Friday, November 22, 2013

George T. Stagg vs. Stagg Jr.

2009 George T. Stagg: Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 70.7%, $65
2012 George T. Stagg: Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 71.4%, $70
2013 George T. Stagg: Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 64.1%, $70 
Stagg Jr.: Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 67.2%, $50

Keeping secrets isn’t easy. That basic fact has never been truer as we now find ourselves firmly entrenched in the age of electronic information. While no one in the business world wants the cat to be let out of the bag prior to the official announcement of a new product, the United States government has made that task nearly impossible for the spirits industry.

Regulations require every bottle of alcohol (beer, wine and distilled spirits) sold in the U. S. to have a label which has been approved by the TTB (the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, an offshoot of the ATF which was formed in 2003). That authorization comes in the form of a COLA (Certificate Of Label Approval).

Most companies wisely try to submit the paperwork for a COLA well in advance of their new product’s release. This provides a time buffer if the label is rejected for some reason (or if work grinds to a halt at the TTB for weeks on end due to a government shutdown), avoiding the situation of having product sitting in a warehouse, unable to be shipped for a lack of legal labels.

However, once that application gets the green light the COLA information is published online for the world to see, label images and all, by the TTB. I can’t speak for beer geeks and wine aficionados, but trolling the TTB website for a preview of new products long before they are officially announced has become a popular pastime for whiskey enthusiasts.

The site doesn’t provide an index of approved label filings, but they’re not too hard to dig up. While a search function is available on the TTB website, I found it to be a bit cumbersome and actually had better luck working with a Google site search using a variety of key words.

Buffalo Trace sent out a flurry of press releases late in July to let the world know about their new Stagg Jr. bourbon, which would start to appear on store shelves by mid August. For anyone spending a decent amount of time on popular bourbon discussion forums, that was old news. The COLA application, which was submitted on December 20th, 2012, was approved and posted online on January 18th. Within three days the forums were buzzing with speculation about this upcoming product.

A label application is of course no guarantee that the product will ever see the light of day, and much of the information can be changed after approval has been granted. In the case of Stagg Jr., it was labeled as a barrel proof bourbon but carried a 100 proof rating. This was just a place holder, as the proof of the first batch (which ended up being 134.4) was unknown at the time the application was submitted. Buffalo Trace does plan to release several batches per year, and the proof of subsequent batches is expected to vary from that of the original.

About a month ago I spotted a bottle of the new Stagg Jr. sitting on the shelf at a local bar, not far from their bottle of 2012 George T. Stagg. I gave them a quick comparison, forming somewhat of a negative impression of the Jr., while noting that the newer vintage of the Sr. differed quite a bit from the 2009 bottling I had at home.

Then, about a week ago, I was at the same bar scrutinizing their bottle of Eagle Rare 17 Year for my last post when I noticed that it was from the 2013 release. Then I spotted a full bottle of George T. Stagg behind the opened one and began to suspect that it too was from the 2013 release. What a perfect opportunity to try Jr. against two different vintages of the original. This was especially interesting because the proof of the 2013 George T. Stagg has dropped below 130, where the last eight releases were all over 140 proof. 

The premise here is that Stagg Jr. is being offered as a younger, less expensive and more readily available (but still barrel proof and unfiltered) variant of the legendary George T. Stagg. But none of the Stagg bottlings carry an age statement. Well, the back label of the Stagg Jr. bottle mentions that it “ages for nearly a decade”. But that is not an official age statement, so it is somewhat meaningless. All we can do is refer to (and trust) the press releases and technical data sheets that come from Buffalo Trace.

According to the press releases that I’ve seen, Stagg Jr. is a marriage of barrels aged for eight years and nine years. Thus far only one batch has been released though. The age of the whiskey used in future batches could change, and if it does it would be up to Buffalo Trace to reveal that information.

As for the George T. Stagg, they do put out information sheets for each annual release with a pretty impressive level of detail. They show that the 2012 vintage was aged to 16 years and 9 months, and the 2013 vintage was aged to 15 years and 11 months. The 2009 vintage, which I’ll get into later, was aged to 16 years and 7 months.

Another thing that stands out while looking at the data is the loss due to evaporation. In 2012 it was 53.69% and in 2013 it was 73.34%. So even though the 2012 batch was comprised of 118 barrels and the 2013 batch of 157 barrels, there was actually 23.4% less George T. Stagg bottled this year compared to the one previous. This really highlights just how much of a variable the warehouses (and locations within them) can be. 

2012 George T. Stagg (142.8 proof)
The nose is full and spicy, but doesn’t let on to how high the proof is.
It has complexity in the sense that it evolves quite a bit from start to finish but at the same time it does kind of lack depth at any given point. On the palate it is viscous and intense, with the heat battling the flavors for dominance. The spice notes get quite hot (red hot cinnamon spice) as it moves into the finish. While the spice notes are enjoyable and interesting, they are definitely the driving force here. The whisky would benefit from a broader spectrum of flavors adding to the spice.

2013 George T. Stagg (128.2 proof)
The nose is far more restrained than that of the 2012; I expected less with the lower proof, but not this much less.
It’s big and chewy in the mouth. The palate is full of spice and has plenty of backbone, but everything is very well integrated. While primarily spice driven, it still shows good complexity with sweet caramel, leather and subtle dark fruit. Transitioning smoothly into the long finish, it picks up steam and evolves nicely. “Elegant” seems like a strange word to describe this whiskey, but I find it appropriate relative to the 2012 and the Jr.

Stagg Jr. (134.4 proof)
Again, the nose has some weight to it but is not as severe as expected.
This one definitely has the sharpest horns of the three, but doesn’t seem to be nearly as harsh as the first time I tasted it (about a month ago, same bottle), maybe tasting its older brothers first softened my palate this time around. There’s plenty of heat, but more from the alcohol burn than the spice notes. I might not have picked it out, but I definitely agree with the dark cherry flavors other reviewers have noted. It is a little unrefined and edgy, but really not as bad as some of its early reviews (or my initial impression). It’s kind of the inverse of the 2012 Stagg, in that it has more depth throughout, but it really doesn’t evolve from start to finish.

2009 George T. Stagg (141.4 proof)
When I got home from the bar I sampled this bottle, which I originally posted about a few years ago. It has a nose that opens the eyes in the same way that smelling salts do, as I would have expected from the other three. Big and brash on the palate, you could even go so far as saying a little rough around the edges. A lot of great flavor (leather, pencil shavings and oak) battles with some intense heat. While not as spice driven as the other two vintages, the spice that does come to the fore on the finish is of the Cedar variety. It really seems to come into its own late in the game. This is a highly regarded vintage by many, but I would personally rate it somewhere between the 2012 and the 2013 releases. I like all three of them, but they do vary quite a bit in style.

I have a huge aversion to rating whiskeys on a 100 point scale but I’m going to do it here because it’s the most direct way to express how I feel about each of these offerings relative to the others.

2013 Stagg - 96
2009 Stagg - 92
2012 Stagg - 90
Stagg Jr.     - 86

Having the Stagg name on the bottle raises the bar quite high for Jr. While not in the same league as its older siblings, I would say that it is at least worth trying. Oh, and I almost forgot to throw in a thanks to the folks at Prohibition Pig for cracking open their 2013 Stagg so I could compare it to the 2012 and Jr.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Eagle Rare, 17 Year Vs. 10 Year Single Barrel

17 Year: Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 45%, $70
Single Barrel 10 Year: Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 45%, $27

Many people who know me recognize that fact that I’m a fairly valuable whiskey resource. I’m always happy to share my insight and opinions, but I’m also quick to admit my limitations if the subject at hand goes beyond my realm of knowledge. When it comes to whiskey advice, you’ll either get an honest answer out of me or no answer at all.

I’ll occasionally get calls or texts from friends who are seeking recommendations while they’re shopping for whiskey. I’ve also had the privilege of making the single malt selections for the whisky lists of some very highly regarded restaurants, along with being asked to conduct whisky training sessions for their staff members.

From time to time I also get emails from Food & Beverage industry acquaintances seeking my opinion of the bottlings that are currently available to them. While I’m always honored by these requests, they can be quite time consuming as I’m not one to skimp on the details.

One such seeker of advise emailed me regarding a rather poorly written piece from the Wall Street Journal which highlighted the scarcity of Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year and went on to mention several other bourbons that were supposed to be almost as eagerly sought after.

Oddly, they mentioned Eagle Rare but made no differentiation between the Single Barrel 10 Year, which is commonly available at a reasonable price, and the 17 Year which is a more expensive, limited release from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. Of the five bottlings from that collection, the Eagle Rare 17 is arguably the least coveted. You’d think they would have mentioned George T. Stagg, the most fervently collected bottling from the group, as well as some of the highly acclaimed, limited edition releases put out by Heaven Hill and Four Roses.

After explaining all of that in my response, I went on to note that I did have a bottle of each of the two Eagle Rare offerings tucked away on the back of my whiskey shelf. It’s taken nearly eight months, but those two bottles have finally ventured out for a proper evaluation.

I knew some years had passed since their purchase, but even I was surprised to see the “bottled” date of Fall 2005 on the label of the 17 Year. I don’t see any bottling codes or other indication of vintage on the 10 Year bottle, but my foggy memory give me the sense that I picked it up a year of two after the 17.

While scrutinizing the bottles I noticed that they were both labeled as being distilled, aged & bottled by Old Prentice (one says company, the other says distillery), Frankfort, KY. That seemed odd; I know these are both Buffalo Trace products. A few hours of investigating ensued, revealing some interesting history.

The Seagram Company introduced Eagle Rare as a bourbon brand in 1975. Bottled with a 10 year age statement at 101 proof, it was positioned as a direct competitor to Wild Turkey. Eagle Rare was produced at what had formerly been named the Old Prentice Distillery, in Lawrenceburg, KY. That distillery was built in 1910 and kept its original name until it was purchased by Seagrams in 1943 and renamed as the Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Distillery. In 1986 it was finally renamed as The Four Roses Distillery, in honor of the bourbon that had been produced there for many decades.

Then, in 1989, the Eagle Rare brand and the Old Prentice name were sold to the Sazerac Company. At the time of the Eagle Rare acquisition, Sazerac was sourcing the majority of their whisky from Heaven Hill. The most likely scenario is that Heaven Hill bourbon was used for Eagle Rare for the next three years, until Sazerac purchased the Buffalo Trace Distillery in 1992.

The Old Prentice name has always appeared on the Eagle Rare labels, and it still does on the most current bottling. But the stated location has changed a few times. Originally it was Lawrenceburg, KY, which was where the whisky was being distilled. Then in 1989 it changed to New Orleans, LA. Even though the whiskey was probably coming from Heaven Hill, the Sazerac headquarters were located in New Orleans so they could legally list that location on the label. In spite of the fact that the source of Eagle Rare likely changed to Buffalo Trace in 1992 the location on the label wasn’t updated to Frankfurt, KY (where the Buffalo Trace Distillery is located) until some time in the late 1990’s.

The lineage is a little hard to follow, but the important lesson here is that whiskey companies have some flexibility in regards to the locations they are allowed to put on their labels, and that location isn’t always indicative of the whiskey’s source.

I’m sure the flavor profile of the Eagle Rare 101 must have changed noticeably as it was coming from different distilleries over the years, but it wasn’t until 2000 that two new expressions of the brand were introduced. Eagle Rare 17 Year was part of the inaugural release of Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection, of which it has been a part ever since. At the same time the Single Barrel 10 Year was brought out, although with limited distribution. I also came across a few references to an Eagle Rare15 Year, but couldn’t really find any information about it aside from the fact that it was an export-only bottling,

Finally, in 2005 the original 10 Year, 101 proof Eagle Rare was discontinued while the newer Single Barrel, 10 Year, 90 proof Eagle Rare saw nationwide distribution. When I bought my bottles they were priced around $50 and $22. The prices I have listed up top are current suggested retail, but Antique Collection bottlings are prone to price gouging in some markets. As far as I know the 10 Year is the least expensive single barrel bourbon currently available. 

As long as I’ve been in possession of these bottles, I don’t think I’ve ever tasted them side by side. Now I’m really curious to see how they compare.

10 Year:
The nose is somewhat restrained, with a dry, dusty nature and gentle oaky aromas.
It is medium bodied, and brings more sweetness to the palate than the nose would suggest.
Butterscotch comes to the fore up front, and then the whiskey quickly passes through an oaky/earthy transition to the spicy finish. While it is primarily a red-hot-candy cinnamon spiciness, there is a slightly bitter edge, reminiscent of green pepper.

17 Year:
The nose is pronounced but not overly assertive, with notes of clay, leather and dried corn coming through.
Sublime was the first word that came to mind when I tasted it. It’s certainly not meek, but still very smooth and well-integrated. The mouthfeel is thick and weighty. It opens with sweet caramel and vanilla. Then leather, oak and subtle fruit rise up on a wave of ethanol. But everything it shows up front is short lived compared to the mint and teaberry laced spiciness that takes over on the lengthy finish. 

This whiskey’s biggest attribute is its ability to transition through a range of flavors seamlessly from start to finish

I did stop into a local watering hole last night to examine the most recent release (2013) of the Eagle Rare 17. I really just wanted to see if “Old Prentice” was still on the label (which it was), but since the bartender had to climb a library ladder to get the bottle, I thought it would be rude to not have her pour at least an ounce of it for me. Take this with a grain of salt since I tasted them 24 hours apart, but according to my notes: more robust than the 05, with more intense spice notes, but less dissimilar than expected. 

I definitely like both of these Eagle Rare expressions. The 10 Year is more boisterous, and the 17 Year (both of the vintages I tasted) shows a great deal of refinement. That being said, I think this is a rare example of price being commensurate with quality. Obviously, as a single barrel product the 10 Year won’t b entirely consistent – I’d love to see some sort of barrel identification marked on each bottle.