Every fall now, people who love whiskey and people who never drink whiskey trip over themselves to get their hands on anything Van Winkle. Around the same time, Buffalo Trace also releases their rare and limited 5-bottle Antique collection, including 3 barrel proof offerings: Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Straight Rye, George T. Stagg Straight Bourbon and William Larue Weller Bourbon. The Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye pays homage to the New Orleans man who, in the late 1800’s, changed the principle ingredient of the Sazerac cocktail from cognac to rye whiskey.
While each of the other 4 members of the Antique Collection is aged at least 12 years, the Handy is aged only 6. There are plenty of 6-year ryes (and even older) sitting on the shelf, so allow me to prepare you for the disappointment you are going to experience after your first taste of the Handy. It’s going to be huge, and it’s going to last a long time. Because until you find a bottle of your own, nothing about rye whiskey will ever be the same for you again. It can ruin you.
Bourbon Name: Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey
Age: 6 years
How I Drank It: Neat, in a NEAT glass. I generally drink everything from NEAT glasses now, but it’s a must for high-proof whiskey.
My Nose Noticed:* The vapor blast you expect from a barrel proof spirit is absent. Instead, you’re treated a sensory hug with floral notes, baked desserts and multiple spices.
First Sip: Unlike what you’ve likely grown accustomed to for high-proofers, here the flavors come first and the burn comes later. Let this one coat your mouth and you’ll instantly know you’ve entered another level. The complexity and uniqueness separates it from every rye whiskey I’ve had. It shares the low-rye mashbill (close to 51%) with the standard Sazerac Rye 6-year, allowing for plenty of sweetness. The rye spice is there, but it dances with others including clove and cinnamon. It’s the whiskey equivalent of a slice of cake.
Comparison #1: Sazerac 6-Year Rye
Since the Handy has been racking up awards and is now on everyone’s radar, I began a wide search to find a suitable replacement. The obvious starting point is the Sazerac 6-year Rye, since it shares the same mashbill and the same time in the barrel. Logic dictates that if you take the batter from the same bowl, put it in a different oven and pull it out the same time, you have the same cookie, right?
Wrong. The 90-proof Sazerac is thin by comparison. The Handy’s gorgeous reddish-amber (accented beautifully by the bottle’s orange labeling details) is now merely a pale amber color. Swirl both in a glass and you see the viscosity change. The extra water not only removes the lush creaminess, but it mutes the flavors so that your taste buds have to send a search party off to find them. Imagine a Coke that’s gone flat. Keep in mind, this is a comparison; If the Sazerac is your first sip of the night, it’s a decent pour. It’s just difficult to meet with the boss and then take the intern seriously.
Comparison #2: Redemption Barrel Proof Rye (7-year)
Redemption has barrel proof offerings from 6-year up to 10-year. There aren’t a ton of barrel proof ryes out there, and I wanted to see if it would match up better with the Handy than its baby brother. The 7-year Redemption brings it with 123.2 proof, but it’s from a 95% rye mashbill. Apparently I can’t have the best of both worlds.
In the glass, the nose heat is back. First sip, the burn hits first, and then the flavors come on and fade into the burn again. Shockingly, the flavor profile is reminiscent of the Handy, even with a far more dominant rye content. A little water tames it and balances a delicious combination of flavors. Is it a “Poor Man’s Handy?” Not a chance. But what is? It’s definitely the best available alternative that I’ve found so far.
Neat, Splash or Rocks: I can’t explain why a rye that has spent just 6 years in the barrel and hasn’t been watered down doesn’t burn your face off, but you truly shouldn’t add anything to this one. I did add some water in an effort to be thorough, but I found the enjoyment level decreasing with each drop. It did help with my comparison experiment, which I will describe next. Incidentally, if anyone drops an ice-cube into their glass, remove the cube immediately and then remove them immediately from your home.
Share With: No one. Just kidding. Only your best friends who love whiskey deserve the nectar of the gods. It’s a rare treat and something they will likely be comparing every whiskey they’ll ever have again to.
Worth The Price: If you are fortunate enough to have your liquor store sell you one for the typical $100 or so, it’s an absolute steal. Secondary market prices are currently hovering around $300, so that’s a call you’re going to have to make. From my own tasting, it more than holds its own against the Van Winkle 13-year Rye that currently fetches about $900.
Bottle, Bar or Bust: Bottle every time. The Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Straight Rye will shatter what you thought you knew about whiskey. The best way to describe the taste of this unbelievable spirit is “Christmas.” It tastes like Christmas. And unfortunately, just like Christmas, the Handy only comes once a year.
*I like to let my whiskey sit in the glass for at least 5 minutes before I start to smell it or have a drink. I personally find that it’s better to let some of the alcohol waft off before diving in. If I’m drinking bourbon on the rocks I skip the waiting and dive in both feet first. In this case thought, the whiskey really required more like 20 minutes to balance out.
**Some of you refer to this as the “finish” but let’s be honest. Don’t we all just want to know if it burns good?