Collect the whole set!
Shyeah, right. What do you think I am, a millionaire? You’ve probably intuited from the immediate mention of money that we’re talking about a Buffalo Trace whiskey today. While Malt is somewhat unique in being explicitly price-sensitive in our scoring, weighing of value for money is usually saved until the end.
Unfortunately, when dealing with the Van Winkle bourbons or the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, pecuniary concerns step promptly to the fore. Despite my day job in financial services, I am usually loath to talk about money. Wilde described a cynic as one who “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing” and – though I’m oft tarred with c-words of that and other varieties – I much prefer to focus on what’s in the glass rather than how much moolah was required to purchase said glass.
However, the amount of daylight between MSRP and trading values for the higher-end Buffalo Trace whiskeys has become a bit of an embarrassment recently. From all corners of the internet, fed-up fans have apparently had enough, based on the drumbeat of comments demanding that Sazerac do something about the current state of affairs.
As though 2020 couldn’t get any more bizarre, you’ve now got whiskey enthusiasts demanding that Sazerac raise prices. The reasoning goes: if the company is able to put these on the shelf with price tags that more accurately reflect supply and demand, then this will eat into the flippers’ profit opportunity. With fewer bottles purchased for immediate resale, more of this whiskey will find its way into the hands of people who will open and enjoy it. The most Pollyannaish among us even dare to dream of a time when we might be able to walk into a retailer and purchase one of these whiskeys off the shelf.
As a believer in regulated free markets, I’m cautiously optimistic about this idea. It’s likely to produce a result no worse than the current state of affairs, and at least more of the profit being made on these bottles will find its way into the pockets of the folks actually making them, as opposed to enriching a band of miscreants. I’m not going so far as to fantasize about these magically becoming as plentiful as bottles of Buffalo Trace bourbon, but the world is a surprising place, as this annus horibilis has proven repeatedly.
To take an example at hand: I recently procured a bottle of the 2017 George T. Stagg. MSRP was $90, at which every last bottle of this moved briskly. I was “lucky” to find a bottle of this being sold off for $250 by a local restaurant in order to continue supporting their employees through the COVID-19 crisis. After taxes and a tip, the total I paid came to $310, which is roughly half of what I’ve frequently seen this marked up to by unscrupulous retailers.
So, what’s the correct price for this? Empirically not $90. Is it $300? $600? Something less? The big brains of the bourbon business could, I’m sure, figure out where the manifold bids and asks balance, and then suggest a corresponding sticker price for this. Similarly, I am open to hearing any and all proposals for how the cost of bottles like this should be considered with respect to Malt’s Scoring Bands, which take price into account. Until a better idea surfaces, I’ll be using my normal method of scoring mostly on suggested retail price, with added color commentary on value for money at higher levels.
At long last, we’re able to start talking about this whiskey. Today I will be reviewing two releases of George T. Stagg, a member of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, which also includes (alphabetically) Eagle Rare 17 Years Old, Sazerac Rye 18 Years Old, Thomas H. Handy Sazerac, and William Larue Weller (reviewed by Jason and Mark). This review rounds out Malt’s coverage of the “BTAC” (as the youth are fond of calling it), hence my mock exhortation at the beginning of this piece.
Please refer to my review of Stagg Jr. if you’re interested in the tale of the eponymous Mr. Stagg and his connection to the current Buffalo Trace distillery. It’s noteworthy that, of all the names utilized by the current enterprise, it’s perhaps Stagg and E.H. Taylor (oh, and Blanton) that have the most direct correspondence with the actual distillery.
So what have we got here, beyond the backstory and the price? I’m holding in my hands the 2008 and 2018 vintages, in the form of samples generously provided by Scott.
Starting with the 2008: according to the accompanying letter from Buffalo Trace, “This offering is comprised of barrels more than 15 years and 6 months old. After years of aging this bourbon is 141.8 proof.” That’s 70.9% ABV for those of you unable to divide by two. To put that in context, it’s near the high end of the range of 116.9 proof (2019) to 144.8 proof (2007) at which these have been released. The batch size on this was disclosed as 83 barrels. MSRP on release was $65, though it’s worth noting that the 140+ proof George T. Stagg bottles trade hands at an even higher premium than those below the 70% ABV mark.
George T. Stagg (2008) – Review
Color: Medium-dark auburn with cola hues
On the nose: Kola nut, appropriately, jumps right out of the glass. This is scrumptious smelling, with sticky-sweet notes of pecan pie, a smokily-spicy nip of chili powder, and long, drawn-out resinous scent of pine sap. With time and air, some chocolate fudge and savory tomato ketchup aromas emerge. The high ABV is noticeable in the form of a nostril-coating sensation that evaporates palpably. This has the unintended consequence of cutting off some of the aromas, as it’s hard to sniff this too deeply without mild discomfort.
Adding water to this, the nose loosens up somewhat. I am getting a buttery scent of pastry crust now, as well as a whiff of cinnamon sticks and the nostalgic aroma of cellophane-wrapped butterscotch hard candy fresh from grandpa’s cardigan pocket.
In the mouth: In contrast to the effusive nose, this starts very subtly – flavor-wise – on the lips and at the front of the tongue. There’s an immediate burning numbness around the inside of the lips, similar to the sensation of eating a hot pepper. Only as the whiskey approaches midpalate do discernible flavors emerge, and how lovely they are. This is momentarily perfect, with a mature bourbon note of salted cashews, polished wood, and brandied cherries that exists for a split second. The high proof is most evident as this crescendos with a searing texture that spreads across the roof of the mouth. The finish on this lingers persistently for a minute or more, with a fluoride-driven mineral feeling I frequently get from higher-proof barrels picked from the middle of the rickhouse.
After modest dilution, this is more palatable from a texture perspective, though the flavors now seem a bit jumbled to me. There’s much more woodiness emerging from front to back; the fruit flavors get relegated to the edges of the tongue and side of the mouth, where some tart lemon juice notes emerge. I’m getting more sous bois notes as this finishes, having lost the minerality but retaining the hot texture that migrates back toward the front of the mouth.
I feel obliged to provide a cautionary disclaimer straightaway: make this your last (or only) whiskey of the night, as it is a taste-bomb obliterating neutron bomb of a bourbon. On my second round of tasting these, I made sure to try the lower-proof 2018 first, as I feared that my initial assessment was colored by the overwhelming nature of the 2008.
That warning aside, how does this iteration rank as a whiskey of the George T. Stagg species? I’d say it more or less delivers, provided you know what you’re getting into. It’s got your league table-leading proof, an assertive nose, and a dominant mouthfeel with incredible intensity of flavors and textures. It’s a little unbalanced in places, but that ephemeral instant of perfect harmony in the middle of the mouth is justification enough for this bourbon’s existence.
This would have been a steal at the 2008 release price. At current release prices, this faces some tougher competition from the likes of other full-proof offerings such as Elijah Craig Barrel Proof and even its diminutive counterpart Stagg Jr. As a consequence, I don’t know if I’d chase this bottle at $200-and-up. Do with that what you will.
Moving on to 2018: Buffalo Trace informs us that this is a 15 year and 4 month old release, clocking in at 124.9 proof (62.45%), closer to the middle of the range. This came from a batch of 284 barrels, a noticeable uptick from the decade-prior batch. MSRP on this was $99 which, LAWLZ.
George T. Stagg (2018) – Review
Color: A lighter, medium shade of rust
On the nose: Altogether less expressive, the nose on this 2018 is a sotto voce whisper, whereas the 2008 was a full-throated operatic aria. I’m still getting the kola nut, but this time in a much more sedate form. There’s more of a medicinal cherry aroma to this one, which I like. Some brown sugar and freshly floral notes dance around the periphery. With more time in the glass, I start to pick up whiffs of nutmeg and black licorice. When compared immediately to the prior dram this was disappointing but permitting my nose to rest allowed me to appreciate some of the more subtle smells at play here. Adding a splash of water doesn’t really alter this too much, aromatically.
In the mouth: This starts with a rich and tart kiss of just ripened bing cherries. Firm and fruity as this moves toward the middle of the tongue, I get a tropical mix of citric flavors. This metamorphosizes gradually into a similar fluoride note to the one mentioned prior. The flavors abate somewhat surprisingly on the finish; I get a vaguely chocolatey-woody nuance and the synthetic sweetness of Fruit Stripe gum before this disappears in short order.
Like the 2008, this doesn’t necessarily benefit (flavor-wise) from dilution. Water lengthens the finish on this slightly, allowing the fluoride note to linger a bit more, but that’s the only real improvement. Otherwise, the interesting individual notes are mostly subsumed into an amorphous whole.
The lesser of the two examples here, it’s hard to say whether this suffers directly because of the comparatively low strength, or because of other normal variations between batches. The nose is interesting enough, but this never quite fulfills its full potential in the mouth. It’s not terrifically bad for the roughly $100 MRSP (with the same note about competing options) but – again – I’d be reluctant to pay the type of premium that would allow me to secure a bottle of this particular vintage on the secondary market.
Lead image kindly provided by Buffalo Trace and the 2008 release comes from the Whisky Exchange.