Time to grab the stag by the horns!
Like a man facing down an enormous buck with intimidating antlers, I am feeling slightly trepidatious about the tasting ahead of me. This is not merely because I’m going to be tasting through a trio of whiskeys that are heavyweights in the proof department. It’s also because concerns about the integrity of Malt’s price-sensitive approach are weighing heavily on my mind, given the current environment. More on that in a moment…
My first dalliance with Stagg Jr. was Batch #10; please refer to that review if you’re interested in a short history of the eponymous Mr. Stagg. I returned to this expression when I reviewed Batch 14 in tandem with Jason. In the time between those pieces, Stagg Jr. went from being a bottle that I could procure with ease (and for SRP) at my local bodega, to one that seldom appears on store shelves without a multiple-times markup.
It would be easy to blame the infectious enthusiasm generated by “Stagg Sr,” the BTAC member of the Stagg family. However, the Stagg Jr. saga is merely reflective of larger trends beyond the Buffalo Trace portfolio, and indeed outside of American whiskey more generally. From Pappy Van Winkle to Pokémon trading cards, any “asset” (with that term defined as broadly as possible, inclusive of NFTs and cryptocurrency and God-knows-what-else) with a whiff of desirability has been snatched up by those hoping to profit from its resale.
I’ve seen comments to the effect that this is just good old-fashioned American capitalism in action. Supply is constrained (either by luck or design) while demand grows, therefore “the market” in its wisdom uses price as the balancing factor. In the minds of some, a “fair” price is whatever a buyer – any buyer – is willing to pay.
This argument might hold more water in a market like the U.K., where whisky can be freely shipped nationwide (without running afoul of laws and regulations), and where a transparent auction market allows whisky owners to legally sell their bottles to informed buyers throughout the country. Though there’s plenty of practical grounds on which to object to the U.K. whisky market (for example: the use of automated “bots” to grab up bottles faster than a mere mortal’s finger can click), in theory this system at least produces a clearing price in a way similar to what we’ve come to expect from other transparent, liquid markets such as stock exchanges.
In the U.S., however, none of the precedent conditions exist to facilitate the free sale of bottles. For starters, the “three tier” distribution system and the overlapping layers of state and federal regulations means that, in many cases, whisky cannot be legally sold across state lines. A dearth of a certain expression in California cannot be remedied by moving a glut of the same bottles from Connecticut.
Furthermore, the “secondary market” is no “market” at all, in the way that term is popularly understood. Rather, it’s a clandestine set of social media groups, with a parallel channel of unscrupulous retailers who mark up their allocated bottles to mirror prices they see on the web. The latter activity is of varying legality (again, depending on the jurisdiction); the former (sale of liquor by unlicensed individuals outside regulated channels) is almost certainly illegal in every instance. In both cases, would-be buyers have no visibility on overall market supply or pricing, in the way that purchasers browsing the current and prior listings on a U.K. auction website do.
Further complicating matters, we don’t know the intentions of secondary market buyers. Taking the example at hand: someone contemplating paying $200 for a bottle of Stagg Jr. that they intended to consume might weigh that price against the other available options. Barrel proof offerings from Heaven Hill, Maker’s Mark, and Wild Turkey remain widely available at retail, for a cost between a quarter and a third of that being asked for this hypothetical bottle of Stagg Jr. In consideration thereof, all but the most devoted Buffalo Trace partisans might reasonably conclude that their cask strength dollars were better spent elsewhere.
However, if that prospective purchaser is intending to hold the bottle for later profitable resale, the calculus changes entirely. The question “can I find something similarly pleasurable to drink at suggested retail price” is as moot as asking whether you can find someone to paint you a landscape for less than it would cost to purchase a Van Gogh. In this case, the point of the thing is the thing itself; the bottle is the end, not the means to one. So long as someone believes that they’ll eventually be able to flip the bottle for more (and some not-insignificant segment of the bourbon collecting population clearly has faith in prices rising into perpetuity), there is no amount that is too high to pay.
For all these reasons, it is disingenuous to characterize prices on the American “secondary market” as indicative of the balance of supply and demand. At best, this black market represents the marginal propensities of a very small number of whiskey buyers, some of whom have the “greater fool theory” as the principal underpinning of their thought process.
That said, the perception that a bottle can be bought and re-sold feeds back into the reality experienced by many bourbon consumers. A flipper who perceives an opportunity will buy a bottle (or several), leaving none for you and me. Flipping is a crime, and not a victimless one. It necessarily takes a bottle out of the hands of someone who will open, enjoy, and share the whiskey inside, instead putting it in the hands of a person who will stash it away until it’s time to be sold for a profit.
I suspect that those who defend the secondary market as “free” are not principally ideologues under sway of the Chicago School of Economics. More likely, they are folks who are flipping bottles themselves. Perhaps they feel a twinge of guilt about their ill-gotten gains, and need to come up with a self-justifying rationalization to assuage their shame? To be more cynical: they probably don’t appreciate their nefarious practices being called out by myself, and others far more respected and influential, besides. They might feel the need to defend flipping as nobly upholding some natural economic law, rather than just being a self-indulgence of the most antisocial variety.
Regardless of the morality of marked-up prices, they remain a sticking point for us here at Malt, particularly in light of our price-sensitive scoring bands. It feels somewhat futile to continue to evaluate these on the basis of retail prices that remain, for the vast majority of consumers, mere fantasies. At the same time, it doesn’t feel fair to the distilleries to take a product they have sold for $50 and hold them to the applicable standard for a bottle priced at $250.
I don’t have any firm view on the best way to remedy this discrepancy (regarding our scoring, not regarding the intractable problem of the secondary market). If any of our readers have suggestions, you’re hereby invited to leave them in the comments section, below. As for me, I’m going to dive into a troika of Stagg Jr. samples.
These were all generously shared by Troy; thanks to him. I’ll be evaluating these using the Stagg SRP of $50, though (as noted above) they’re seldom to be found for that price.
The first is Batch 12, released in Summer 2019. This comes in at 132.3 proof (66.15% ABV).
Stagg Jr. Batch 12 – Review
Color: Medium-dark brownish orange.
On the nose: The immediate impression is a heavy oaky vanilla of a chemical nature. There are some floral accents and a whiff of iced tea with a lemon wedge. Some time in the glass releases scents of cinnamon and cardamom, but mostly this smells like sweet, highly alcoholic wood.
In the mouth: Again, the initial note is an overbearing oakiness, which lends a synthetic taint to the front of the mouth. This whiskey sheds the woody overlay to reveal a decadent, sweet note of cherry at midpalate. There are some nutty nuances and notes of cocoa toward the finish, where an unfortunate reprise of the oaky saturation again rears its head.
I’m usually surprised when people are vehement in their dislike of Stagg Jr., but this batch proves that it can go badly wrong. The wood is pushed to an uncomfortable extreme, wherein the flavors lose their natural essence and appear as though chemical simulacra of themselves. This is off-putting at any price, for which I am docking two points.
Next up we have batch 14, from Summer 2020. This is 130.2 Proof (65.1% ABV). As noted above, you can read prior takes on this from myself and Jason.
Stagg Jr. Batch 14 – Review
Color: Very similar medium-dark brownish orange.
On the nose: This presents more rich sweetness of a less cloying variety, in the form of chocolate fudge accented with some exotic notes of fragrant sandalwood. There’s the distinct fruity and milky note of orange Creamsicles. The wood makes another appearance in the form of mesquite, consistent with the prior batch I tried.
In the mouth: A generous and gorgeous burst of cherry marks the delightful entrance on the palate. The wood notes are present in toned down form, making way for a dance of fruit-and-stone, with flavors that oscillate energetically between those poles. The finish presents a stern stoniness that almost overwhelms, before another spicy cocoa note of Mexican chocolate adds a final surprising twist.
After nosing this, I wasn’t sure I could award the same high mark I gave it the last time I tasted it. Not until it hit my lips did I recall exactly what made this batch so incredible. The nose gets you going one direction until you’re almost sick of it before the palate redeems the experience by providing completely different flavors that are no less diverse and intense. For a person as jaded as me, it can feel like whiskey holds very few positive surprises. However that’s just what we have here, and it has left a big smile on my face.
Finally, I’ll be tasting Batch 15, released Winter 2020. This sits in between the prior two at 131.1 proof (65.55% ABV), though there’s not a ton of deviation in reality.
Stagg Jr. Batch 15 – Review
Color: Nearly identical medium-dark brownish orange.
On the nose: More sedate than its predecessor, this has an underripe apricot as the dominant aroma. There’s a bit of stone and fruity sweetness here, in the manner of peaches and cream. Some air reveals an herbal bouquet of tarragon and thyme. I get a faint whiff of fluoride, but overall this is the tightest and most restrained nose on a Stagg Jr. I can recall.
In the mouth: An initial note of butterscotch yields to a rounded note of polished wood as this approaches the middle of the tongue. There are some fruity notes here, but of an underripe variety that tastes sour to the point of bitterness. That bitterness continues with an astringent, tannic woodiness that remains the dominant flavor as this finishes. There’s a lingering burn on the tongue and the top of the mouth, as well as a fading, almond-like bitterness that is of a piece with the rest of the palate.
As bad as Batch 12, but in different ways. Both suffer from the same flaw of the wood notes being over-extracted, but this one has an oddness to it that encompasses bitter notes from elsewhere. Neither better nor worse than Batch 12, but objectively not enjoyable to me, I am scoring it similarly.
Based on my scores, I probably don’t need to tell you that I would pass on batches 12 and 15 at retail price. I’d like to tell you that I wouldn’t pay more than, say, $75 or so for Batch 14 (I retain a modicum of self-respect), I would certainly be tempted by a bottle with a $100 price tag. Above that, I fear the lingering shame of getting ripped off would turn the whiskey bitter to me, in a way that might ruin Stagg Jr. for me forever. I’ll keep hope that sanity will one day prevail and, as always, encourage you to do likewise.
Photo courtesy of Buffalo Trace.