I’m setting the bar rather high for the first bourbon whiskey I’m reviewing with this article. I thought about perhaps starting with some of the more commonplace bourbons I own, each carefully chosen for my small collection, none of them being any flyweight in the taste department themselves; but why write about the undercard when you can cover the main event?
Boxing feels like an appropriate metaphor when talking about the famous Stagg. It’s the Muhammad Ali of whiskeys; hyped up to absurd levels, and yet packing a punch that backs up all that mouth.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s possible, after all, that you’ve never heard of this whiskey before, for instance if you are just today emerging from your bunker after a decade, incredulous that a primitive society famous mostly for bloody human sacrifice, warfare and awesome headgear got the date wrong for the end of the world. If that’s the case, thanks for coming to my website first! My advice though is that you should probably have a shower and eat some food that didn’t come out of a foil pouch before jumping straight into the premium bourbon.
The George T Stagg is a keystone of the yearly Antique Collection from the Buffalo Trace distillery; the annual release has enthusiasts lining up in their hundreds across the USA, and beyond, to get their hands on whiskies like the Stagg or the straight rye Thomas H Handy (named by Jim Murray as his “Whisky of the Year” in the 2013 edition of the Whisky Bible). The original Mr Stagg was an owner of the distillery, which was named the Old Fire Copper (or simply OFC) Distillery back in 1878 when he took it on. It was subsequently named the Stagg Distillery until it was changed to its present Buffalo Trace in 1999. Fittingly bestowed with the almost-too-cool-to-be-true name of its venerable patriarch, this barrel-strength whiskey first came to market in 2002.
Each edition of the Stagg is different, but all are true bourbons in that at least 51% of the recipe (or “mash bill”) is corn, with the remainder being comprised of rye and malted barley. The resulting spirit is placed into new charred white oak barrels and aged for around 15 years, though this 2012 edition was distilled in early 2005 and is 16 years and 9 months of age. That’s a pretty long time in the barrel, and bourbon suffers even more than Scotch when it comes to “the angel’s share”… the evaporation of liquid from the barrel as it ages. That’s one reason these older whiskies command a price premium over younger fare.
Possibly the defining characteristic of the George T Stagg is the fiery strength it’s bottled at (hence my subtle picture at the top of the page!). The whiskey is sold “uncut and unfiltered”, seemingly bottled right from the barrel. The whiskey is put in the cask around 120 proof and the alcohol level actually rises as the spirit evaporates over time to this year’s staggering (but not record) level of 142.8 proof, or 71.4% ABV. Watch out for this one!
Taken neat, then, the nose is biting but flavours come through surprisingly easily. Thick vanilla toffee and honey dominate, with cloves and spices in the background. Daring to take a drink of the undiluted whiskey, expect the viscous liquid to hit you hard, burning the tongue and depositing untold layers of sweet, sugary syrup which fade surprisingly quickly.
Cut down to approximately 100 proof, it’s a different story. I don’t find the nose opening up too much, but in the mouth you’ll be able to slow down and find much more to appreciate. Toffee apples, coconut, honey, brown sugar, vanilla, caramel, chocolate ice cream, cherry, even a hint of strawberry; it’s every dessert you’ve ever had in one glass. At 50% ABV it’s still reassuringly strong too; you’re not missing out on anything when cut down to this level other than watery eyes and possibly some small strangling noises.
Everyone should experience the Stagg once. I don’t think I’ll be hunting it out every year, but I’m very glad I got to try this modern icon. It’s incredibly high-quality stuff, and even though it’s expensive you can consider it a bottle and a half if you plan to cut it down to 50%! Even if you don’t, it’s fantastic to see a small-batch handcrafted whiskey presented almost as if you were tasting it from the barrel in the warehouse; I’m not sure you can put a price on that.