“It ain’t no fun if the homies can’t have none” – Nathaniel Dwayne Hale, b.k.a. Nate Dogg
It’s a persistent truism in the world of whiskey that fine drams are meant to be shared. It’s an inclusive ethos that permeates the whiskey enthusiast community, and which sets it apart from so many other collector cultures. While some seek out the hardest to find bourbons with the intent of never opening or sharing them with others, those poor souls are in the extreme minority. By and large, whiskey people are some of the nicest you will meet. Most take more pride in sharing their bounty and spreading the gospel of brown water than they do in selfishly hoarding it for themselves.
Because I believe wholeheartedly that this culture of jovial sharing is part of what makes enjoying whiskey so wonderful, I try at every turn to make it a part of my practice. As someone who owns hundreds of bottles it’s both a pragmatic decision (in that I’d be hard pressed to drink every single one of those bottles by myself) but also one that gives me great joy.
It’s through this culture of sharing that I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy a cornucopia of so-called unicorn bottles that I would never otherwise have the opportunity to try. It’s also through this communalism that I’ve been able to unlock stories and create memories with friends new and old that have enriched my life immeasurably. Building human connections by forging friendships and widening your personal aperture on the world is something you simply can’t put a price on.
Our story begins with the acquisition of today’s review subject: the 2019 George T. Stagg bourbon from Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection. In a serendipitous series of events, I shared news of a store raffle with a stranger who happened to win this bottle. In turn, through a number of conversations, I discovered he had an interest in a few bottles in my collection that I wanted to trade (another staple of the enthusiast community which allows for access to otherwise inaccessible bottles). We then arranged to meet and make an exchange which netted me this beauty, along with a new friend who has since shared a score of other outstanding pours with me.
What happened next might be a foreign concept to you, dear reader, but I then stored this bottle in the back of my “bunker” and forgot all about it. To be clear, I was thrilled to add it to my collection because previous versions of George T Stagg (such as the 2017 which Taylor previously reviewed) are among my favorite bourbons of all time.
However, with so many other bottles open to enjoy I figured I would save Georgie boy for a “special occasion.” As you may already have noticed, the thing about “special occasions” is that they happen all too infrequently. I’ve since come to the belief that every day can be made into a special occasion if you fix your disposition to make it so.
Well, I decided to create my own occasion and, as fate would have it, opportunity arrived when a friend told me that despite 10+ years enjoying whiskey and working as a manager at one of Jersey City’s finest bourbon bars, he had never tried George T. Stagg before. The die was cast, and I told him that the next time we met I would bring this bottle for him to open and enjoy.
When the time came I let him crack it open (the devilish grin that spread across his face is something I’ll never forget) and pour what he wished, even sharing some with a curious nearby stranger. We all agreed then that it was truly an exceptional experience and pour.
But why stop there? Soon I brought the bottle to another friend, and then another, and another. Within a week more than half the bottle was gone as I poured it for friends, whiskey lovers, strangers, and even one of those “in-store tasting” folks who had reached the end of his shift and whom I felt deserved a drink after pouring freebies for half-interested customers all day.
It became known as my “Sharing Stagg,” something that I was all too willing to break out and offer to anyone fortunate enough to cross my path while I had it in tow. I became a veritable Johnny Appleseed, planting the seeds of good will everywhere I went and taking pride in the tilling of the soil whether it produced the fruit of reciprocity or not.
Eventually, this Stagg was on its last leg and I thought there was no better way to send it off in the spirit of sharing than to do two things. The first being to pour a sample for the person who originally traded this to me. Surely, he deserves to enjoy it and experience some of the joy our transaction inspired.
The second bright idea I had was to write this review, so that an innumerable amount of people might benefit from learning more about it. I hope in reading these ramblings you gain a bit of the pleasure that I had in sharing it with so many others and take this as your cue to pay it forward, after all, that’s what this is all about.
At last, let’s get down to brass tacks and discuss the relevant details of this highly sought out expression. The 2019 edition of George T. Stagg, like all of them, is barrel strength and clocks in at the lowest-ever proof for a George Stagg, 116.9 proof (58.45% ABV). It’s aged for 15 years and 4 months and consists of Buffalo Trace mashbill #1, which is undisclosed but is said to be their low-rye recipe. While it is a limited edition, and thus typically marked up exorbitantly both at retail and on the secondary market, credit belongs to Buffalo Trace for releasing this expression at a suggested retail price of $99.
George T. Stagg 2019 – Review
Color: Mahogany with an auburn glint.
On the nose: A lush cherry cordial aroma immediately fills the room (glass included) along with a rich leather that makes me think of eating maraschino cherries on a brand-new Chesterfield sofa. Soon soft cinnamon, caramel, and vanilla ice cream notes float to the surface along with some allspice, the faintest whiff of dark chocolate truffle powder, oak, and figs. Spending time with this nose is a lot of fun, as it’s densely packed with classic bourbon aromas along with sweet dessert-like notes that are right up the alley of anyone with a penchant for bakery visits and assorted after-dinner treats. The “low” proof is also very apparent, making it a delight to visit and then revisit with deep inhalations. Finally, I’ll note that the sweetness is on the surface, but just beneath it the notes of oak and dark chocolate are joined by turmeric and tomato paste which provides a savory balance.
In the mouth: Vanilla ice cream, maraschino cherries, and as an intriguing twist there’s some red pepper notes that pop at first taste. Caramel, dark chocolate, clove, and black pepper unfold at midpalate which leads us to the finish where the age is apparent vis a vis an oaky presence that is slightly drying in such a way that curbs any bitterness that might encroach on our enjoyment. It has a robust albeit not particularly long finish that’s replete with more of a black cherry flavor and some tasty barrel char. It’s also slightly effervescent on the finish, reminding me of a half-flat Dr. Pepper without leaning into the cloying sweetness of the soda. All in all, it’s a truly delicious pour that has a bit of everything, including a touch of rye spice that beckons after sitting with it for a while.
In the three years since its release, this was maligned at times for being a departure from the “punch you in your face” experience that one typically expects with George T. Stagg bourbon. While the 2019 expression certainly turns down the volume, it still features the full chorus of flavors that made George T. Stagg one of the most vaunted expressions in Buffalo Trace’s legendary Antique Collection lineup. The cherry-forward flavor profile is on full display and provides a sumptuous base along with a deft balance which really makes it sing.
I have to admit that, despite the above, this is not my favorite George T. Stagg iteration, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t also note that everyone I shared this with was bowled over by the richness of its flavor. Without exception, the generosity of sharing this bottle was well received and for many (including several folks who drink whiskey professionally) this was among their favorite pours of the year once I shared it with them. All things considered, it’s tough for me to grade this one objectively owing to the experience I gained in sharing it with so many different people… but then, what review is entirely objective?
Thanks to my experience with various George T. Stagg bourbons, I can appreciate this one within the wider portfolio for being something different. Judged against its contemporaries it definitely still holds up as an exceptional experience. What we have here is a beautiful bourbon, too often dismissed for its proof point and too often marked up for its reputation, but a beautiful bourbon nonetheless. When grading this in accordance with Malt’s Scoring Bands at the retail price of $99 I feel comfortable awarding 2019’s George T. Stagg a favorable score.