You know the drill.
Today’s review is of a Buffalo Trace Antique Collection release. Naturally, it’s named after a guy. We’ll have to start by identifying said guy and determining what, if any, connection he had to the modern-day Sazerac/Buffalo Trace empire. Then, we’ll be delving into the particulars of this whiskey including, lamentably, price. I’ll point out that these releases fly off the shelves (assuming they ever hit the shelves in the first place) at SRP. I’ll make the woeful observation that, in order to buy this on the secondary market, you’ll need to be independently wealthy or on good terms with your banker.
If that’s what you’re into, you’re going to love today’s review. If it sounds like a review that you’ve read before, that’s because it is. I’ve discussed the perverse incentives that arise from the gap between SRP and secondary market prices, as well as some of the proposed remedies. I have nothing further to add to the topic, so we’ll now move along to the (hopefully) more interesting historical meat of the review.
Perhaps more than any of the other namesakes of Buffalo Trace’s current lineup, Thomas H. Handy (1839-1893) remains somewhat obscure to us. He is not honored on the Buffalo Trace website with a stipple portrait and a biography like Albert Blanton, George T. Stagg, E.H. Taylor, Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle, or William Larue Weller.
Starting, instead, with the story of Sazerac: the Sazerac family began making Cognac in France in the 1630’s. The 1850’s saw the establishment of “Sazerac House” in New Orleans by Sazerac’s importers, from which the family’s libations were sold. Thomas H. Handy here enters the picture in 1865, as an employee of Sazerac House. He participated in the late-1800’s equivalent of a management buyout in 1869, with Thomas H. Handy & Co. becoming New Orleans’ sole agent for Sazerac brandies in 1873.
Unrelated financial distress in 1878 forced Handy to sell his interest in Sazerac House to Vincent Micas; the two would maintain dueling bars and liquor stores using variations on the Sazerac name until Micas quit for good in 1884 and moved to Bordeaux, the lucky so-and-so.
Due to a lack of French brandy supply caused by the late-1800’s phylloxera outbreak, rye whiskey began to be substituted for brandy in the now-famous Sazerac cocktail. Thomas H. Handy passed away a few years later, with his namesake Thos. H. Handy & Co. reestablished in his memory by former business partner William McQuoid. This successor firm began bottling Sazerac cocktails and selling them nationally until Prohibition hit in 1919.
Renaming itself “The Sazerac Company,” the former Thos. H. Handy & Co. shifted to the deli and restaurant business until the coast was clear. Following repeal in 1933, Sazerac got back to selling bottled Sazerac cocktails, in addition to other potables. The company was sold in 1948 to The Magnolia Liquor Co, Inc., which continued to expand the brand portfolio.
Sazerac eventually acquired Eagle Rare from Seagram’s in 1989, followed in 1992 by the (then) George T. Stagg Distillery, renamed Buffalo Trace in 1999. Sazerac Rye Whiskey was re-launched in 2006; the company acquired the Barton 1792 distillery three years later, bringing us more or less to the current state of affairs. On to the whiskey!
The annual release letters for these Buffalo Trace Antique Collection expressions remain a high water mark for transparency, not just in terms of Buffalo Trace but among the large Kentucky whiskey distilleries more generally. The letter accompanying this 2017 Thomas H Handy informs us that the mash bill is Minnesota Rye, Kentucky Corn (Distillers Grade #1 and #2) and North Dakota Malted Barley, in undisclosed but declining proportions.
This came off the still at 135 proof before being diluted down to its barrel entry proof of 125 (the maximum legally permissible for straight whiskey). It was matured in barrels with a #4 char. The proof rose to 127.2 (63.6% ABV), the strength at which this is bottled, with 27.2% of the whiskey lost to evaporation. This is a batch of 72 barrels pulled from the 3rd, 4th and 5th floors of Warehouses K, L, and Q, at an age of six years, five months. Eagle-eyed researchers will note that this has fallen from the initial 2006 release, which was eight years and five months old. As they say in Cognac, “Plus ça change…”
SRP for this release was $90. As is my custom, I’ll be reviewing this mostly in consideration of that price as a benchmark, with a nod toward whether this bears consideration at whatever multiple of that price an opportunistic reseller might be asking. I feel no personal financial pain associated with this review, however, as this was a sample generously shared by Brian. He deserves my thanks and that of all our readers.
Thomas H Handy Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey (2017) – Review
Color: A light brown-hued orange.
On the nose: Immediately delightful, this presents a graceful balance of light and heavy aromas. On the former side, there is an airy sweetness of sugary confectionery which moves seamlessly into the richer, thicker scent of sour cream frosting. At the other end of the spectrum, this presents a dense nuttiness with a sharp, spicy accent of wood. Intriguingly fruity notes of watermelon, grape, and orange emerge after some time in the glass, which also allows the rye to sing out with a whiff of cracked black pepper.
In the mouth: Starting with a tart, fruity burst of citrus, this becomes woody in a rounded, polished way as it moves toward the center of the tongue. There’s a difficult-to-describe note at the top of the tongue here; it’s got yeasty, minty, tart, woody, and earthy aspects. A note of milk chocolate punctuates the progression of this whiskey into its finish. As a lone drawback, this lingers with a grainy rye note that turns slightly bitter at points. The high proof is evident in a radiant heat that creeps back up across the top of the mouth.
At its best, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection ramps up the flavor (and, usually, the ABV) that we normally get from the distillery’s standard expressions. This Thomas H. Handy Sazerac clearly achieves that, most especially on the nose. There are some delightful elements toward the front of the mouth, but this turns a bit hard-edged through the finish. However, I’m picking nits. This is delicious and excellent whiskey, and I’m glad to have tried it.
But… at what price? It’s worth every dollar of 90 bucks, certainly. Doubling that would put this in-line with, say, premium offerings from Wild Turkey, which can be comparably flavorful but which have also missed the mark, for my palate. I’d be a buyer of this up to about $200, but beyond that I’m inclined to save my pennies. In all, happy to give this a score reflective of the pleasure of drinking this highly enjoyable whiskey.
Lead image kindly provided by Brian.