Often regarded as one of the best whiskey releases every year by whiskey enthusiasts near and far, George T. Stagg is a hyper-aged bourbon out of Buffalo Trace. Part of the annual release of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC for short), this is always a focal point of the 5 bottle spread. The other highly allocated bottles that are part of the antique collection include William Larue Weller, Eagle Rare 17 year, Sazerac 18 year, and Thomas H. Handy Sazerac rye. People go crazy for this stuff - mostly because it's limited, but also because these bottles do usually contain some of the finest stocks from the Buffalo Trace distillery. Last year, I was fortunate enough to score all 5 of these releases which I individually reviewed and also ranked based on preference. George T. Stagg took the clear win from 2022, but unfortunately I'm not in the same position to look at the entirety of the 2023 lineup this year.
While I can't host an extravagant 2023 BTAC tasting this year, I do have a full bottle of this years George T. Stagg, but it's been disappearing fast since just before Christmas when I opened it with my dad and my cousin. I opened it to raise as a toast after I tagged into a really nice 8 point, 180 pound buck in Massachusetts' primitive firearms season. After field dressing and getting the deer out of the woods for processing into this years food, we clinked glencairn glasses to celebrate another one of life's beautiful little moments - something we should all spend more time doing. Like a shared passion for music, or the comradery that forms around spending countless hours on countless days in the woods, whiskey is a community vessel that has the power to transform experiences. The right pour with the right people can be a magical performance. It's a low level form of alchemy for those who understand it. Put a good whiskey in the wrong company however, and you get the unfortunate transmogrification of gold turning to lead. Many glasses have been shared in my life thus far, and the heart always knows which direction the reaction is going in.
When I'm not sharing, hunting or hiking, I do still write at length about whiskey for this website, believe it or not. I've written about Stagg (junior and prior vintages) quite a bit before, sometimes covering the history of the brand and where the name came from. If you're not familiar, I expect you'll find a lot of answers in the search results linked above. Ready to get into this years George T. Stagg with me? Let's go!
Company on Label: Buffalo Trace
Whiskey Type: Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Mash Bill Percentages: Buffalo Trace Mash Bill #1 (Low Rye < 10%)
Age: 15 years (& 3 months)
Further identification: The 2023 release of George T. Stagg finally comes with an NFC tag under the foil lid at an MSRP of $125, with further specs being laid out in the annual release letter:
Nose: Bold oak is the first thing that can be discovered when raising the glass to the nose. Brown sugar, buttermilk biscuits, and deep-stinging allspice all follow in a warm, aromatic, proofy wave. Hints of tropical beaches enter the mind as coconut husks and funky, overripe pineapple scents ride the undercurrent. A swirl of the glass unleashes more potent oak, toeing the line of being too pungent and devolving into a cleaning agent smell. It's leathery at times and loaded with creamy marshmallow and vanilla at others, suggesting good complexity abounds. As I sip off the air that hangs above the liquid with my nostrils, I find the aromas to be slightly fleeting and thinning as more volume is exchanged between my lungs and my glencairn. Hints of salt water taffy and soft peppermint puffs feel slightly out of place on this blend. Let's try a sip.
Coming back to the nose makes maple syrup and molasses tones pop. Soft and sweet bread tones hang in the glass as it gets low, reminiscent of a simple breakfast served on a big mahogany table. The way a distinct marshmallow note ebbs and flows in and out of perception is one of my favorite parts of this glass. Overall it's quite delicate for the proof though I can appreciate both the highs and the lows of the nose. Deep inhales late in the glass give off a bit of a vintage whiskey vibe, perhaps due to this kind of age statement not being so commonplace today. The empty glass smells of old cork and delicious, sweet candied cherry.
Palate: My first taste illuminates the mouth with glowing embers, all 135 proof on full display. Classic cherry and red hots hit first on the tongue before the taste buds are soothed by a wooden spoonful of sugar. Touring another sip around my mouth unfortunately makes me find that cleaning agent note the nose foreshadowed; it's vaguely citrusy with unmitigated ethanol. The linger is long with more approachable notes of nutmeg and cardamom. Sipping late into the glass shows redeeming layers of strawberry, cherry, and blackberry parfait. Patience is a virtue with this glass, as is tradition with ultra-aged whiskeys. The finish carries through blackcurrant, salty sunflower seeds, and plenty of oak that tingles the jaw slightly. At last taste I find under-ripe cherry, black pepper, and a grainy bite of milk chocolate. These notes follow through to an unremarkable finish of light linen being held up by wooden clothespins on the Summer's clothes line - a dreamlike state of attention.
TL;DR: Not BT's finest work, but still a special bottle for raising a toast or talking over
I find that this drinks much more like a Stagg Junior batch of old... not something to be revered by whiskey enthusiasts like the 2020 release was. It's still quite good but clearly has some interesting faults throughout. As you may be able to tell by the fill level, I've sipped and shared a fair bit of this bottle already. In general I have been finding it quite crushable - likely a positive to most, but it's not proving to be all that savor-worthy, something I personally value in my whiskey. The nose is exquisite to explore, but I don't find a lot of excitement when I sip this generally. To answer the question from the title "Is GTS still the king of the Antique Collection?" ... not this year.
Comparisons to Prior George T. Stagg Releases
I set out to review the 2023 release of George T. Stagg and ended up going down a rabbit hole of comparisons to the 2022 release. I initially loved the 2022 release, rating it with my highest honor and distinction: the coveted 5/5 score AND a 'Keep Amongst the Whiskey' distinction, but as my bottle (and the bottle I sampled from a dear friend) both got lower - an odd note cropped up... apple cider vinegar. Great for your health - not most people's idea of quality on an expensive bottle of whiskey. So what happened? How could two people's bottles both start so strong and finish so wrong? The world may never know. The note has since disappeared again for me when exploring 2022, but just wanted to put that out into the universe in case anyone else is struggling with that.
Comparing the nose between the 2022 and 2023 releases instantly shows that the 2022 is deeper with more rich baking spice like black pepper and more caramel tones. The 2022 however... produces that weird apple cider vinegar note I wrote about in the introduction... I can't un-smell it now that I have found it, and that makes me wonder if it had been hiding there this whole time. I guess you've been warned now, for better or for worse. Despite that note I actually believe the 2022 is still better on the nose with all it's hookah funk.
Head to head on the palate demonstrates the 2022 once again coming across bolder, perhaps warranted by the higher proof, but in a much closer race than the nose. While the 2023 pour is delicately fruity and spiced, 2022 swings in with the viscous mouthfeel of sucking on a Werther's caramel chew. It sticks to the tongue with balanced potency and excites me like an unexpected compliment. As the finish rolls through on the 2022 release, I realize just how outclassed the 2023 release is. Gingersnaps, potent maraschino cherry, and sweet caramel cookie just rolls on and on forever. If you haven't read the full review on the 2022 release, you better head there now. As for the 2020 release, that bottle is just in a different league than 2023 as well. Another top tier pour for me. Layer in 2019 and we have a ranking shake out thus:
Ranking: 2020 > 2022 > 2019 > 2023
There was no George T. Stagg release in 2021, in case you forgot.