Every year, I wait longingly for the release of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, praying to snag just one bottle. This set of five ultra premium, highly prized whiskeys from Buffalo Trace garners a wild-eyed, cash-throwing frenzy from bourbon collectors and flippers alike. Many see George T. Stagg as the crown jewel in this esteemed quintet, snagging the top spot on many bourbon-centric listicles. Not only that, the illustrious juice has garnered a gilded and star-studded bouquet of medals from every whiskey awards under the sun, so you know it has to be good.
However, in 2020, GTS dropped a rung from it’s usual first place seat in the San Francisco Spirits Competition. Since 2018, GTS has gone from Double Gold, Gold, to Silver from 2018 to 2020. And now 2021? There won’t be anything to judge. This makes me wonder if Buffalo Trace is starting to lose its once magical touch. No other distillery out there garners the obsessive and ruthless dedication to bottle hunting, especially at astronomical secondary prices. I mean, there’s even a famous criminal ring focused on flipping bottles directly from the distillery, and not just Pappy. Today, folks are lucky if they see Eagle Rare on the shelves, which is ridiculous for a good but mid-range bourbon. Even the flagship Buffalo Trace bourbon itself has become rare and price jacked up artificially just because it comes from Frankfort; if only other industries in Franklin county could benefit from this Midas Touch.
Allow me to remind you of how bottles like George T. Stagg are created. Buffalo Trace distills from three primary bourbon mash bills: mash bill 1 (low rye), mash bill 2 (higher rye), and a wheated mash bill. Stagg is selected from the mashbill #1 barrels that fit a particular profile. In the news broken by Robert Simonsen in the New York Times, “ the barrels of the 14-year-old whiskey that had been prepared in 2006 and earmarked for the annual bottling were not up to Stagg standards.” But from what I have tasted, others have corroborated, and apparently spirits competitions agree, the quality of George T. Stagg has been steadily dropping over the past couple of years. Simonson also indicates that the root cause of why the barrels weren’t up to snuff is still unknown.
But does this rationale from Buffalo Trace pass the sniff test? Some are conjecturing that this is all yet another play by Buffalo Trace to manufacture demand and amp up hype in a market that is becoming ever more crowded. Rarity breeds collectibility, which pushes prices up artificially to higher and higher levels (watch those 2020 GTS bottles jump in price overnight). And strangely enough, Buffalo Trace, with their proven history of litigiousness, stays oddly silent on the matter of the absurd secondary prices their products are fetching. They indicated that not releasing GTS this year will cost the distillery “millions of dollars in lost sales” but I am less than sympathetic, as they could release those barrels as a special one off release that would sell out immediately and garner prices even higher than Stagg would. They’ve already created a highly sought-after limited edition product with questionable uniqueness in the EH Taylor Warehouse C Tornado Surviving release, for example. I wouldn’t be surprised if these 2006 Stagg-slated barrels crop up under a special release name - tube and all (EHT Reject, anyone?). In short, these market trends (and some of the players) are beyond absurd.
For many collectors, Buffalo Trace products (especially the ultra premium limited releases), are the most coveted on the market. However, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, and Wild Turkey are giving them a run for their money. Releases from those distilleries still don’t fetch BTAC or Pappy prices, but they are consistently getting up there (not at all a nod of approval for the ridiculous secondary pricing). A harbinger of this can also be seen with the increasing secondary prices for lower and mid range releases, like Henry McKenna and Basil Hayden Toasted. Plus, new players like Barrell and Wilderness Trail (originally named “Trace” after the historic name for the region encompassing Boyle County where the distillery is located, that Sazerac threatened to sue them if they did not change their name) are giving the old boys a run for their money. Buffalo Trace will not long be the only premium wheater on the market. Maker's Mark has seen a surge in popularity with their Wood Finishing Series releases, Bardstown Bourbon Company is planting a serious stake in the wheat field with their flagship mash bill being a wheater, and Wilderness Trail's well-received wheat bottlings are continuing to garner a dedicated following. Rome was not built in a day, and I portend that the landscape of bourbon will look very different in the next decade. Despite the increase in barrels filled, an inflection point will be reached where Sazerac products are no longer the golden child, or even the honorable mention child. I’m not saying Buffalo Trace products will ever be bad, but their singular place on the throne will not always be so singular.
On a more positive note, even though Buffalo Trace said they would not make an official release for the 2021 George T. Stagg, Bourbon & Banter - through its exclusive sources - was able to score a sample of their self-proclaimed subpar product.
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2021 George T. Stagg Review
SHARE WITH: The person who is so stoked to create that annual BTAC vertical. At any cost. Any. Cost.
WORTH THE PRICE: Hope you like Wheatley Vodka and Fireball, y'all.
BOTTLE, BAR OR BUST: Even a mere drop will grant you a chance at immortality.
COLOR: The color is a brilliant LeVian chocolate that almost sparkles through the glass.
NOSE: Sitting at a stunning 178.4 proof, my nose hairs are given a run for their money, even though I just recently trimmed them. The nose emits notes of soda fountain cherries, generic brand chips ahoy, and a slight must.
TASTE: The whiskey hits your palate like a dried out jar of nutmeg found at the back of your grandmother's spice cabinet. The expiration date says April 3, 1981, and the flavor is mostly sawdust, but a hint of that nutmeg still can be detected. Other notes include tack room at dusk and Hershey’s chocolate syrup.
FINISH: The finish is fleeting, and it mostly just burns, and not in the good way.