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.

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