Bottle Kill: George T. Stagg 2018


MASH BILL – Buffalo Trace mash bill #1

PROOF – 124.9

AGE – 15 years 4 months

DISTILLERY – Buffalo Trace

PRICE – $124

BUY AGAIN? – At this price? Instantly. Otherwise…

We’re now already into the Fall whiskey hunting season. To clear up space on my home shelf in anticipation of the surprises to come, I’ve been focusing my sipping on bottles near the end of their life. The final ounces of a long lasting bottle make a great opportunity to ruminate on what exactly made the experience of that bottle particular.

I’ve been nursing this 2018 George T. Stagg over the past nine months or so. In that time it’s remained quite consistent, and easily ranks among the top bourbon experiences I’ve had to date. All whiskeys air out and evolve, sometimes for the better and sometimes the worse. The going wisdom is that once a bottle reaches its final quarter it’s a good time to finish it off before oxidization gets to it first. And this bottle has been hovering down around its final quarter for the last three months. I’ve been avoiding its end! 

But all things must end. So I indeed took advantage of this bottle-kill moment to chart the progress of this remarkable bourbon from its first impression to its last. Though its beautifully dark, deeply toasted maple color has not faded one bit, now in its final ounces the subtle evolution of its taste is coming clear to me:

second tasting after uncorking

NOSE – bright baked apples, oak, spices, sweet vanilla caramel in the background

TASTE – apples, syrupy cherries, spices, oak, a nice medium burn

FINISH – What finish? It never ends, leaving oak and caramel to settle in with a whiff of baked apples…

OVERALL – I don’t imagine any bourbon ever making a true case for secondary market prices, but this offers a strong argument!

This bottle had been uncorked at a friend’s house, during a wide-ranging tasting that included Stagg Jr. Batch #11 next to its 2018 papa. Junior held its own that night. This proved to be true in subsequent comparisons, bringing into question the real value of one versus the other. Junior is more easily found, if only by comparison, and generally half the price if one sticks close to msrp. But few stores do. George T. Stagg regularly sells for $500 to $800, both in stores and the online secondary market. I paid a fraction of that. No doubt this fact alone allows me to embrace this bourbon so fully. At a hiked price I’d still have enjoyed it, but not nearly as much. Price does impact taste for me.

So, three months on I took down some more notes:

a little over halfway through the bottle

NOSE – cherry, rich milk chocolate, a background of baking spices and vanilla-caramel

TASTE – cherry, baking spices, oak, a background of tangy caramel, a nice pepperiness, and smooooth

FINISH – warm, with the cherries, milk chocolate, oak, and caramel all lingering. For. Ever.

OVERALL – Man oh man…

The shift of emphasis from apple to cherry was neither better nor worse, just further enjoyable. And I indeed continued to enjoy this bottle.

Then a month or so ago I sat down with it more formally again, comparing it once more to Stagg Jr. Batch #11 and also a single barrel store pick of Buffalo Trace. That comparison confirmed what is at the core of the Buffalo Trace mash bill #1 flavor profile—sweet apples, rich caramels, and cherries. It also left me already missing this George T. Stagg.

And so, finally, the final impressions:

final 2 ounces

NOSE – caramel, dusty oak, cherry, all darker than my memory of even recent tastings

TASTE – cherry, rich tangy caramel, rich chocolate, dusty oak, booze-soaked cooked peach, a final peppery flare

FINISH – The legend lives on, with everything lingering for seeming-ever

OVERALL – decadent, and deeply missed already…!

Was it that this pour was about twice the amount I’d usually poured that explains the particularly dark richness of these final ounces? I had an ounce just the other night and it wasn’t quite this rich. Or is my nostalgia already embroidering over reality?

Either way, this bottle has been stellar. The consistency over time is remarkable. The initial apples eventually gave way to cherries, and the cherries then stayed the course. Tonight I had to search for the apples, and I question whether I actually picked up on them or just really wanted to! Apples in various forms—baked, caramel dipped, sliced—come up often with these Buffalo Trace mash bill #1 bourbons, especially the Buffalo Trace namesake bourbon where the apples really step forward. As this mash bill ages and opens, it deepens and darkens in every respect.

That said, after letting tonight’s pour sit in the glass a bit longer, a brighter and tangier caramel started to dominate, backed up by lightly stewed cherries and some nearby melted chocolate. I have no doubt this glacial evolution would go on forever were this bottle to never run out.

So, a unicorn that actually earns its horn! I do enjoy Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year, and look forward to cracking a bottle of the Van Winkle 15 Year I have at the ready. But this 2018 George T. Stagg has been a special journey. Aside from living up to its reputation—which is a kind of intellectual aspect of the experience—on a purely sensory level it just hits so many impressive notes. The gorgeous color offers a great preview of what’s to come. The flavors are then rich and sincere. The texture thick and generous. The remarkable consistency is balanced by a flexibility, as the bourbon leans confidently into its various aspects over time—now more apple, now more cherry, now more caramel…

As I stared down the final sip in my glass, I felt that familiar resistance to ending this journey. So all at once I did. The final sip: caramel, oak, a slice of apple, toasted honey, melted butter, cherry pie sitting out to cool…

Thanks George. It’s been real.

P.S. After the glass had been sitting empty for over an hour, it still smelled great!

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