To continue a theme I started off with my column at the beginning of this edition, I know we still have the height of summer to pass through, but it’s time to gear up for autumn – or if you are in the US, fall.
There are always some interesting releases in the latter half of the year, and hopefully this year, despite the pandemic, it will be no different. In the flurry of bottles that come out running up to the festive season, autumn sees two big, eagerly anticipated collections released: The Diageo Special Releases, and the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. Both worth raiding the swear jar for, and getting your overnight bag ready to camp outside the liquor store once you know where the bottles are going to appear...
This edition I’m going to have a look at last year’s Buffalo releases, in preparation for what’s coming as the leaves change colour and the nights start to cool. Introduced to whisky lovers more than a decade ago, the annual collection has become a firm favourite with drinkers and is really starting to register on the radars of collectors as well. But as you might know, I’m not a collector, and there is some seriously good drinking if you can get your hands on these bottles.
Of course, we know what to expect in this collection each year: five seriously impressive whiskies with a good mix of age, mash bills and proof. But we also don’t really know what to expect, if you get my gist.
So, let’s look at last year’s selection; by no means an indicator of what might be waiting for us in a few months, but as I have said, now is the time to dream and plan.
Let’s start with the big hitter of the batch: George T. Stagg. Last year’s release was a lovely display of Mother Nature at work, as it was released at the lowest proof in the brand’s history (still a punchy 116.9 proof, mind you).
Master distiller, Harlen Wheatley puts this change in strength down to the fact that many of the barrels earmarked for the release were matured on lower floors of the warehouses.
He explains, “Many of the barrels for this year’s Stagg composite were taken from the first floor of the warehouse. The first floor is cooler with higher humidity levels, therefore the alcohol evaporates faster than the water.”
The taste of this powerhouse favourite still delivered what you would expect: huge oak tannins and plenty of vanilla cream and custard notes, backed up with sweet cherries, coffee grounds and a peppery spiciness.
One of the statistics about this belter of a whiskey, distilled back in the spring of 2004, is that the evaporation loss was 56 per cent, and this wasn’t the highest in the collection.
One of the gems in this collection of course, each year, is the Eagle Rare 17 Years Old, simply one of those legendary Bourbons.
Continuing in the footsteps of 2018’s release, which reverted back to Eagle’s roots with a proof change from the previous 90 proof back to 101 proof, 2019’s release remained at 101 in tribute to the original strength used when the brand was launched in 1974.
This release was distilled in the Spring of 2002 and had been spending its time aging on the first floor of its warehouse too – perhaps accounting for the 66 per cent evaporation losses.
Boy does it deliver the character as well, with full-on cigar box and ageing tobacco notes, cut with spicy cinnamon. Plenty of vanilla and creamy oak influences come though before the toffee sweetness takes over.
Moving on now to what I think is the most underestimated of the bunch, William LaRue Weller. What draws me to this is the fact that Weller substitutes wheat for the traditional rye grain, a production method pioneered by W.L. Weller himself.
Last year this wheated wonder came punching in at 128 proof, topping the table for the year. But don’t be fooled: this alcoholic strength is no indicator of the beauty in the bottle. This is a stunner for me; with a drop of water to help coax the flavours out more, bang! Silky smooth with fragrant hits of hot buttered sweetcorn, new leather shoes, plum jam, light toffee and dark cherry pipe tobacco.
There is all the sweetness of marshmallow, salted almonds, nougat, figs and dates. How can you complain...?
From wheat, it’s time to move into the rye section, and what a way to go with the Thomas H. Handy Rye.
This uncut and unfiltered drop, distilled in Spring 2013 and named in honour of the bartender who first used rye whiskey in the Sazerac cocktail, is full-on with its flavours and won’t disappoint any rye lover to be honest.
Coming in at 125.7 proof it’s a powerful and spicy drop, packed with candied fruits, Big Red chewing gum and toffee pennies. It will leave you stunned with a mouthful of spicy nutmeg and coconut macaroons.
The collection was rounded out with the eponymous Sazerac Rye, coming in with the lowest proof of 90, but also the highest evaporation losses – sitting at a whopping 83.5 per cent.
The 18 Years Old, distilled back in the spring of 2001, had spent most of its time maturing on the second floor of a couple of warehouses, and really delivered in terms of what you would want from an aged rye. Full of sweetness, vanilla, maple syrup and unsmoked bacon, it then took you to a little menthol edge and cracked black pepper spiciness. What can I say other than prepare for autumn.
Now, normally with this piece you’d be expecting to find a food idea, a cocktail and an album, but I thought it would be fun to look at the whiskies a bit more this time.
However, if you’re looking for something cocktail-wise with these whiskies, a glass and ice is really all I have to say (and possibly not even ice).
If your stomach is wondering where the sustenance is coming from, and you fancy something that might go with any one of those bottles, my leaning would be to a very simple beef kebab. When I say simple, I really mean it: cube up some great quality beef, season with a little salt and pepper, skewer it and BBQ it on a really hot grill.
Those caramelised lines on the outside, with the sweet rare insides, will make an excellent foil for these whiskies. No sauce, no marinating, no fuss – simplicity itself.
Well, as you may have guessed from reading the rest of this article, it has somewhat taken on a life of its own and headed out a little left of field. So, to carry on: not a cigar, but a pipe.
These little wonders have always intrigued me, I think because of the carved wooden element, and those incredible Meerschaum pipes.
What else draws me to a pipe, other than its tactile nature, is that fact is feels like it’s linking back to an earlier time, more so than a cigar.
I think it’s fairly safe to say that humans have tried to smoke numerous different herbs in different ways over the ages, and this is really what created the pipe.
The British Museum houses many clay pipes from across the centuries, and I remember hearing stories that the first pipes were found in Egypt inside tombs alongside mummies and were put there so they could enjoy a smoke in the afterlife.
We know that various Northern Hemisphere peoples have used pipes for various activities, from reconciliation to relaxation.
Also, there is the chance if you wander along certain parts of the River Thames at low tide, you might come across some fragments of clay pipes from the Victorian era, which I think is pretty cool.
So, if you enjoy a cigar, why not have a change. Rather like it’s rolled cousin, a pipe is a time commitment and forces you to slow down and take stock of the things that are important.