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 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.
Fortunately, overall estimated bottle counts are high again this year with similar totals as we estimated for 2017. George T. Stagg surprised with its lowest proof ever. Sazerac 18 Year is again drawn from tanked stock. However, the biggest surprise was Eagle Rare 17 Year. Eagle Rare was originally introduced to the market by Seagram in 1975, and bottled at 101 proof. Sazerac purchased the brand in 1989, but has always released Eagle Rare 17 Year at 90 proof. 2018’s edition was released at 101 proof in homage to the brand’s history. Unfortunately, evaporation was excessive with a yield of only 10.5%, resulting in an estimated bottle count of only 1,627 bottles.
So just how does 2018’s Antique Collection fare?
Our tasting notes and overall thoughts on each will be presented one per day over the course of the week. Enjoy!
A rich, buttery smooth bouquet of cherry, pomegranate, vanilla, potpourri, and seasoned oak. Pitch perfect construction and delivery that impresses. It begs the question: Why can’t all bourbons smell like this?
Oak, vanilla, dark fruit, tobacco, and spice combine to form a palate that has its moments - especially right out of the gate. It begins rich and fruity like the best Eagle Rare 17 Year before it, but transforms mid-palate into something much more average, where it becomes a fairly straightforward and to-the-point affair. Overall the flavors are well defined, but they just don’t cohere into a flavor profile that wows me throughout the entire sip.
Dry and surprisingly lacking in memorable flavor. It’s noticeably hotter with oak largely dominating the flavor profile. Mild tannins also intrude, zapping many of the fruiter flavors from making a stronger appearance. As the finish fades, a cherry and blueberry aftertaste develops which are the finish’s saving grace.
This year’s Eagle Rare 17 Year has more in common with last year’s edition than the excellent editions a few years ago. It’s fine and has its moments, but it’s lacking the impressive refinement from before. The increased proof this year from 90 to 101, has a two-fold effect. In some brief moments it helps liven up some of the flavors, but I can’t help but feel it also gets in their way. It just barely squeaks by with its rating, since for a 17 year old plus bourbon, its oak is well managed and despite its flavors not popping, are quite enjoyable when it comes down to it.
I wrote in a previous review for Eagle Rare 17 Year, that this brand often represents what 90 proof, high aged bourbon should strive be. The brand often excels at balance and is a benchmark that other bourbons should strive for. That’s harder to say about this year’s release, despite its respectable efforts. -Eric
Surprisingly lighter and peppier than in years past, thanks to flashes of bubblegum, floral, and raisins notes. These flavors don’t necessarily add all that much complexity, but help freshen up the brand’s traditional notes of orange rind, baking spice, cinnamon, and mild oak. It’s an aroma that is more warm than hot, and overall more tempered and enjoyable than previous editions.
A cannonball run of rye spice, pepper, allspice, and small doses of sweet baking spices. The layers of spice rolls out on the back of each other, producing a quite energetic display. Classic Handy cinnamon notes are also present, but aren’t as overpowering as previous years - a welcome change that allows the whiskey to hint at, and partially reveal a more complex side.
The palate’s spice continues right into the finish, which makes the the whole flavor delivery quite long. The finish can be dry at times, with oak weaving in and out, and leaving a tobacco and minor tannic-like aftertaste. The sips heat is most pronounced during the finish, but quite manageable overall.
Handy is usually quite consistent with its flavor profile and high octane proof year in and year out. With this edition, while still high in proof and quite warm in the finish, it doesn’t come off like the jet fuel it usually does. This allows more attention to be put on its flavor profile, which is often overshadowed by its proof. All of this doesn’t necessarily make this year’s Handy a better release than previous years. It does however make it much more understated and palatable. Two words rarely used to describe Thomas H. Handy. -Eric
A heavy medicinal smell similar to cherry cough syrup is immediately noticeable. Slight hints of rye grain, cinnamon bark, orange zest and bubblegum linger in the distant background. Overall the cherry cough syrup smell dominates the entire nose making it come off as much more one dimensional than you would expect from a pour of Sazerac.
Bitter and tannic, the sip leads with earthy notes along with strong oak and citrus rind which dominate. Trailing behind these flavors are leather and cherry. It’s an unsatisfying combination and one that doesn’t beckon you to go back for more.
Rye spice, orange peel, and cherry all wrapped in a heavy oak shell start off the finish. Drier than preferred, the finish lingers for an incredibly long time. While this fact would normally excite, the lingering finish is mostly a bitter woody flavor that overstays its welcome in the end.
For years, Sazerac 18 Year used to be the crown jewel of consistency in the BTAC lineup. This was in strong part due to the fact that the rye was tanked from 2005 - 2015, meaning the same whiskey was bottled year after year. The original tanked stock ran out, and in 2016 the whiskey was made up of distillate produced at the Buffalo Trace Distillery. What was supposed to be a one time batch with new batches being dumped each year, has now turned into a tanked version that has been used ever since. Sadly this new tanked version only seems to degrade over time and is clearly a lesser version than what was produced last year. Here’s hoping that new stock is on the way for next year, because while this year’s Sazerac delivers an average experience, it no longer commands the attention grabbing flavor profile it had in the past. -Jordan
Sweet cherries and rye-like spice tease the nostrils. There’s a bit of ethanol that cannot be ignored, though it’s not overpowering. It’s good but not as impressive as the brand has proven in the past.
A touch of spice at first, the intensity ramps up as it rolls around in the mouth. Cherries and dark fruit mingle in as well. These fruity notes bring a welcome sweetness, which balances the spice nicely.
Warming and full, the finish brings forth the best part of this whiskey. Sweet dark fruits along with the spicy flavors that carry over from the palate start off with a formidable intensity, but subside quickly leaving a delicate spicy-sweet note behind.
William Larue Weller is typically my favorite of the Antique Collection, hands down. 2017’s edition served up a wallop of flavor I really enjoyed, delivering that immediate wow factor. This year’s edition is more subtle and arguably more well balanced. It’s good, really good in fact, but doesn’t wow me like William Larue Weller has before. Instead, it shifts the spectrum of flavors into focus, allowing for a more well-rounded experience. Because of that it will likely appeal to most, but many will miss the wow factor of years past. Overall though, a very good bourbon. -Nick
Light for George T. Stagg, the aromas present themselves in an uncharacteristically refined way. Sweet raisins, brown sugar, and burnt oak cascade over a bed of rye spice. It’s quite pleasant and inviting.
Rich and bursting with flavors of raisins, cherries, vanilla, caramel, and seasoned oak. Typical of the brand, its depth and complexity are notable attributes. Not so typical is how manageable it is, with less punch than its proof would suggest, even if it is lower than usual.
A nice pop of rye spice at the onset, the finish shifts to sweeter flavors of cane sugar and burnt caramel. Hints of oak and tobacco also come into play, but fight for attention beyond the sweeter notes. It’s lengthy and delicious, nicely rounding out a very pleasant sip.
While it is the lowest proof George T. Stagg ever produced (Stagg is typically over 130 proof and often over 140 proof), it is still a high proof bourbon relatively speaking at 124.9 proof. What’s interesting is the lack of a mouth-sweltering proof, something I typically enjoy about George T. Stagg, allows the depth of flavors to really come through without a mask of heat. It reminds me a little of the 2013 release, which clocked in at 128.2 proof, however 2018’s is a more characteristic George T. Stagg flavor profile than 2013 was. Admittedly, those seeking a mouth-scorcher may be disappointed, but those who enjoy George T. Stagg and are open to a more subtle delivery of flavor will find this year’s release tremendously enjoyable.-Nick
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.