Following MALT’s coverage of Buffalo Trace Distillery siblings Weller (reviewed by Adam and by me) and Blanton’s, I’m moving on down the list with a bottle of Stagg Jr.
The pentarchy of Buffalo Trace’s annual Antique Collection releases may be familiar to MALT readers: Eagle Rare 17 Year Old, Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old, Thomas H. Handy Sazerac, William Larue Weller (reviewed here by Jason, and here by Mark) and, finally, the progenitor of today’s topic: George T. Stagg.
Like several of the Buffalo Trace expressions, these are named after a founding father of one of the entities that preceded the current enterprise. George T. Stagg—the man—was born in 1835; he had piercing eyes and a bushy beard, attested to by a striking photo of him on Buffalo Trace’s website.
In 1878, Stagg purchased the O.F.C. distillery in Riverside (now Frankfort), Kentucky, which had been constructed 6 years earlier by Col. E. H. Taylor Jr. Following a series of re-buildings and expansions, the distillery was rechristened the “George T. Stagg Distillery” in 1904. It bore this moniker until 1999, when current parent company Sazerac renamed it the “Buffalo Trace Distillery.”
George T. Stagg bourbon has been produced in an annual edition since 2002. It is aged 15 years and released unfiltered, at cask strength. It is renowned for its fiery heat, the result of being bottled at a strength of up to 72.4% (in 2007).
Thanks to the generosity of a well-connected friend, I was able to try the 2017 edition of George T. Stagg a while back. I can confirm that it was excellent. My tasting notes are sketchy, but I recall that it was rich and dense; finely textured, if a bit hot. Turns out it was bottled at “just” 64.6%, which puts it towards the lower end of the George T. Stagg range. I can only imagine the mouthfeel of the 70%+ bottlings. They must make A’bunadh taste like a highball.
The first batch of Stagg Jr. came to us in autumn of 2013. It is reputed to be produced from Buffalo Trace’s Mash Bill #1, with low rye (<10%). Officially, it is said to be aged for “nearly a decade;” the company later clarified that this means seven years. Junior has been released in the spring and fall every year. It is typically bottled at lower strength than George T. Stagg, though the range of 63.2% to 67.2% would still put this toward the higher end of whisky (and whiskey) globally. There’s a particularly American brand of maximalism that has made its way into food and beverage culture. I’m thinking of Imperial IPA with tripe-digits IBU, or fruit bomb Cabernet Sauvignon with mid-to-high-teens ABV. These are the beverage equivalents of the burger made with a pound of beef topped with cheddar, bacon, a fried egg, and onion rings. Smothered in donkey sauce, it is stacked in a precariously-leaning tower of cholesterol that is both figuratively and literally heart-stopping. Guy Fieri is the patron saint of this movement, and he leads an army of hefty, bearded men (always men) in obliterating the barriers of both good taste and good sense. Parallel trends exist in whisky. In Scotland, this takes the form of cask strength peat monsters or sherry bombs. Some are excellent, but these can also be whisky’s version of the simple, boorish lout at the party. They have one thing to say and they’re intent on saying it as loudly as possible.
Bourbon doesn’t have the opportunity to utilize sherry casks for full maturation, as it is legally required to be aged in new oak. Sherry cask finishes pop up periodically, though. Kings County Distillery used some peated barley in the mash bill to create a “Peated Bourbon;” to my knowledge this is the only example of this genre. So without the sherry and peat knobs on the amplifier, barrel char and bottling strength are the only ways to turn a bourbon up to 11.
Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy a heavily-peated or sherried whisky, or a cask strength bourbon, on occasion. I usually save these for the end of an evening, for the simple reason that I can’t taste anything else afterwards. Thus, my principal reservation about an overdriven-style of whisky (or beer or wine or burgers) is that it obliterates everything besides itself. If you drink whisky like this exclusively, you lose all sense of proportion and balance. 45%, a decent strength in normal human terms, starts to taste like tap water.
Again, I’m not ruling out forceful whisky as a category, but I’m always inclined to tread more carefully when I’m venturing into that zone. With those precautionary notes out of the way, let’s have a crack at Stagg fils.
The whiskey considered today is from is Batch #10, released in Spring of 2018 at 63.2% (126.4 proof). I was able to acquire a bottle of this for the MSRP of $50 from my friends at GNS Market.
Stagg Jr. Batch #10 – review
Colour: Medium-dark yam orange with rosy glints.
On the nose: Red fruit galore; cherries, cranberries.Vanilla frosted cupcake with rainbow sprinkles. Ester. Vanilla custard, cumin, potpourri, baking spice, sarsaparilla, slow-cooked pork shoulder, and an ephemeral note of charcoal.
In the mouth: Similarly fruity on the tip of the tongue. Becomes very tart at midpalate. Sappy, coniferous flavors yield to a hotly citric feeling on the back of the tongue. This persists with a medicinal cherry note of cough syrup and the woody sweetness of maple syrup. Long after the last sip, the lips and mouth tingle with a chili pepper-like heat.
Lighter-bodied in style than the unctuous, sticky George T. Stagg, this doesn’t sacrifice anything in the way of concentration of flavors. Rather, the delicacy of the aromas and tastes is excellent. Like the Quincy Street Laughton Bros. cask strength bourbon, this is dancing gracefully on tiptoes despite the high ABV.
When I think about the quality of this relative to some of the craft bourbons I have had the misfortune of paying around $50 for, I despair of that category entirely. Dollars-for-drams, this may be the best value bourbon I have had yet.