By Richard Thomas
Among Buffalo Trace’s more rarefied products, I must admit that George T. Stagg holds a special place in my heart, even more so than Pappy Van Winkle. Some bourbon fans are going to shout “heretic” at me, I’m sure, and maybe even one of the contributors to this website as well, but that’s how I feel and my reasons are largely personal: when I spent my teenaged years on a farm right off U.S. 421, the distillery in question was still known by the name of George T. Stagg, and I spent years sniffing the vapors emanating from the place.
As Stagg is not quite as famed as the Pappy line, a little explanation of it is in order. Stagg is a limited release series, in that while a small bottling comes out every autumn, the individual bottlings are unique to themselves and can vary considerably. Back in 2004, Stagg was released at a relatively mild (for Stagg) 129 proof, but around 140 is more typical and this year it came out at 142.8 proof (a whopping 71.4% abv). The Stagg label comes uncut, unfiltered, and is usually aged for around 15 years, with the 2012 batch being 17 years old and coming from barrels aged in Buffalo Trace’s warehouses H, I, K and L.
I’ve always thought of George T. Stagg’s modern packaging as unremarkable. Like the other brands in the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, it comes in a clear glass bottle that could be a white wine bottle, and with a discrete sense of labeling. The one plus of that understated approach is that the bottle shows off lots and lots of the whiskey’s appearance, and with a super strong, aged bourbon like Stagg, that ain’t a bad thing: this bourbon has a full-on, syrupy rich amber coloring.
Before I proceed with the tasting notes, a word on adding water is in order. I usually disdain adding water, even for whiskeys as strong as 120 proof, and find that claims of “unlocking flavors” are overblown. Instead, I think water merely enhances only some aspects within a given whiskey, emphasizing one part over another. Adding water is therefore only an improvement if you like what it does to that particular whiskey, and is therefore only rarely a truly objective improvement.
That opinion of mine holds up even for cask strength whiskeys up to the 120 proof range, but I’ve found that stuff stronger than that requires a little water. 2012’s George T. Stagg is a case in point, as at 142.8 proof it’s almost strong enough to run your car on it. I put two capfuls of water into my 5 cl sample, and found it improved the whiskey dramatically. Without the water, I found the alcohol gave the nose a bite that prevented me from taking a good sniff of it, and it also smothered the flavor just a bit. It doesn’t really burn with alcohol, but the stuff is so strong that it just seems like it’s harder to get at what’s there without the water.
With that splash of water, the whiskey came into a much better balance. The nose had a syrupy-thick sweetness, heavy with caramel and vanilla, with a bit of vanilla and even a little chocolate in for good measure. There is also a slight, leathery woodiness in there, but it’s half-buried under all the sweet stuff. Stagg 2012 has a rich scent, full of bold notes, and even with a little water it retains a bit of a strong alcoholic kick.
The taste delivers that same, rich and bold vanilla and caramel sweetness. Underneath is a bit of oak and a dab of peppery spice. It ain’t subtle and it ain’t complex, but it is big and bursting with flavor. The finish is spicy (but not burning), warm, and almost bottomless.
George T. Stagg has a recommended retail price of $69.99, but unless you got on the waiting list of an honest merchant, expect to pay more.
It’s early yet, but George T. Stagg 2012 was already noted as the #2 whiskey of the year by Whisky Advocate magazine.