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.
One particularly interesting aspect of BTAC is the Fact Sheets Buffalo Trace releases each year. The fact sheets include the kind of information bourbon enthusiasts hunger for - year of distillation, recipe details, distillation details, storage location, evaporation loss, and more. Using this information in years’ past, we were able to estimate the approximate number of bottles released for each brand. While every release within the Collection is difficult to obtain anywhere near the suggested price, this bottle estimate helped us understand just how rare each bottling was, and how likely we might be to find one. Unfortunately, this year Buffalo Trace omitted a key piece of information necessary to make this estimate - the number of barrels comprising each release. We confirmed with Buffalo Trace this information will not be released going forward, and as a result, you will no longer see bottle estimates on our annual BTAC infographic.
So just how does 2019’s Antique Collection fare?
This year’s edition brings back its classic buttery sweet aroma of cherry, vanilla, and honey with just the right amount of oak. The aroma instantly brings me back to the pre-2017 steel tank batches. Just like those releases, this whiskey’s nose offers instant gratification. With its complexity, balanced sweetness, and vanilla-infused oak, Sazerac 18 Year once again features one of the best noses in whiskey.
Opening with a nice array of baking spice, cherry, and cinnamon notes, the palate then introduces a funky musty note. Usually found in high aged whiskey, this is the first time Sazerac 18 Year has showcased it. It quickly becomes the focus of the whiskey
The funkiness swells to an overpowering crendo. It’s odd, yet strangely interesting too. A lasting leather and mild tannic aftertaste lingers that never ventures into bad territory, and is more unique than anything.
Its nose gave me high hopes Sazerac 18 Year was returning to greatness this year. It wasn’t until the sip I was once again let down. That’s the problem with Sazerac 18 Year, it continually has to face the ghosts of its past. It was once one of the best whiskeys available, and Buffalo Trace probably knows better than anyone, you can’t simply follow the same steps to recreate the same whiskey. Where the last few years of Sazerac 18 Year’s releases where a mix of average and boring, this year’s edition is improved and is much more interesting. While its flavor profile is more lively than the other limited edition ryes this year (Parker’s and Wild Turkey Cornerstone), its funkiness won’t be for everyone - probably most in fact. Without it, I’m not sure this whiskey would be all that better though. After repeated sips, I do taste traces of past steel tank releases, which provides me with some hope that one day Buffalo Trace will be able to return this brand to its former glory. -Eric
Aromas of raisin, allspice, and cinnamon candy compete with a prominent and unusual medicinal scent. The intensity of the aromas is powerful, potent, and robust. The medicinal scent is strange and strikes me as artificial. While I can’t quite pinpoint it, the closest thing I can compare it to is that burst of aroma you get when you uncap a magic marker.
Raisin and dark fruit are in full force, keeping a heavy dose of rye spice in check. A trace of the medicinal scent carries over as a flavor in the sip, but with much less intensity. It fades quickly as rye spice takes over. The mouthfeel is heavy with an agreeable chewy texture. As expected, it’s robust and heavy-handed.
Spice turns sweet, with brown sugar, raisin, and a trace of butterscotch. The flavors linger, ending on an enjoyable note.
Despite numerous pours on multiple occasions and allowing the whiskey to sit in the glass for over 10 minutes, the strange artificial magic marker-like scent remained the most prominent on the nose. On first pour this carried over as a flavor into the palate pretty heavily, but airing it out in the glass caused it to dissipate and the more pleasing flavors dominated the remainder of the sip. I’ve always considered Thomas H. Handy one of the more consistent releases in the collection from year to year, if not the most consistent. While the technicals don’t vary significantly from years’ past, this additional scent component is unusual for the release. Thankfully it’s mostly relegated to the aroma and fades quickly with the sip, however expectations are high for this series and for me this is an unexpected and significant flaw in what I otherwise feel has the potential to be a fantastic whiskey.
Notably, Eric identified the same anomaly, and for him it was even more prominent. Ultimately, the whiskey presents an off-putting nose followed by a palate that begins to make amends and finally an enjoyable finish with no remnants of the unusual scent/flavor by that point. It’s a roller coaster ride of a whiskey, and while the flavor profile might be unique for the brand, the unusual aroma detracts from the whiskey’s potential. -Nick
Once again a classic Eagle Rare nose consisting of dark fruits, rich vanilla, and baking spices layered with pepper, rye spice, and aged oak. A very nice aroma that doesn’t disappoint.
A strong backbone of vanilla draped with burnt caramel, dark cherries, and dark brown sugar. The palate beautifully showcases the bourbon’s age by infusing the entire flavor profile with seasoned oak, yet amazingly keeping it balanced.
Spice, leather, and allspice develop on the finish providing a heavy-handed reminder of just how old this bourbon is. Never quite venturing into over-oaked territory and more flirting with it, oak is the star here.
Once again Eagle Rare 17 Year is a well constructed bourbon. Never known to be the flashiest of the Antique Collection, it’s quietly, year after year, a solid bourbon that is complex, well balanced, and showcases its age gracefully. This is the second year in a row at 101 proof after its jump from 90, and I still have a hard time declaring if that move made it a better bourbon. It definitely makes it a bit more punchy, but I’m still not necessarily convinced that’s what Eagle Rare’s flavor profile needed. Like Sazerac 18 Year, its profile has always been soft and tempered, especially compared to the likes of Stagg, Weller, and Handy. While the 101 proof intensified its finish this year, Eagle Rare’s palate didn’t quite see the same enhancements. Its heat and spice unfortunately gets in the way of its palate. Despite this, Eagle Rare continues to be an admirable performer. Often outclassing other high aged bourbons on the market, and even giving its other Antique Collection siblings a run for their money during certain years. This year’s release may still not reach the same level as the 2013 and 2014 editions, but makes impressive strides in its attempt to. -Eric
An ample amount of oak is on display, with cherries and dark chocolate mingled in. The nose is pleasant and refined, but delivers enough oomph to make an impact. Inviting and enjoyable, the aromas succeed in showcasing the whiskey’s age without overdoing it.
Seasoned oak, dark cherries, chocolate, and cinnamon bun comprise the structure of flavors. The bourbon’s age is again highlighted by the preponderance of oak, yet it succeeds in allowing the other flavors through. The mouthfeel is nicely rounded, almost heavy. An expected amount of heat is present, yet it feels understated considering the proof, which is a positive attribute. Very nice overall.
Medium to long, vanilla and caramel notes present themselves first. Cinnamon spice comes into play, and it turns slightly dry on the backend. Oak is also present as an undertone, but less so than in the nose and palate.
Year after year, William Larue Weller is a standout for me. Full-flavored yet still well-integrated, it strives to impress with a more unique flavor profile than many other bourbons due to its age, proof, and wheat as the secondary grain as opposed to the more common use of rye. 2019’s edition remains a standout within the Antique Collection. While the fruit notes might be the dominant player in years past, this year oak takes the stage as the highlight of the whiskey. It is, however, presented in a refined manner, allowing the other flavors to show through with a careful balance. Undoubtedly, 2019’s edition showcases the masterful skill of Harlen Wheatly and the Buffalo Trace production teams involved in the various steps that took place to curate this whiskey. This year’s William Larue Weller reminds me why I still get excited about the Antique Collection, as it exemplifies many of the traits I’ve come to expect from what is typically some of the best American Whiskeys produced each year. -Nick
Lush chocolate, sweet cinnamon bark, and subtle aged oak dance out of the glass. Exploring deeper, they’re joined with Mexican vanilla beans and light soft caramel candy. The lower proof this year allows the scents to stand out without the typical in-your-face punch that is often found with higher proof releases. George T. Stagg usually delivers one of the more outstanding aroma-filled noses in the series, and this year is no exception.
The palate isn’t as varied as the nose but still delivers a refined experience. The chocolate and sweet cinnamon bark carry over from the nose and overpower any additional flavors that may otherwise be present. It’s rich, spicy, and delivers an impactful yet manageable heat that continues to crescendo the longer you roll it around in your mouth.
A quick hit of sweetness to start the finish is immediately replaced by aged oak, leather, and a dose of pepper spice. The finish is long lasting as the oak and leather cling to your mouth with a very subtle muted vanilla note mixed in. Even though the proof is the lowest ever, it still manages to bring a nice amount of heat that lasts throughout, reminding you that you’re still sipping on Stagg.
George T. Stagg is always dependable at delivering two things: a rich flavor profile and a big, powerful, high proof pour. This is the first year that this trend has been broken as the proof dipped below 120 for the first time. Thankfully this year’s version still holds true to its roots, delivering a rich flavorful sip that will bring about a new, yet still enjoyable experience for veteran Stagg drinkers. Somewhat surprisingly, its low proof shows that it can hold its own and is worth seeking out if you only have known Stagg in its near 140 hazmat proof variation. -Jordan
2019 was an odd and interesting year for the highly anticipated Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. One of the most noteworthy and eye catching changes was the lower-than-usual proof points within the Collection this year. With Handy, Stagg, and Weller often in the 130+ range, none could manage to crack 128 in 2019, with Stagg hitting its lowest proof ever at 116.5. Wow!
This is also the first year that we’re not able to provide bottle count estimates. In years past these numbers have provided either a glimmer of hope for those who felt an increase in numbers might allow them to find a bottle, or dashing defeat when bottle count estimates dropped for a certain line. We can certainly understand why Buffalo Trace wouldn’t want to disclose production information, but after being so transparent about this series since the Collection’s inception, it’s a shame to see it go away now. We’re sure many fans agree.
On the quality side, we saw some consistency along with some straight up head scratchers. In terms of consistency, William Larue Weller was once again able to deliver an extremely satisfying sip. Additionally, while not quite up to its tanked predecessor, Sazerac 18 Year is slowly making improvements year after year, but we’ll hold tight calling it a full fledged comeback story just yet. The presence of old whiskey funkiness this year just isn’t going to be for everyone.
The same can be said about this year’s Eagle Rare 17 Year, which maintained its 101 proof from last year’s increase, and once again delivered a well constructed overall sip. Surprisingly and frustratingly, Thomas H. Handy delivered an off profile pour from its typical consistent standards. Hopefully it’s just a one-off year for Handy and not the start of a decline for the brand.
Adding to the mix, George T. Stagg was able to deliver both a surprisingly low proof, yet robust and satisfyingly flavorful sip. It goes to show that high proof isn’t the be-all and end-all which has helped define this brand for so long. This year’s edition showed a low proof Stagg can still deliver a sip that many bourbons should be envious of.
We couldn’t conclude without mentioning the fact that even though any bottle in the series becomes an instant buy for many, Buffalo Trace prices these below market value. While they could easily charge a multiple of what they ask, they hold steady to an MSRP of $100 each. Sure many stores will charge more and few if any will just place them on the shelves for anyone to scoop up, but it’s nice to see that in the ever increasing pricey world of bourbon nowadays, a lucky few still have a shot at buying a reasonably priced limited release.
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 them with no strings attached.