A lot of hype surrounds this extremely strong, elusive, and heavily-decorated spirit, but what’s the real story of the whiskey behind the curtain?
When conjuring up an image of a fine whiskey, expensive and rare bottles of single malt Scotch from the Speyside or Highlands region of Scotland may come to mind first. Bourbon, with its reputation as a rebellious and rambunctious American whiskey, doesn’t always jump out as being a spirit that could stack up against these highly-rated veterans.
However, bourbon has been picking up a lot of steam over the years and can now offer the discerning whiskey aficionado some amazing things. The Buffalo Trace Distillery in Franklin County, Kentucky, releases a set of special whiskey offerings every autumn that include two high-proof bourbons, an aged rye whiskey, and several others.
One such offering, George T. Stagg, has been turning heads and shows us a remarkable expression of this truly American style of whiskey. Not only awe-inspiring in strength at 71.4% abv, this bourbon is also capable of standing over the titans of single malt Scotch and redefines what American whiskey can do.
Apart from having many accolades and awards dangling from its antlers (including a Double Gold Medal from this year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition), this whiskey pushes the boundaries of what normally defines bourbon. Before delving into that, it’s important to have a good understanding of what exactly bourbon whiskey is, so as to better understand the intensity and depth of Stagg.
Whiskies made on this continent are grain spirits that consist primarily of corn, rye, malted barley, and wheat in varying proportions. North American whiskey is distilled from these specific grains and then aged for a certain amount of time in wooden barrels. Bourbon whiskey, to go into more detail, must be distilled at no more than 160 proof (80% abv) and be bottled at no less than 80 proof, having at least 51% corn in its recipe of grain, or “mash bill”.
The fun doesn’t stop there: bourbon must also be aged for at least two years in charred, new oak barrels. Charring the oak in the interior of these barrels provides bourbon with that spicy, woody character that fans of the style know and love. Contrary to popular belief, bourbon does not have to be made exclusively in the state of Kentucky to get its name; it just has to be made in the United States.
George T. Stagg stands apart in that it belongs to a small and very intense group of whiskies that are bottled straight out of the barrel. That means that nothing is done to this beauty from the time its rest ends in the barrel to the time the cork slams on the bottle and is sealed.
Usually, bourbons are cut to bring the proof down to a manageable level and filtered. What makes Stagg special is that it is neither cut nor filtered, retaining its brute strength and bold character.
Producer: Buffalo Trace Distillery
Classification: Spirit: Bourbon Whiskey
Country of Origin: Kentucky, United States
Trivia: In Jim Murray’s well-respected Whiskey Bible, it apparently took him fours hours to do the tasting notes on this year’s batch of whiskey – Wow.
Availability Info/Look for This: The availability and allotment each year is extremely limited, so your chances of finding a rogue bottle hiding on a liquor store shelf are slim-to-none straight out of hibernation.
Barrel proof bourbons, as they’re called, hark back to older times of saddles and dusty trails and echo the styles of whiskey that would be used to sate a frontiersman’s parched mouth. Normally, bourbons fall in at around the 90 proof range, but this year’s release comes in at a dizzying 142.8 proof (the proof varies from year-to-year, but not by much).
For this year’s batch, the spirit that went into the barrels was distilled way back in the Spring of 1995. The mash bill for this behemoth consists of mainly Kentucky corn, then Minnesota rye, and North Dakota malted barley to finish it off. Fresh Kentucky limestone water is used and the whiskey is fermented in a carbon steel/black iron fermenter before being double distilled. The barrels chosen to age this monster are new and unused, and made from white oak that was charred for a total of 55 seconds.
The whiskey then enters these 53 liquid gallon capacity barrels at a whopping 125 proof before aging for more than 16 years and nine months (that means that this bourbon slept through three different presidents before making its way to the bottle). After all that time, nearly 54% of the whiskey that originally entered the barrels is completely lost to evaporation. When all is said and done, 118 hand selected barrels are carefully chosen from the distillery’s select warehouses, and the beast is finally unleashed straight from its wooden cage to the bottle.
Apart from being a raging tornado of alcoholic might and unfiltered intensity, George T. Stagg is still able to deliver massively layered and complex flavours without letting the high alcohol content completely overshadow the taste. Flavours of dark chocolate, coffee, deep caramel, and vanilla come through in a fiery yet restrained way, making this giant perfectly capable of keeping its balance despite its strength. For the second year in a row, acclaimed spirits writer F. Paul Pacult has named it the #1 spirit in the world, snatching the crown off the cork of an 18-year-old Highland Park single malt Scotch last year. With bourbon developing to such extreme lengths and gaining such national recognition over old standbys, it’s nice to see an American whiskey truly coming into its own.
Written by Max Stein with RhoMania, “Helping people enjoy life more, one beverage at a time.”