The Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC) is an annual release of five whiskeys (three bourbons and two ryes) that are among the most sought-after of any in the spirits world. Although they arrive in stores with an MSRP of under $100, they can almost never be found on the shelf at that price. Stores either reserve them for their best customers, sell them via online lottery, or slap a huge price tag on them. To buy them on the secondary market requires paying something on the order of $500 each.
But are they worth the hype? Assuming you’d be willing to shell out half a grand for a bottle of whiskey, are any of these the ones you should buy? To find out, I put my oh-so-refined palate to the task of tasting the BTAC. Here are my thoughts on this year’s offerings, in the order tasted.
Eagle Rare 17 Year Old Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 45% ABV ($90)
It smells of marzipan, chocolate cake, and vanilla, with a little smoke hiding in the background. Surprisingly sweet. There is little of that on the palate, however. Although there is a burst of sweetness at first, it quickly turns very dry and oaky, with some harsh tannins on the short finish. I know as little about aging whiskey as I do about combing hair, but my instinct is that this spent a little too long in the barrel. I’m a fan of the regular Eagle Rare (aged for 10 years), but didn’t care much for this one.
Sazerac 18 Year Old Straight Rye Whiskey, 45% ABV ($90)
This is some seriously old rye. Let’s see what all that age gets us. On the nose, I smell acetone, with sweetness underneath. Reminds me of maraschino cherries, the DayGlo red artificial kind. After it opens up some I start to get a very nice, warm caramel aroma. Not much in the way of spice. But that definitely comes once you sip it. No doubt this is a rye, even if it’s not as high a component of the mashbill as MGP uses. Trying to narrow it down a little further, I come up with allspice (like the flavor of Jamaican Pimento Dram) and stone fruit. It’s dry, but not overly so, and has a long finish. I bet this would make an outstanding Manhattan, which is how I would drink it if I had a full bottle.
Thomas Handy 6 Year Old Straight Rye Whiskey, 63.6% ABV ($90)
If the Sazerac is a seriously old rye, the Handy is a seriously strong one. The aroma on this one is much more lively than the Sazerac and full of ethanol. Once you get past that, it smells like candied fruits and jam mixed with rye bread. Sadly, the palate can’t keep up. It reminds me of Phoenix: very hot and very dry. It’s less spicy than the Sazerac, less flavorful overall despite the proof. In muted tones, I detect baking spices, mostly clove and cinnamon, and chocolate. This is essentially impossible for me to drink straight and enjoy. I would have guessed the proof was even higher if I didn’t know what it is. With a little water, it’s tamed down, but given that the flavor isn’t exactly robust to begin with, it just fades away.
William Larue Weller 12 Year Old Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 64.1% ABV ($90)
Given how much I enjoy the regular 12-year-old bottling of Weller bourbon, this was probably the whiskey I was looking forward to the most. The aroma was pretty typical of a wheated bourbon, a sweet, breakfast cereal scent like Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Once I sipped it, though, the alarm bells start ringing. This bourbon is en fuego, with a finish that seems to last forever. It’s slightly sweet with some caramel and toffee. Maybe confectioner’s sugar. That taste lasts through the mid-palate, before turning dry and slightly astringent. I could have done without the astringency, but there’s still a lip-smacking quality to it. However, this is another whiskey that is, in my opinion, a challenge to drink neat. As I have no need to show off my masculine prowess, I add some water and find it quite pleasant. Given how much more you’re likely to pay for this than for a regular bottle of Weller 12, I’d have to say it’s probably not worth it. On the other hand, if you get a chance to try it, definitely do.
George T. Stagg 15 Year Old Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 64.6% ABV ($90)
Last but certainly not least, the Granddaddy (never pappy) of them all. Assuming this doesn’t singe your nose hairs when you smell it — and it kinda does — you’ll get a snootful of wonderful aromas, including vanilla, molasses, even a little coconut. Take a drink (a small one) and you’ll find that its heat is tamer than you might expect, but the whiskey is bursting with flavor. It’s got elements of brown sugar, butterscotch, raisins or prunes, but then oak. Lots of oak and a very long finish. The oak is almost a little too much, but I forgive it. The Stagg has the richest mouthfeel — an almost creamy texture — of any of these whiskies, and it’s the one that I find to be the most enjoyable
I found my overall experience with the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection to be a mixed bag. I enjoyed some, not so much the others. But throughout the tasting, I found it hard to keep out of my mind what a sanctified collection this has become. (And what an expensive one.) There’s nothing wrong with any of that, of course. But for me at least, deifying a whiskey takes a little of the magic away.