A handful of tiny sample bottles arrived at my office just before I left for Amsterdam last month, so with wistful eyes they were swept aside to be tasted at a later date. Welcome to that later date.
The bottles contain the new Antique Collection from Buffalo Trace/Sazerac, a quintet of straight ryes and bourbons that has historically garnered numerous kudos from the whiskey/whisky press. For me, on the other hand, it is a first encounter, so let us proceed.
Sazerac 18 Year Old Rye: I am a great fan of the regular Sazerac Rye – and was delighted to see it appear recently for the first time at liquor stores in my part of the world –so this was the first of the Antiques I tasted. It’s certainly a whiskey that shows its age, although not always well, with a strong woodiness on both the nose and tongue. Where it does excel, however, is in showcasing the spiciness of the rye grain, with terrific brown spice notes mixed with ample evidence of vanilla and hints of ground coffee in the aroma, and a lean, tongue-pricklingly spicy body leading to a dry, drier, driest kind of finish. Not as lush as I would have liked, but a most enjoyable demonstration of the power of rye.
Thomas H. Handy Sazerac: Barrel strength and unfiltered, this is a big rye whiskey with a nose that puts me in mind of Christmas pudding crossed with roasted chestnuts, and a bold, stewed fruit, vanilla-accented and spice laced body that just keeps coming and coming. Cut with a drop or two of filtered water, it seems to lose a step, apparently proving my maxim that every spirit should first be tasted at the strength at which it was bottled. I still like it with water, and in fact love the way the gingery notes start to emerge this way, but the “iron fist in a velvet glove” value of the uncut spirit is not to be trifled with.
Eagle Rare 17 Year Old: There is pretty much nothing to not like about this bourbon. On the nose, it offers a rather heady mix of vanilla, orange marmalade, tanned leather and a whiff of pipe tobacco. In the body, it starts gently sweet and a bit flowery before getting down to the nitty gritty of charred oak, dried and spiced citrus peel, pan-toasted walnuts and back to the leathery notes on the finish. A great late night sipper, for whenever your definition of “late night” might arrive.
William Larue Weller: Another uncut and unfiltered entry here, although a bourbon rather than a straight rye. One sniff and I know this spirit will require water if it is to open up, but my maxim being what it is, I forge ahead nonetheless. It is exceedingly tight on the nose, with only mild notes of toasted vanilla bean and dark chocolate, and surprisingly sweet on the palate, with plenty of vanilla toffee, stewed peach and fig notes. With water, the aroma does open up, albeit only moderately, offering a greater fruitiness to accompany the vanilla and now-more milk chocolate, while the body develops a delightful sipping profile, with dried fruit notes of date and golden raisin, a more marshmallow-y toffee character and a smooth, gently rounded finish. Far from its initial fireplace-side austerity, with water this becomes a definite front porch whiskey.
George T. Stagg: And finally, the biggie, 15 years old and 71.5% alcohol. A bourbon to challenge my maxim if ever there was one, but I shall proceed onward nonetheless. Far from austere, the nose of this goliath offers an enticing mix of candied nuts, sultana raisins, fresh cigar tobacco and medium dark chocolate – just don’t get too close or you’ll risk singing your nose hairs. The body is remarkably approachable even without watering, offering an entry that reminds me faintly of candied corn and a body filled with flavours of dark to light chocolate, sweetened espresso, stewed plum and crème brulée. Reducing the proof does little to change the aromas and flavours, but of course makes them more approachable and rounded, not to mention positively enticing.
In the end, I have to say that this is a most exceptional collection of whiskeys, and one I’d recommend buying as just that, a collection. If you can only afford one or two, however, rest assured that you will not go far wrong with any of them.