Thursday, November 17, 2011

Buffalo Trace 2011 Experimental Collection

  1993 Barrels: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 90 proof, 17 yrs 7 mos, $47 (375ml)
  1991 Barrels: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 90 proof, 19 yrs 1 mos, $47 (375ml)
  1989 Barrels: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 90 proof, 21 yrs 1 mos, $47 (375ml)

Buffalo Trace Distillery has been on a mission to experiment since 1987, going so far as to construct a micro distillery within their main distillery just for conducting small scale whiskey research. They claim to have over 1500 experimental barrels aging in their warehouses. In 2006 they began bottling some of the more successful examples and releasing them to the public annually. Every year since has seen 2 to 4 different bottlings. Since these are limited production specimens, Buffalo Trace chose to put them in 375ml bottles so there would be more to go around. None the less, these whiskeys are pretty rare and hard to come by. When I came across all three examples of the 2011 release priced well below the suggested retail level listed above, there was no way I could pass up the opportunity to try them out.

I was really excited when I picked these up, but I was a bit disappointed when I learned that this year’s release was from "rediscovered" barrels, and didn’t actually originate from an experiment. In 1998 Buffalo Trace acquired the Old Charter brand, along with their inventory of 150,000 barrels of aging whiskey. A small number of these barrels were lost in the shuffle, forgotten about, left hiding in a dark corner of one of the massive warehouses until they were recently discovered during an inventory audit. I suppose the “hey, look what we found when we did inventory collection” isn’t very marketable, so I can kind of see why they were included in the experimental collection.

The three bottlings were distilled in 1993, 1991 and 1989, and were bottled at 17 years 7 months, 19 years 1 month, and 21 years 1 month, respectively. In my last post I talked about whiskey evaporating out of the barrel during aging, referred to as “the angel’s share”. What’s really cool about this group of bottles is that they have a lot of technical information printed on their labels, including the percentage of liquid lost to evaporation at the time of bottling. The 1993 lost 43.6%, the 1991 lost 62.1%, and the 1989 lost 75.9%. These numbers help to explain the high prices of older whiskeys.

Okay, these Bourbons didn’t originate as experiments - but they are unusual, have a unique history, and it is uncommon to see Bourbon in this age range. So I am still excited about them.

All three are bottled at 90 proof, and they are the same shade of medium amber, with the older examples maybe each getting just slightly darker.

1993 – The most lively of the three on the nose, but still quite thick and masculine. Surprisingly floral on the palate, with notes of Lavender standing out, and balanced by moderate spice notes.

1991 – Something on the nose reminds me of Play-Doh. The wood flavors become more prominent, with spice and vanilla coming to the fore. The floral notes are still there, but quite subdued.

1989 – The nose is similar to the others, but a bit restrained. Now the wood is starting to dominate on the palate, to the point that even the spice notes give way to hints of pencil shavings and leather.

I like all three of these overall, and each one has a respectably long, engaging finish. I really appreciate the unique flavor profile of the 1993, but the traditionalist in me gives a slight edge to the 1991. The 1989 is quite enjoyable, but just falls a little short of its younger siblings in my opinion.

Friday, November 4, 2011

George T. Stagg

stats: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 141.4 proof, no age statement, $70

While I was researching my last post, I came across an interesting bit of information that resolved a longstanding conundrum. I restrained myself from expounding on it at the time because I have a bad habit of going off on tangents, which could easily turn a good blog post into a rambling diatribe if I’m not careful.

Years ago, I had read about heavily aged (40 to 50 years) single malt Scotches, which needed to be bottled before they dropped below the legal minimum alcohol content of 80 proof (Scotch typically goes into the barrel around 127 proof). I knew that aging whiskies lost 2% to 3% of their volume annually to evaporation. This loss is commonly referred to as the “Angel’s Share”. If the proof of the whisky was dropping significantly over the years, obviously it was primarily alcohol that was evaporating out of the barrel.

Then, a few years ago, I finally managed to hunt down a bottle of the elusive George T. Stagg. This is a beast of a Bourbon, bottled at a whopping barrel proof of 141.4 (the bottle I have is from the 2009 release, and the proof changes from year to year, with somewhere in the low 140’s being typical). But wait, by law Bourbon cannot go into the barrel for aging above 125 proof. So, how was it that the proof of this whiskey could increase during the aging process, while at the same time other whiskies were known to decrease in proof while in the barrel?

And this question lingered on in the back of my mind, until last week. While I was poking around the web, trying to make sure I had my facts straight on the details of barrel aging, and I came across this paragraph in a wikipedia article. Finally, the enduring enigma had been resolved.

Although the bottle carries no age statement, most releases of Stagg are said to be aged in the neighborhood of 15 years. This Bourbon is an incredibly dark shade of amber, looking almost black in the bottle if there is limited light behind it. The nose is dense, and while being quite aromatic, it is also highly alcoholic. Nose with caution. Modest sips are recommended, as the intense flavor and alcoholic heat battle for dominance on the palate. It has incredible density and intensity of flavor, with notes of dry spice, polished leather, and roasted nuts coming to the fore. In spite of its brute force, it is actually incredibly drinkable when you consider its amazingly high proof. It actually becomes even easier to drink after the palate is broken-in by the first few sips. If you are going to consider yourself a serious Bourbon connoisseur, the Stagg is something which must be sought out and experienced.

George T. Stagg (along with the rest of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection) is released in late September every year. They sell quickly, but with a little persistence and some luck you may still be able to hunt down a bottle from the 2011 edition.