Have you noticed how all the old rye whiskeys on the market keep getting older? (Rittenhouse Rye 21 is now a 23 year old, Willett Rye 21 is now a 23 year old, etc.)
Except for one, that is.
Sazerac Rye 18 never even became a 21 year old, let alone 23. For the past two years, while everyone else’s rye became two years older, Sazerac Rye stayed 18 years old. How? The whiskey’s owner, Buffalo Trace Distillery, transferred the whiskey into stainless steel tanks two years ago.
Your initial reaction to this might be a negative one. Aging whiskey in stainless steel tanks? That’s not very romantic, is it? Almost deceiving, perhaps.
But, I think this was a very smart move on their part. Sazerac Rye 18 year old is a classic whiskey. It has been ever since it was released several years ago. The 2005 release was Malt Advocate magazine’s “American Whiskey of the Year”. Why take the risk of aging it for another year (or two) and have the wood begin to dominate the flavor profile? (Which I feel is the case with both Rittenhouse Rye 23 and Vintage Rye 23, by the way.)
Here’s where it gets even more interesting. My friends at Buffalo Trace were nice enough to tell me their little secret back in 2005. I kept my mouth shut and didn’t tell anybody. But I decided to not review the 2006 release when it came out. Ditto the 2007. After all, it’s just the same whiskey, which I already reviewed in 2005.
Or is it?
I went to Buffalo Trace a month ago to talk with the guys there about a different topic (to be published in the next issue of Malt Advocate, by the way). We were having dinner at the reception center and, sure enough, there were a couple different vintages of Sazerac Rye 18 on the bar. With my assumption that the past three vintages came from stainless steel, I wondered if my logic was correct–that the whiskeys from all three vintages were identical. They had all three vintages (2005-2007), so we lined them up and tasted them.
Immediately it was clear that 2006 was different than the other two. Noticeably different. But for the wrong reason. Turns out that the bottle was corked! (When was the last time that happened?) And it was the only bottle they had. So much for our little experiment that night.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So, after returning back home, I asked the distillery if they would kind enough to send me samples of all three vintages, which they did. So, I nosed and tasted each one.
Surprisingly, each one was different. Subtle, but different. The 2005 seems very clean, polished, crisp, somewhat creamy and elegant (and my choice of the three). The 2006, and particularly the 2007 are beefier, a bit more rustic, with sort of leathery/resin character to it. Still lovely whiskeys, just different.
How could this be, I wondered? In theory, the whiskey shouldn’t change it taste at all. All three samples should taste the same. Could it be that whiskey ages in stainless steel? Highly doubtful. But could it change? Apparently so.
I’m not aware of many examples of whiskey being aged in stainless steel. But, one I am aware of is the Hirsch bourbon bottlings (16 year old and 20 year old) that were distilled at the old Michter’s distillery in Pennsylvania. These stocks were wisely transferred to stainless steel to keep them from getting too old.
How do I know this? I discovered this when I was touring, ironically, the Buffalo Trace distillery (then called Ancient Age) about a decade or so ago. I saw these two stainless steel tanks and inquired as to what was in them. Hirsch whiskey!
Getting back to the Sazerac Rye, I then asked Mark Brown, President and CEO of Buffalo Trace, how his rye whiskey aging in stainless steel could change from one year to the next. Did they come from the same tanks? From the same batch of barrels? He said he would investigate. This morning, he gave me his response, and I will share it with you:
John, we have done some more thorough research into your question. Thankfully, some of the explanation is easy.
The 2005 whiskey came from a different set of barrels than the 2006 and 2007 releases. [We] have confirmed that first whiskey taken from the tank was the 2006 release. My apologies for the confusion.
Now to the question 2006 and 2007 releases being different. Initially, we placed the rye in a single 13,500 gallon tank, and then bottled out the 2006 release. The 2007 release was bottled from the same tank, roughly 12 months later. The tank is considered large by us, with a good sized surface area, which would likely cause a couple of things to happen:
– Higher evaporation rates
– Higher tank turnover due to convection, resulting in more exposure to the air
Most recently, we have moved the whiskey into 3 x 2,100 gallon tanks (not full), so it should be interesting to see, what, if any further changes occur. Hope this helps clear up the mystery.
Wow, is all this stuff really cool or what? It appears that the change in flavor may be due to oxidation in the tanks, but who knows? When the 2008 vintage comes out later in 2008, I can tell you one thing for sure. I’m not going to assume anything! I’m looking forward to trying it–and comparing it to the 2006 and 2007 releases.
I wonder, though, how many other whiskey (and whisky) companies are aging their whiskey in stainless steel tanks and just not telling us? Many thanks to Buffalo Trace for letting me share this very interesting information with you.