Editor’s Note: Today we bring you the fifth of five in a 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, William Larue Weller and Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye. 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.
The last of our Buffalo Trace Antique Collection reviews, George T. Stagg is also the strongest of the bunch – a whopping 144.1 proof, or more than 72% alcohol. That makes the 2016 George T. Stagg expression the highest-proof aged whiskey I’ve ever tasted – and it’s probably near the top of the highest-proof bourbons ever released. (Know any others that are higher? Leave ’em in the comments!)
The expression is named after one of the founding fathers of today’s Buffalo Trace. In 1878, a St. Louis whiskey salesman named George T. Stagg bought what was then called the Old Fire Copper (or OFC) Distillery from E.H. Taylor Jr. (Why is it all these historical bourbon figures have so many initials?). In 1904, he rebranded it as the George T. Stagg distillery, a name it carried for almost 100 years. In fact, when the Buffalo Trace distillery was named Distillery of the Year by Whisky Advocate in 2000, it was still going by the George T. Stagg name.
The 2016 George T. Stagg expression was distilled in the spring of 2001, making it about 15 years old. The batch is made from a wide-ranging selection of 142 barrels drawn from warehouses M, N, H, L, and K – and Buffalo Trace tells us that the release is exceptionally small “due to some very greedy angels.” That statement – as well as the intensely oaky quality of this spirit – makes me wonder if the barrels were drawn from the upper quarters of the warehouse.
Any George T. Stagg release has a lot of hype to live up to – past expressions have routinely won double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and garnered awards like Best North American Whiskey (World Whiskies Awards), Best Non-Age Statement Bourbon (Whisky Magazine), and Kentucky Straight Bourbon Chairman’s Trophy (Ultimate Spirits Challenge). Does this year’s stack up?
Tasting Notes: George T. Stagg (2016)
Vital Stats: No age statement, estimated 15 years old, 144.1 proof, $90 suggested price for a 750ml bottle but you’ll likely pay more
Appearance: Rich mahogany, slightly lighter than the Weller
Nose: Salt, beeswax, dark fruit (skins, not real juicy), a bit of anise, caramel cream sauce, wet pavement. Quite oaky too. Interesting, complex, appealing, but get too close while you’re sniffing and you’ll singe your nose with ethanol. With water, there’s dandelion flower, old attic, and vanilla extract.
Palate: Have you ever gone out for Szechuan food and bitten into your first soup dumpling with excitement, only to sear the interior of your mouth with boiling hot liquid so badly that you can’t taste anything else for days? That’s what drinking this straight is like. Massive waves of knee-quivering oak and excoriating ethanol made my eyes water almost immediately. Behind it all, I still picked up a few flavor notes that weren’t like licking an unfinished hardwood floor: anise, potpourri, sandalwood – but it was hard to decide if I was tasting spice, or just feeling the prickle of pure alcohol.
With water, things become a bit more manageable. Notes of gingersnap cookie and Ceylon cinnamon suggest a successful Christmas cookie swap, although there’s a mouth-puckering tannic quality in the finish that reminds me of over-steeped black tea.
Call me a wimp, but this is just too hot for me. Adding water certainly helps, but after tasting it straight, I felt like my mouth was too eroded to really sense what was going on for several minutes afterwards. The intriguing nose and spicy, cookie-like components of the entry are quite nice, but the finish left me unconvinced.
Score: 85 [SHOP FOR A BOTTLE OF GEORGE T. STAGG]
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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...