OLD CHARTER OAK
Chinkapin Oak (2020)
MASH BILL – Buffalo Trace mash bill #1
PROOF – 93
AGE – 9 years
DISTILLERY – Buffalo Trace
PRICE – $87
single barrel #086 picked by Healthy Spirits (2020)
MASH BILL – Buffalo Trace mash bill #1
PROOF – 90
AGE – 10 years
DISTILLERY – Buffalo Trace
PRICE – $43
When I first heard about the Old Charter Oak series, it immediately intrigued me, tapping my interest in terroir. Buffalo Trace had decided to revive the long defunct 1870s whiskey brand, Old Charter Oak, itself named after the famed Charter Oak Tree. We all know the stories behind whiskey brands are to be taken with a grain of salt. But this is a pretty good one, true or not.
In 1687, English soldiers arrived in Connecticut with orders from King James II to squelch the colony’s penchant for self governance and seize the “Royal Charter of Connecticut” granted to it by the then recently deceased King Charles II. But before the charter documents could be seized, they were hidden away in the trunk of a massive oak tree. That tree was later dubbed the Charter Oak, and lived on as a symbol of American independence until a violent storm finally brought the 1000+ year old oak down in 1856.
Given that history, Buffalo Trace Distillery decided to use the revived Old Charter Oak name as an opportunity to explore the impact of oak on bourbon. They put their very familiar mash bill #1—used for the standard Buffalo Trace namesake release as well as Eagle Rare, Stagg Jr. and George T. Stagg—into various distinct oak barrels. Their first clutch of releases are based on oak from different countries—Mongolian, French, Canadian, and Chinkapin Oak found in North America. Future releases will include comparisons of barrels made of oak from different states in the US, different species of white oak, and even trees from different centuries!
I’ve never seen one of these bottles “in the wild,” as it’s put. I lucked into this bottle when I won the right to purchase it in the annual K&L unicorn raffle. Had I ever found it on a shelf, no doubt it would have been out of reach at several hundred dollars at least. So the opportunity to try it at msrp was welcomed.
I uncorked it the day I brought it home. It immediately reminded me of Eagle Rare, with a notable variety of exotic spice notes. Eagle Rare is aged 10 years and bottled at 90 proof, very close to the Chinkapin Oak bottling’s 9 years and 93 proof. The Eagle Rare I have on hand is a single barrel and not the standard release blend. As a comparison, I figured this would offer a certain singularity akin to the Old Charter’s use of a singular species of oak wood. In addition to being aged in different oak barrels for slightly different lengths of time, the Chinkapin barrel staves were air-dried for two full years, rather than the usual three months, allowing the weather to make a further contribution.
When I sat down for this comparison, the Old Charter’s cork snapped! Luckily (or rather, not) I’ve had a lot of experience with the famously unstable vintage Wild Turkey corks, and was able to extract it without much ado.
So here we are, a few days after each bottle was uncorked, and a few pours into each, both tasted in traditional Glencairns. Here are the notes in brief:
EAGLE – toasted amber-orange
CHARTER – a slightly richer, slightly darker amber-orange
BOTH – really they are very close, and, with tilting in various natural and electric light, one alternatively comes across lighter or darker than the other
EAGLE – very forthcoming, with cherry syrup, black pepper, sweet caramel, a whiff of ethanol
CHARTER – reserved, with baked cherry, black pepper, thicker caramel, a bit of chocolate, and a rustic herbal note I can’t quite place—something vaguely Bay Leaf like
EAGLE – the cherry and black pepper right up front, then a wave of caramel that’s now a bit darker than on the nose, a bit of oak
CHARTER – a medley of fine wood spices right up front, followed immediately by a balanced trifecta of oak, caramel and chocolate, then the baked cherry now a notch darker, with a light syrupy mouthfeel to it all
EAGLE – the notes from the taste now settle into a nice cohesive note like breakfast pastry with vanilla icing and candied cherries on top
CHARTER – leaves a nice cooling tingle on the back sides of the tongue and throat, with the oak and wood spices lingering faintly alongside some cherry and caramel sauce
EAGLE – a solid outing of this good ol’ standby of the Buffalo Trace mash bill #1 bourbons, still surprisingly available and affordable for a 10 year Kentucky bourbon, even at 90 proof
CHARTER – The syrupy mouthfeel is surprising for this 93-proof whiskey, and I enjoy the added wood spices amidst those familiar Buffalo Trace mash bill #1 cherry and chocolate/caramel notes
EAGLE – Future single barrel store picks, certainly
CHARTER – I doubt I’ll have that opportunity. But I’ll certainly continue to follow the future Old Charter Oak releases, and if I ever have a chance to try another at msrp I’ll certainly go for it.
A very satisfying, if not particularly surprising, comparison. The similarities in taste are accurately reflected in the similarities of the photos above—photos 1 and 2 being Old Charter, photo 3 Eagle Rare on left and Old Charter on right, and photos 4 and 5 being Eagle Rare. Given my initial impression was that the Old Charter was a touch darker, at one point I wondered if I’d mixed up the glasses when suddenly the Eagle Rare was appearing darker. But I had the glasses correct, so, each being close cousins in many respects, they both play with the light in similar ways.
I was off Eagle Rare for a good long time. A few years back I found it too cherry coke for my tastes. Then a 2019 Bourbon County store pick brought me back around. Eagle Rare will never be a bourbon I scramble for. But this Healthy Spirits pick from 2020 is my third single barrel of it since that 2019 Bourbon County bottle, and I suspect I’ll always have at least one on the shelf. It’s dependable, affordable, and the whole cherry caramel chocolate black pepper thing is just a winning combo.
Tasting the Old Charter Chinkapin Oak next to it, I find myself appreciating exactly what the distillers intended—the oak. Younger by a year but hotter by 3 proof points, those factors in combination with the Chinkapin oak barrel and its prolonged seasoning in the Kentucky weather have resulted in a notably spicy riff on a familiar tasting experience. And by “spicy” I mean flavor, not heat.
One might expect an increase in wood spices to be drying. But that’s not the case here. That syrupy texture coats the mouth and in combination with the wood spice notes creates a luxuriant sensation.
The bottle design is attractive, but flawed I must say. The wooden emblem of the oak tree is a great touch. The tall, thin flask shape befits the stature of the oak tree. But it’s also precarious and easy to tip over. And it’s very clear the neck of the bottle is too tight by design. After extracting the broken cork, I went through three standard sized corks trying to find one that I could actually get in and out of the bottle. I eventually settled on a synthetic cork because it seemed clear any regular cork was going to break after some use, just like the original. These flaws may seem trivial. But when you spend an extra bit of money on a bottle of whiskey, you don’t want to have to worry about damaging it with normal use.
As for the bourbon itself, I’m a fan. I wouldn’t recommend paying three digits for it. It’s not remarkably better than the Eagle Rare to warrant that. And of course Stagg Jr. can still be found for two digits and that’s a similarly aged, barrel proof bourbon. But if you’re a fan of the Buffalo Trace mash bill #1 bourbons and come across this Old Charter Chinkapin Oak at msrp, go for it. You’ll be very happy. Likewise for any Eagle Rare store picks. They’re a pretty safe bet for a solid, 10-year bourbon.