Whiskey Review: Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye (2016)

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Editor’s Note: Today we bring you the fourth in a five week series of reviews on each of the individual whiskies from Buffalo Trace’s 2016 Antique Collection.  We have so far touched upon Eagle Rare 17-Year-Old, Sazerac Rye 18-Year-Old and William Larue Weller. As a bonus, we will also be embedding at the end of each review the annual release letter tied to each expression. This will give you a lot more specifics to consider.

All of these whiskies were provided to us as free samples to review by Buffalo Trace upon request. The Whiskey Wash, while appreciative of this, did keep full independent editorial control over this article.

Just six years old, Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye is the youngest release in the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. Its older brother, Sazerac Rye 18-Year-Old, is the oldest, which means the whole series is bookended by Sazerac expressions.

But don’t let its young age fool you: Thomas H. Handy is no ingénue. Earlier this year, the 2015 release of Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye won Best American Rye Whiskey at the 2016 World Whiskies Awards.

This year’s bottling was distilled in 2010, and was aged on the fourth, fifth, and seventh floors of Warehouses I, K, and M. Those are upper stories, which means higher temperatures and more interaction between the spirit and the oak.

So who is Thomas H. Handy anyway? If you’ve been following along with this Antique Collection series, you’ll remember the history of the Sazerac cocktail outlined in the Sazerac 18-Year-Old review.

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Long story short, the Sazerac cocktail was originally made with Cognac, not whisky. But during the Great Wine Blight of the mid-1800s, phylloxera (an untreatable aphid infestation) devastated France’s vineyards, and Cognac got very hard to find. Undeterred, the owner of the Sazerac Coffee House, Thomas H. Handy, is credited as substituting rye whiskey for brandy, and the modern Sazerac was born (more or less).

It was an interesting choice, because I’m hard-pressed to think of two brown spirits less alike than Cognac and rye whiskey. Where Cognac is floral, buttery, and deeply mellow, rye is…not really that way. And Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye is really not that way. Barrel proof and non-chill filtered, this is a big, powerful, expressive rye with confident spice and brash demeanor.

In any case, the substitution worked, and the Sazerac cocktail is now one of the world’s great classic whiskey drinks. Does this year’s Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye release still deserve its place in the pantheon of great American rye whiskeys?

Tasting Notes: Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye (2016)

Vital Stats: 126.2 proof, six years old, $90 MSRP for a 750ml bottle but, like all BTAC releases, you’ll most likely pay more.

Appearance: Bright copper

Nose: The nose is a bit milder than I expected, to be honest. Stoneground mustard, cherry preserves, and a faint note of fruit popsicles mingle with some vegetal notes like cooked corn and steamed greens.

Palate: Rich and full, honeyed but also savory – think rye crisps topped with dark honey and black pepper, although the spice is felt more in the nose than on the tongue. Extremely well-integrated, the flavor really builds in a cohesive, continuous wave from entry to finish.

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Speaking of the finish, it’s fruity and herbaceous, with a strong note of mentholated cherry cough drops giving it an almost cooling quality. Water does this no favors, but it’s balanced enough to enjoy without. 

Final Thoughts:

Thomas H. Handy provides a lovely balance between spicy and sweet, earthy and herbaceous, with a remarkably cohesive palate. Another delicious whiskey from Buffalo Trace, although the finish was so spot-on for Luden’s cherry cough drops that I found it a little distracting.

Score: 90/100 [SHOP FOR A BOTTLE OF THOMAS H. HANDY]

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Margarett Waterbury

Margarett Waterbury is the author of Scotch: A Complete Introduction to Scotland's Whiskies and a full-time freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Whisky Advocate, Food and Wine, Spirited Magazine, Artisan Spirit, Edible Seattle, Sip Northwest, Civil Eats, Travel Oregon, Artisan Spirit, and many other publications. She is...