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.

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