Each year Buffalo Trace releases the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC), which represents a cross-section of American Whiskeys spanning a wide range of ages, proofs, and styles. In the bourbon industry, BTAC is widely revered as some of the absolute best and most highly sought after American Whiskeys released each year, setting the bar high for competitors as well as subsequent releases of each expression within the Antique Collection itself. While the expressions remain relatively consistent from year to year, each year’s vintage brings with it unique nuances relative to previous releases. Because demand for these whiskeys has greatly outpaced supply, bourbon enthusiasts frenzy to get their hands on these whiskeys each year. So just how does 2016’s Antique Collection fare? Our tasting notes and overall thoughts on each brand follow.
Dry and arid consisting of cigar box, aged oak, dried leather, and a healthy dose of ethanol upfront with hints of dark chocolate and raisins layered in.
Sweeter than the nose would lead you to believe, I am surprised that this seems to drink lower than the listed 126.2 proof. A healthy dose of rye spice along with raisins, honey, and toffee are all present.
The finish is where Handy reminds me that this is a barrel proof rye, as one way to sum it up is HOT! This is a finish where the heat lingers with you for a while, starting by enveloping my mouth all the way down to my stomach. Rye spice, white pepper, and oak are most noticeable with the oak lingering with the heat the longest.
When directly comparing this to a 2014 Handy that I sampled this next to, I found the 2016 version to contain a more layered nose and more flavorful palate. Finish-wise, they both contained that familiar Handy heat which is exemplary of the brand. Compared to years past, I found this year's Handy to be one of the bolder and tastier releases in recent memory and look forward to drinking more of it in the future.
It should be noted that after the tasting I added a few drops of water to see how it would impact the experience. While a few drops seemed to slightly tame the heat in the finish, it also muted the overall flavors of the nose and the palate too. I’d recommend trying this one neat first and then adding water or ice to preference. -Jordan
Breaking Bourbon: I know that a lot of the crew does not come from necessarily a whiskey background. Was that accidental, or was that deliberate for some reason?
Jay: Mostly that was deliberate. Talking to Larry Ebersold, because first of all we needed a consultant, a master distiller to teach us what to do, and I had a lifetime of knowledge and learning about alcoholic beverages and spirits, but I’d never made them before. I wish I could tell you, yeah, I had a still in my dorm room, man, you know, I never did that. I never owned an illicit still. And so when we opened New Riff, all of us put together had made zero whiskey, zero spirits of any kind. Larry’s advice was...and Ken and I felt this way too...we didn’t necessarily want to just recruit someone out of the Kentucky industry who would come in with a lot of perhaps good preconceptions and foreknowledge and assumptions and practices. That might have been just fine.
But it was Larry’s advice that said, you might just think about hiring a brewer. Hire someone who knows fermentation, because that’s where the flavor is made. You don’t make flavor in a still. Stills don’t make flavor. Stills can...depending on the use of them and everything...they can shape flavor, but they don’t create the flavor. And the flavor is all made in the fermenter. And so we were looking, in fact, to hire a brewer, and we wound up with Brian Sprance our head distiller and production manager. Brilliant guy, came to us out of the craft beer industry. He was probably a master level brewer, more or less, at Boston Beer, and came to work for us, and he had not distilled a lick of whiskey in his life. He didn’t know anything about making whiskey, but he knew all about fermentation. And having him then trained to run the distillery by Larry, that was very much a deliberate act that we didn’t just hire someone…we wanted to find our whiskey, find it ourselves, so to speak.
Breaking Bourbon: How integral was the O.K.I. brand both from a learning side...and development in bringing New Riff to be? Did that inspire [the New Riff concept], or was it always the idea to get into the distillation side?
Jay: Yeah, good question, and particularly to the point of education or our experience. So the story of O.K.I. was as Ken Lewis and I were spinning up this distillery in the formative days, we were starting the process, I guess. I said to Ken, you know, we should go and buy a few barrels so that we have an aged whiskey to work with now, you know, to work with not in 10 years or 4, 5, 6 years, but to sell now. And it can be a standard bearer. We didn’t make it, but we did bottle it and we put it together and we vat it together, and moreover we made quality decisions that govern how it plays out, namely to be un-chill filtered and to say, this is how we think whiskey ought to be bottled. And it was a standard bearer. It was a little bit of a placeholder, certainly to the point of meeting people in the industry, bars and retailers and restaurants, and stuff like that.
We did a few picks with various stores and stuff. It was a way to get to know those people. But internally, I don’t think I appreciated when I proposed it to Ken how much of a huge learning platform it would be for us. We did some barrel-finishes...now we haven’t done that at New Riff, and we’re not likely to do that anytime soon...but we did it, and we learned how to do those. We made a sherry-cask finish, that for me, a lover of single malt scotch since the age of teen years old, I loved sherry-cask stuff. So that was just a tremendous learning platform for us both in the vatting and the selecting, but very much in the bottling, packaging, bartending…we had great material to work with. And finally, it was not just any old whiskey. To most people, oh, that’s an Indiana whiskey. Ok, another one of those. I get that. But for us, they are sort of our big brother neighbor distillery. They’re right here in greater Cincinnati. They are a high rye distillate, you know 35% rye with O.K.I., and we were going to be that as well.
And furthermore, we were trained by their emeritus master distiller, Larry Ebersold, he was the master distiller many years there at the Seagram’s plant in Lawrenceburg, IN, and he was serving as New Riff’s consultant, and so we were trained and taught the black arts of how he made whiskey. The 95% rye, his precept, his quality goals, and tricks of the trade and stuff like that. So, we were taught to make a whiskey like that, sort of. I wouldn’t have wanted barrels of wheated whiskey from [another distillery], for example. It was something right here that attracted us to the Indiana stuff.
So O.K.I. was always meant to die. It was not intended to persist as a brand. Perhaps if the supply of aged whiskey had been available later in our careers, we would have continued it, but the fact is it was not available. That whole market dried up. You couldn’t go and get 5, 6, 8, 10 year old whiskey anymore, and we always intended for O.K.I. to die. What we were not going to do is this switcheroo where Indiana juice is in the bottle and suddenly Kentucky juice is in the bottle. We wanted it to be a clean break and a different design.
Breaking Bourbon: And thinking about your size...I know you guys position yourself really mid...I mean you’re a big craft facility...but you’re a small, large producer...a mid-range producer. So tell me about that.
Jay: Some people call it the mid-major. We’re the biggest of the small but the smallest of the big. Frankly, I don’t even know if...we probably don’t really consider ourselves a “craft distillery.” We were definitely inspired by that movement, and we’re friends with all those people and we know them well and love them, but we are sour mash whiskey producers in full size barrels for 4 years. Most of what we have done is not the business practices of the small craft distilleries, for better or for worse, I think we can agree, sometimes for the better.
When you have whiskey in a six gallon barrel that’s six months old and they’re pushing it out for 50 bucks a half bottle, we’re not part of that milieu. That said, we are…yeah, a mid-major. We make whiskey just like the big boys, but we make a lot less of it. But we’re cognizant of how much we do make. We make 80,000 barrels a year, and that’s not small potatoes, you know?
Another reason why we want people to come here and see in person what we’re about. I do underline a little bit the commitment to Bottled-in-Bond, why we do it. We had not… what’s the word… agreed, or… we didn’t plan to do that in the early days. We kicked it around, should we do Bottled-in-Bond? And we thought, well maybe, we could do a Bottled-in-Bond, maybe we should do that, I don’t know. We were going to be un-chilled filtered for a certainly. That went without saying. And that was at least one early quality commitment. And we promised ourselves we would go at least four years. If the whiskey wasn’t ready at four, I had to explain to Ken Lewis we got to go to five. Happily, it’s pretty good at four.
So we were always going to be un-chill filtered, but we weren’t settled in the early days on Bottled-in-Bond. And then internally, we started asking ourselves, and we realized, hold on a minute. Bottled-in-Bond is not just a category for old men and bartenders. It is the world’s highest quality standard for an aged brown spirit, full stock, the highest quality standard. Higher than the standards in scotch. Higher than the standards in Cognac.
You know that they add caramel color to those spirits, but also in the case of Cognac, you can add sugar, you can add oak flavoring, you know this? Look at Canadian whiskey, you can add any damn thing you want, practically. Japanese whiskey doesn’t even have to be distilled in Japan to be called Japanese whiskey. A lot of what’s in the bottle of Japanese whiskey...I’m speaking very broadly here...comes from [Scotland]. Sometimes it comes from America. Anyway, it’s the highest standard in the world for any aged brown spirit and since 1897. So when we realized that and we say to ourselves, if we really are putting our heart on our soul about being quality-first...and every single drinks company in the world would tell you they’re quality-first...and you and I know that’s really not the case. At some point, the piper gets paid, and the shareholders put out their hand and a decision gets made.
Breaking Bourbon: You don’t have many with “poor quality” in their advertising. That doesn’t come off so well...
Jay: That’s a good way to put it. Anyway, we really, really, mean that, and we do. It is really our goal to be...and this is our goal, Ken and I...and we reiterate it to each other all the time. If our goal truly is to be one of the world’s great small distilleries, than how can we not not only Bottled-in-Bond, but make everything peg to that highest standard in the world.
On top of that, by being un-chill filtered, we don’t even do the one thing that the federal government allows that you could do. If you read part of the Bottled-in-Bond regulations very closely, the only thing you can do to change the whiskey from its native state is to filter it, what they call chill-proofing. Because you have chill-filtered...to make a long story short...we don’t even do that. So we are taking the world’s highest standard and putting a New Riff on that and taking it to an even higher restriction. And with all this kerfuffle about the private barrels and the single barrels, and oh my gosh, this is so amazing, we love your barrels. For me the much bigger import is the fact that we bottle everything in bond. Nobody else does that.
Quite pleasant and inviting with hints of seasoned oak, vanilla, and dark fruits.
Dry upfront. Seasoned oak is most prevalent, with dark cherries, a bit of caramel, and light spice in the background. It’s rather one-dimensional, though what it offers is pleasant.
Long and dry. Seasoned oak dominates upfront with the sweeter elements quickly fading out. The oak flavor turns a bit south, as if aged a bit too long. I might describe the finish as over-oaked, but in a slightly different way than I’ve ever experienced, turning to a slightly soggy oak flavor and doing just enough damage to notice something is off. It’s not bad by any means, but a little surprising considering the established quality of the brand.
The Eagle Rare 17 Year brand has surprised me. Aside from this sample, I have one bottle open, a 2013 vintage. I didn’t particularly love it at first, but a few pours deep and its nuanced flavor profile has really grown on me. Additionally, about a year ago I had a flight of all five Antique Collection bottles, varying years. The Eagle Rare 17 Year was a 2009 vintage, and to my surprise the most enjoyable pour of the bunch. Now I would typically list Eagle Rare 17 Year as my least favorite bottle of the Antique Collection, but for whatever reason it seems to have really hit the spot on a number of occasions and if I had to make a general list, not specific to vintage, Eagle Rare 17 Year might be somewhere in the middle.
A prominent whiskey reviewer suggested that this might be one of the best, if not the best, Eagle Rare 17 Year expressions to date. Unfortunately, I did not arrive at the same conclusion. Tasted next to the 2013 vintage, this year’s Eagle Rare 17 Year was an obvious second place with a lack of dimension and slightly off taste by comparison. I even stepped out of the box and tasted it against Orphan Barrel Barterhouse, a bourbon we listed as an alternative to Eagle Rare 17 Year, and for me the two were just about on par with one another. I suspect this year’s Eagle Rare 17 Year will get better as the bottle breathes, and while still a good bourbon, it’s a disappointment overall. -Nick
Nick: Is there anything on the horizon that you’re able to talk about at this point with upcoming releases or upcoming experiments or projects that you guys are working on?
Jay: Well we make three what we call “main” whiskeys, by which I mean we make them every month - bourbon, rye, and malted rye. 100% malted rye grain, right? And we only make three fermenters a month of malted rye. We made it very sporadically in the early years...in the early days. At any rate, we make those three. So the next sort of official, if you will, whiskey to come out will be malted rye. That probably won’t hit the market until fall of 2020.
Breaking Bourbon: Little ways off, yeah, I saw that one a little bit, we talked about that one a little bit [when visiting New Riff].
Jay: Yeah, we’re going to give it a little extra time to age and let it be a solid 5 years old, not 4, and kind of make a little exclamation point out of it. So that’s coming down the pipe.
And then as well as that, we make...perhaps you appreciated on the tour...how we have the ability to digest different grains.
We can dump any bag of grain we want to into the process. For one thing, that’s how we make 100% malted rye. We have the ability to go outside of our silos and dump in 2,000 lb. bags of whatever grain we want and then that takes its malted run. So we’ve made a whole bunch of different things. We’ve made wheated bourbon, we made heirloom-grain bourbon, we’ve made heirloom-grain rye, we’ve made chocolate oatmeal stout bourbon where we were inspired by our background as brewers, beer lovers, to make a bourbon so it’s mostly corn, but there’s oats in it and malted oats and things like that. So those things will come out, I don’t know when, but in the future, as special limited editions. And for what it’s worth...but just so you know, those are not accessible for private barrels. And in fact will not be bottled as single-barrels, probably, they will just be Bottled-in-Bond.
Breaking Bourbon: To go forward for New Riff, what’s on the more immediate horizon? What’s on the long-term horizon? What might we expect New Riff to look like in 10 or 20 years from now, all things going as you guys kind of envision them today?
Jay: Well, I don’t think I can say really with accuracy here. But I would say that we do hold that 20-30% of our output every year to become older. That still is not a lot. 20% or 30% of what we made 4 years ago, in 2015, years from now, still is not a lot of whiskey. I hear from folks a lot, I can’t wait until it gets older. And it will get older. I don’t know how old, 7, 10, 8, I don’t know. But there won’t be a lot of it. So I hope that by 10 or 20 years from now, we have simply more whiskey to share with the world.
Furthermore, maybe, more whiskeys to share with the world. Right now we have bourbon and rye. What does malted rye do? What do our specialty, as we call them, for want of a better term, the speciality whiskey do? What is the perception of our version of wheated bourbon? And I’m not necessarily saying it’s the cat’s meow but we have the opportunity to change perceptions in the future with other risks, if you will, that we will do.
For being a 144.1 proof, I’m surprised by how tolerable this nose is. Don’t get me wrong there’s a big dose of ethanol that dominates much of the nose, but not much more than was found in this year's Thomas H. Handy release. Hiding behind the ethanol is burnt caramel, toasted oak, and a hint of toasted marshmallow.
A big smack to the face as the palate brings you right back to the realization that you’re drinking a 140+ proof bourbon. On first sip, heat, heat, and more heat dominate the palate. This is also where you begin to notice the age of this year's Stagg as heavily charred oak, aged leather, and caramel mix with a touch of vanilla.
The heat continues to dominate the finish upfront, with the backend consisting of aged oak, caramel, and a lingering flavor of dry leather.
The bourbon world was abuzz when Buffalo Trace announced they would release another 140+ proof version of Stagg. Whiskeys in excess of 140 proof are commonly referred to as a “hazmat”, due to the fact that it’s against the law to pack in your checked luggage when flying due to the high alcohol content qualifying as a hazardous material. Additionally, with so much of this year's Stagg lost to the “Angel’s Share”, expectations were high to taste a bourbon that lost so much to evaporation while aging in the barrel.
Unfortunately, I feel that this year's Stagg just didn’t meet expectations. Even adding a few drops of water did nothing to tame the nose, however it did slightly sweeten the palate and the backend of the finish ever so slightly. The heat is incredibly dominant, and while that is to be expected with a 144.1 proof bourbon, combined with the fact that it tastes over-aged and over-oaked results in a less than stellar experience. While still good, this year’s Stagg is certainly not the best tasting Stagg released in recent years, falling far short of what has become expected of the brand.
The good news is that this may end up opening up nicely. The 2012 version of Stagg was also 140+ proof, and weighed in at 142.8 proof. It also made for a great comparison to do a side by side against. Containing many similar qualities, the 2012 version seems to have opened up really nicely with a little air time in the bottle and hopefully this year's version will do the same down the road. Until that time get ready for a hot over-age tasting bourbon experience. -Jordan
Delicate notes of gingerbread, vanilla, and baking spices overlay a slightly more potent bed of oak. The caramel notes are a bit more robust than needed, and that might have a lot to do with the nose being a bit more pedestrian than previous years. It’s far from unique and has many similarities with the majority of rye whiskeys on the market.
Big and bold. At 90 proof, it comes across a lot hotter than the proof suggests, which unfortunately dampens some of the palate’s flavor. Equal amounts of black pepper, ginger, and nutmeg give way to seasoned wood and a dash of clove.
The boldness of the palate mellows and gives way to a gentle cinnamon aftertaste. Even further on the backend the cinnamon combines with spice notes and turns it into a mild “Red Hot” fireball aftertaste. Overall drier and spicier than previous years.
The silky smoothness that Sazerac 18 Year has been known for cannot be said of this year’s edition. It was always a bit of a miracle how smooth and balanced the tanked batch of Sazerac 18 Year always was. Despite the perceived trials and tribulations Buffalo Trace must have went through to try mimic that now legendary batch, it’s a bit disheartening of this year’s result. The 2016 edition is certainly good, some may even call it great, but it’s impossibly far from being called legendary. Calling this year’s Sazerac 18 Year bolder and spicier might sound intriguing, but it’s the worse thing that could have happened to the brand. This year’s Sazerac 18 Year isn’t much different than many other high-aged ryes on the market. Where it once held rank with the most elite ryes, it now holds company with the general populous ryes. Maybe it will be able to return one day to its former glory. Here’s hoping. -Eric
Wonderfully rich and warm, with notes of cinnamon, baking spices, and plum. Not overly complex, but enough scents are present and they’re represented well. Just the right amount of oaky base helps round out the nose.
Molasses, dark cherries, dark chocolate, and vanilla all blend together to create an enjoyable burst of flavor. Its sweetness is offset by its oak barrel influence and its thick mouthfeel makes you think at times you can chew it. Just the right amount of complexity and drinkability.
A straightforward classic style finish that’s warm, bold, and slowly says goodbye. As the palate’s flavors dissipate, additional minor notes of pine, coffee, and tobacco are introduced.
William Larue Weller has always been a large and in charge bourbon, and while its heat can sometimes overpower its flavors, its richness always makes up for it. At 12 years and 7 months old, there’s a nice balance of flavors and barrel influence, with not one outdoing the other. Once again this year’s edition provides an enjoyable layer of depth and complexity and despite its 135.4 proof, is hot, but never harsh. In fact, compared to some of the higher proof previous editions, a few proof points less goes a long way curbing its hardness and making it overall a very enjoyable drinker. This year’s edition might lack some of the bells and whistles from previous years (e.g. higher age, higher proof, and oddball flavor notes), but its matter-of-fact nature might actually become its most celebrated attribute. -Eric
While all still good whiskeys, the majority of expressions in the Antique Collection are noticeably lower in quality this year relative to recent year’s past with a standout emerging.
Following year upon year of drawing down from one of the most legendary batches of American Whiskey we’ve ever experienced, the most notable degradation for 2016 is Sazerac 18 Year, the first year of Buffalo Trace’s new distillate batch. Bringing with it a more bold flavor profile than previous releases, the incredible subtleties of the brand are unfortunately lost in this year’s bottling. While still good bourbons, Eagle Rare 17 Year and George T. Stagg also prove to be letdowns, though if past experiences are any indication air time in the bottle should allow them both to improve over time. Thomas H. Handy, which inspires a wide range of opinions as it’s a younger rye with a more robust flavor profile, holds its own with a solid showing in 2016. Finally the standout: William Larue Weller. It has a flavor profile that’s rich, balanced, and not overpowered by alcohol, resulting in a standout release for the brand. Fortunately for consumers, William Larue Weller saw a substantial increase in bottle production in 2016 to approximately 13,420 by our estimate, a 5,640 bottle increase over 2015. If there is any expression to seek this year, it is hands down William Larue Weller.
Happy hunting this bourbon season!
The samples used for this review were provided at no cost courtesy of Buffalo Trace. We thank them for allowing us to review it with no strings attached.