With the title of the longest continuously-operational distillery in the U.S, The Buffalo Trace Distillery has been operating under various names for over 200 years on the bank of the Kentucky River. Under it’s current Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley, and Master Blender Drew Mayville the brands produced by Buffalo Trace have received over 500 awards from writers, enthusiasts and spirits competitions around the globe. Through their wide scope of brands that appeal to all levels of drinker, their much-anticipated annual releases, and continued innovations in production, the Buffalo Trace Distillery has a global reputation for producing fine bourbon, rye, and American whiskies.
As the fall release season comes into full swing it wasn’t long before the full details of Buffalo Trace’s much anticipated annual Antique Collection was announced to eager fans earlier this month. The Collection comprises of five limited-release whiskeys of various ages, recipes and proofs, and is bottled under the names of historic brands and people tied to the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, KY. Brands in the Collection include Eagle Rare 17, a now 101 proof and 17 year old rendition honouring the classic Eagle Rare brand; George T. Stagg, a 15 year+, barrel proof, and unfiltered bottling of Buffalo Trace’s Mashbill #1, William Larue Weller, a 12 year+, barrel proof, and unfiltered bottling of Buffalo Trace’s wheated mashbill; Sazerac 18, an 18 year old 90 proof bottling of Buffalo Trace’s rye mashbill; and finally Thomas H. Handy, a 6 year+, barrel proof, and unfiltered bottling of Buffalo Trace’s rye mashbill.
Together these are some of the most sought after whiskey collections on an annual and ongoing basis so let’s see how this year’s releases fare!
Aged 15 yrs, 4 months – 58.45% (116.9 proof)
Nose: The nose opens with deep caramel and black pepper, followed by faint toasted oak, baking spices, slight sweet cherries, and dark chocolate.
Palate: The palate opens with thick deep caramel and floral vanilla, before classic notes of bold cherries and sweet red fruit emerge to combine with a kick of oak spice, old leather, warm baking spices, dried dark fruit, and dark chocolate on the back of the palate as you chew this whiskey.
Finish: The finish is long and opens with buttery caramel, dried cherries, black pepper, and an aftertaste of thick dark chocolate, earthy toasted oak, and a touch of herbaceous mint that sits on the tongue and continues to release flavours as the layers of tannins on your tongue and cheeks fade back.
This may be the lowest proof (ABV) bottling of this bourbon but it is in no way lacking in any of those classic George T. Stagg flavours that I associate with it. The usual big ethanol component is definitely dialed down this year but results in the flavours being less aggressive and sharp edged as they dance across your palate. There’s thick deep caramel, cherries a-plenty, and some nice toasted oak notes that combine with dark chocolate oak notes to give a delicious experience overall. George T. Stagg is always a bourbon lover’s bourbon and ticks many of the boxes for what people are looking for in the perfect classic bourbon profile. I’m happy to report that this year’s bottling meets all my expectations and surpasses them by being my favourite of all the George T. Stagg bottlings that I’ve tried to date. This, however, either means it’s not going to be what die-hard GTS fans may want or it’s a particularly accessible bottling of GTS that would appeal to a wider spectrum of drinkers who may have considered previous 140+ proof bottlings to be excessive in terms of burn. For me if you’re looking for good bottle from the collection this would be my second pick of the line-up!
Aged 12 yrs, 6 months – 64% (128 proof)
Nose: The nose opens with peppery dry oak up front, followed by brown sugar caramel, stewed red fruit, floral vanilla, and earthy baking spices.
Palate: The palate opens viscous with sweet red fruit covered in powdered sugar and sticky caramel, followed by a wave of warm toasted oak spice, deep cherries, baking spice, dark chocolate, and faint minty barrels as you continue to chew.
Finish: The finish opens with a warm kick of spice as the notes of from the palate fade to dark chocolate and a long tannic oak aftertaste combined with sweet red fruit stewed dusted with baking spices.
What an amazing bourbon! As always, the William Larue Weller does not disappoint. Although a bit oak-heavy on the nose, the palate balances dark chocolate and spicy toasted oak notes with sweet red fruit and sticky caramel notes typical of this whiskey. It’s punchy, flavour-heavy, and not afraid to give you some ethanol kick whilst delivering a whole mouth full of flavour. This easily takes the top spot between the barrel proof offerings of this year’s collection but does takes the top spot overall remains to be seen!
Aged 17 yrs, 3 months – 50.5% (101 proof)
Nose: The nose opens with cherries stewed in brown sugar, faint vanilla, and peppery toasted oak with a touch of tannic char.
Palate: The palate opens with soft butterscotch before stewed cherries and a pinch of spicy baking spices emerge and fade to milk chocolate and faintly tannic bitter toasted oak.
Finish: The finish is warming, opening with baking spices, a touch of herbaceous oak, and leaving a slightly bitter aftertaste of burnt vanilla and minty oak.
This year it was announced that Eagle Rare 17 would remain at 101 proof moving forward in honour of the original 1974 brand. This was my first experience of Eagle Rare 17 at 101 proof and it has honestly pulled this brand from the depths for me. Whereas the last 90 proof bottling of Eagle Rare (2017) tastes muted, vegetal, and bitter oak-heavy, this year’s release has surpassed all these criticisms, delivering a bourbon that is both very flavourful and very easy to drink. The Eagle has finally gained some altitude and this release has salvaged this bottling for me. The flavours are still nowhere near the intensity of barrel proof George T Stagg or William Larue Weller but Eagle Rare 17 still delivers a completely delicious experience for drinkers and fans of the standard release. I drank this next to some 2017 Eagle Rare 17 I had left over and found this to have a greater depth of flavours and complexity – no doubt gained by an added 11 proof points. This is actually a really nice bourbon and I will be the first to admit that it has become my dark horse contender for best bottle in this year’s Collection.
Aged 6 yrs, 2 months – 62.85% (125.7 proof)
Nose: The nose opens with green apples stewed in brown sugar, creamy vanilla, earthy baking spices, a kick of ethanol, a hint of dill pickle, and black pepper oak.
Palate: The palate opens with creamy brown sugar butterscotch, followed by a wave of tannic peppery oak, stewed red fruit, green apples, warm baking spices, and floral vanilla as you chew.
Finish: The finish opens with creamy vanilla again before notes of grassy rye, and tannic toasted oak leave a dry, baking spice-heavy aftertaste .
This is another whiskey in the Antique Collection that both shows its age but is pretty consistent in terms of quality. It’s vibrant and lively on the nose and follows suit with a vivid palate balanced between buttery caramel notes, spicy toasted oak notes, and earthy yet grassy rye notes. Master Blender Drew Mayville and Master Distiller Harlan Wheatly have definitely outdone themselves with this year’s release and have produced a rye whiskey that is well balanced yet packed full of those warm, creamy rye whiskey notes that fans of Thomas Handy love. This is by far the better rye whiskey of the two and will not disappoint fans that love a powerhouse rye whiskey. It’s the first whiskey of the lot that I got an ethanol kick on the nose from but at 125.7 proof what should I expect?!
Aged 18 yrs – 45% (90 proof)
Nose: The nose opens with a floral and perfume-like vanilla note that combines with deep butterscotch, earthy mint, grassy dill, and black pepper followed by a herbaceous and bitter old oak note bringing up the rear.
Palate: The palate opens semi-viscous with burnt caramel and sweet floral vanilla, followed by green apples, grassy rye, fresh dill, delicate baking spices, deep red fruit, and a minty old oak note in the back that’s faintly bitter.
Finish: The finish opens with an uptake of that green apple rye note, with earthy baking spices, and dark chocolate leading into a long finish of old bitter charred oak and a dash of mint.
This rye whiskey definitely shows its age across the board with faded grassy rye and dill notes, bitter old minty oak notes, and some floral and fruity notes across the board. The nose is as complex as expected with a strong influence from old herbaceous rye grain and old charred barrels that bring a weight to the whiskey despite the proof. At its core, it has retained its Sazerac DNA and is faintly reminiscent of the younger ‘baby’ Sazerac rye. The palate follows the nose in telling the story of an old rye whiskey that still has plenty of life behind the eyes, and it drinks with more vigour and intensity of flavours than you would expect from something so old, and at such a relatively low proof. Throughout the palate you also get a sense of herbaceous grain and very old barrel notes that blend together in a mint and cacao-heavy balance. Having been aged on the 2nd floors of Warehouses L and K this whiskey has enjoyed the benefits of a relatively slow maturation that has yielded a delicious and well-aged rye whiskey without any dominant unpleasant oak notes. I didn’t have any of the old tanked Sazerac 18 rye left to compare this to but I would happily pay RRP for this as I like an older rye with some hard-earned character developed over a slow and long maturation.
This year’s Collection has been extremely interesting on the whole. As an annual release that’s dated via labels or bottling proofs the Antique Collection presents Master Distiller Harlan Wheatley and Master Blender Drew Mayville with the opportunity (and challenge) to release a collection of whiskies that are both interesting and different from previous years. Sure, they try to remain within a target profile for the range but by altering key factors such as proof of whiskey, age of barrels, and the warehouse location, they can produce something which is special and distinct from previous releases. This year’s Collection is another perfect example. I was first introduced to the Antique Collection in 2015 and every year since I would typically have rated the William Larue Weller release to be my favourite and the Sazerac 18 or Eagle Rare 17 to be my least favourite. However, this year’s Collection has changed that with my ranking of it as follows:
Eagle Rare 17
This year’s release was the best I’ve ever had from this brand and, at a proof that could better compete with the barrel proof offerings, it has earned the top spot with amazing flavours and great balance across the board.
William Larue Weller
This whiskey was hard to put at 2nd place, because I’ve been a die-hard fan ever since I was introduced to it, but honestly it was outshone on many levels by this year’s winner. Although it’s certainly the best of the barrel proof offerings, when drank next to the Eagle Rare 17 it’s outdone on complexity, drink-ability, and overall balance of flavours. It’s a cracking wheated bourbon nonetheless and anyone offered one at a good price would be a fool to pass it up.
George T. Stagg
Another surprise from this year’s Collection is a George T Stagg that is very accessible straight off the bat and, despite a lower proof than usual, is packed full of classic bourbon flavours.
Thomas H. Handy
This rye has always been a powerhouse pour and for its age is one of the best barrel proof rye whiskies on the market consistently. It’s a pity that bottles are so difficult to get but if you like barrel proof rye and the opportunity presents itself, jump on it – it’s delicious!
Sazerac 18 y.o
Although last in the rankings this is by no means a bad whiskey – it’s just not better than the other options for me. If you like very old ryes that carry their age well and don’t disappoint when it comes to those classic old rye flavours then this will no doubt be a winner for you.
It’s very impressive that despite an American whiskey market that is littered with limited releases, a long standing annual release like this can still keep those who think they know the Collection, and their favorites from it, on their toes. I wasn’t expecting this year’s whiskies to rank in the order that they did but I suppose that’s the draw of the Antique Collection and why it has managed to maintain its fervent popularity for almost two decades. Another important aspect is that the RRP for these whiskies has been set at a modest $99, and at this price any and all of these are worth every penny. No doubt unscrupulous store owners and flippers (illegal re-sellers) will drive up the prices of these bottles to many multiples of the RRP, however, hopefully many will still hit the jackpot and get these at a reasonable price.