The biggest American whiskey release of the year just dropped — 2021’s Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. The set of iconic whiskeys are often the most coveted bourbons and ryes to hit (some) shelves this year.
This year’s lineup includes Eagle Rare 17, William Larue Weller, Sazerac 18, and a Thomas H. Handy Rye. To the shock of many, the usual fifth selection, George T. Stagg, was left out of this year’s collection. It’s rumored that this was due to the 2021 juice just not quite living up to Buffalo Trace’s sky-high standards. While that’s a shame, it’s not the end of the world.
I was lucky enough to get the sample pack for review last week. I finally cracked it open this week to dive into what’s actually in these bottles this year. Because they’re all from the same brand, I decided to rank these based on taste alone. Last year, I was all about the William Larue Weller (which is still one of my all-time favorite bourbons) — let’s see how things shook out this year.
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3. Thomas H. Handy Sazerac
MSRP: $99 ($500)
This is the youngest bottle in 2021’s BTAC. The whiskey was distilled in the spring of 2015 and bottled in the fall of 2021. The mash is mainly Minnesota rye with Kentucky corn and North Dakota barley. The juice matured in warehouses I, K, L, and O on the fifth through seventh floors.
Over that time, 31 percent of the juice was lost to the angels.
The nose opens with a rush of botanicals, leaning into star anise, clove, black licorice, and dried-up cinnamon sticks shoved into an old leather tobacco pouch. The palate holds onto that woody cinnamon as touches of green peppercorns pop in the background with a slight hint of rose water, almonds, and bitter citrus pith that leads towards a mid-palate that veers green towards fresh mint stems. That mint mellows out as a creamy nature arrives on the finish with dark cocoa powder that’s just touched by that mint, creating an almost chewy/dusty mint-chocolate-chip quality.
Those spices and botanicals up top are very bold. If you’re not into absinthe and real black licorice, this will be a bit of a harder sell. That being said, I really dig the mid-palate to finish when that dark cacao and mint kick in. It’s good but not perfect (for my palate), hence it placing last.
2. Sazerac 18
MSRP: $99 ($1,400)
This rye was made back in 2003 from Minnesota Rye, Kentucky corn, and North Dakota barley. The juice spent 18-and-a-half years in warehouses K and P on the second and fourth floors. Finally, it was vatted, proofed with that iconic Kentucky limestone water, and bottled.
It’s shocking how different this is from Thomas H. Handy. The nose draws you in with this medley of fresh and earthy honeycombs next to bushels of freshly picked Granny Smith apples sitting in straw baskets with a hint of oily herbs like rosemary and thyme. There’s a heft to the body of this sip that touches on clove and allspice while the sweetness edges towards fresh maple syrup with a touch of butter. The mid-palate veers swiftly away from that sweetness towards an espresso bean bitterness, meaty dates soaked in Earl Grey tea, and milky yet dark chocolate bars sprinkled with smoked salt flakes.
This is in the running for the best rye I’ve had this year (and I’ve had some killers). It’s just so nuanced and accessible — thanks to that lower proof. I can see sipping this the rest of the year and never getting bored.
1. (tie) Eagle Rare 17
MSRP: $99 ($1,340)
This whiskey was produced in the spring of 2003. Since then, it lost 73 percent of its volume to the angels as it rested in warehouses C, K, M, and Q on various floors. The barrels were then vatted, proofed down, and bottled.
The nose has this matrix of dark holiday spices that layer into a Black Forest cake with the finest stewed cherries, the moistest chocolate sponge cake, and the richest cream with a touch of vanilla and dark chocolate shavings and a whisper of pink finishing salt. The palate really leans into the cherry with a bright but saucy vibe that’s spiked with nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon (and maybe a hint of ground ginger) while little firecrackers full of salted black licorice, dry cedar bark, and Cherry Coke fill in the background. The finish takes its time as the mid-palate cherry sweetness slowly dissolves into an old wooden garden box full of fresh dark potting soil bursting with fresh mint and spicy nasturtiums.
I couldn’t decide between this and the Weller this year. So… we have a tie.
This bourbon is so interesting. It hits familiar notes then deftly goes opposite directions while still making total sense and remaining delicious. Drinking this, it’s easy to see what all the hype is about.
1. (tie) William Larue Weller
MSRP: $99 ($800)
Distilled back in the fall of 2009, this barrel-strength bourbon skips the Minnesota rye and instead uses North Dakota wheat with that NoDak barley and Kentucky corn. The juice spent 12-and-a-half years mellowing in warehouses C, D, K, L, and Q on floors one through three. While maturing, 64 percent of the whiskey was lost to the angels before it was small-batched and bottled as is.
The creaminess of the vanilla on the nose is extraordinary. Imagine the softness and richest crème anglaise with a touch of salted caramel syrup, eggnog spice, and a towering croquembouche with all the spun hard sugar holding the whole thing together. That light yet buttery cream puff drives towards a slight shortbread vibe with toasted cinnamon sticks, moist cherry tobacco, more vanilla cream, and a soft echo of dried smoked stone fruits. The finish drives back towards the sweetness of that salted caramel but this time it’s covered in dark chocolate and sitting inside an old cedar box that once held fistfuls of menthol-laced tobacco leaves.
This feels so different than the Eagle Rare 17. Yet, both of these sips grabbed my attention as few other bourbons do. It’s just extraordinarily delicious.
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