slow oxidization within the vat. This year represents the last of this Sazerac Rye, as the vat has been emptied. Next year's release, which I'm quite excited about, will be a brand new Sazerac Rye matured in barrels for 18 years without the prolonged storage inside tanks.
First, though, more on the 2015 Sazerac Rye 18. It's an old oaky rye that surrounds the nose and palate with a mixture of scents and flavours that can't possibly be reproduced. Dark leathery oily notes go further this year than previous years. Through the middle, it's also heavier on oily thickness and molasses. The finish is beautiful, peppery, and ongoing. A rye unlike any other, and though I was blown away by the nose and finish, I kept coming back to the whiff of a rye that's past its prime. It's subtle, but I couldn't get over it.
Drew Mayville, while sitting with us, was absolutely glowing about next year’s Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old. I am glad, because while the rest of the BTAC line has evolved, Sazerac 18 is due for a change.