Whisky Advocate

Inside scoop: Sazerac Rye 18 year old

January 10th, 2008

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.
 
Cheers,
 
Mark

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.

21 Responses to “Inside scoop: Sazerac Rye 18 year old”

  1. Is there not possibly another element at play here, John? When the distillery was moving the spirit from barrel to tank (to tank), it seems to me that by definition they would also be aerating it. And wouldn’t this added oxygen absorption cause a different kind of maturation than if it had been left in one place, either in the barrel or the first stainless tank?

  2. John Hansell says:

    Yes, in theory, every time they transfer the whiskey to another container (wood, stainless or whatever) would be another opportunity for the whiskey to interact with oxygen–unless they are blanketing the tanks with some sort of inert gas. Mark didn’t mention anything about this, and I’m not sure about the logistics.

    Mark, if you’re out there lurking, perhaps you could chime in on this one.

  3. Mark Brown says:

    Stephen,

    Very valid point. Anytime you move whiskey in this manner, some aeration will take place, which in turn will impact the aging cycle.

    John,

    Nope, we did not use any inert gas to blanket the tanks. Somehow, the concept of gas (inert or not) and alcohol sounds scary – LOL!

    Cheers,

    Mark.

  4. Sam Komlenic says:

    For what it’s worth, my limited experience in the long-term storage of whiskeys bottled decades ago (once they have been opened) is this: as the level in the bottle decreases, I have found that preservation of the characteristics of the whiskey is more effective when one downsizes the container to keep up with the level of what’s left. For instance, if I open a six year old rye bottled in 1940, I keep it in the original bottle (if possible) until the level reaches the point where it can be transferred into a 375 ml flask. Then, once that flask has reached a certain level, it is moved into a 200 ml flask.

    I find that the small amount of aeration involved in these transfers seems to have less effect on the product than long-term storage in a bottle containing a large volume of air.

    Another good example is the way that the Hirsch whiskey seemed to change from bottling to bottling. My guess is that thia was due to the whiskey staying in a large tank with lots of exposure to air over time. Was this the case, Mark?

    And John, would it be more appropriate to say that storage in stainless steel “modifies” or “enhances” the whiskey, as opposed to using the recognized term “aging?” I’d prefer to see that reserved for the time the whiskey spends in the barrel.

    My hat is off to the folkds at Buffalo Trace for their creativity, resourcefulness, and candor, all very refreshing from my point of view! And by the way, I think this year’s release of Sazerac 18 is fabulous. Thanks for the tanks!

  5. John Hansell says:

    Sam, your “downsizing” of bottles is very similar to what Buffalo Trace has done with their Sazerac Rye, moving to smaller stainless steel tanks.

    I use an inert gas which you can buy commercially (called Private Preserve) which I inject into my whiskey bottles that are being stored for long time periods. This is why I asked Mark about using inert gas.

    I don’t think that whiskey can truly “age” or mature in stainless. I was using the word very loosely–largely to get the reader’s attention (which apparently worked). I added a couple sentences to that paragraph to clarify. Could the whiskey change? Yes. Enhance? Possibly.

  6. Ethan Prater says:

    Indeed BT has never marketed Sazerac Rye as anything other than an 18YO, but in the first few releases, they listed the distilled date and bottling dates on the label.

    The 2001 release was labeled as as “Distilled Spring 1983, Bottled Fall 2001″.

    The 2004 release is labeled as Distilled Spring 1984, Bottled Fall 2004″.

    Subsequent releases have listed only the bottling season/year, not the distilled date.

    I interpreted these label statements to mean that the 2001 release was 18 years old, while the 2004 was actually 20 years old (though marketed as Sazerac 18).

    Now it turns out that one can’t necessarily subtract the distilled date from the bottling date to get the age, although based on John’s post here, it seems the 2004 release is actually a 20 year old (since the whisky wasn’t transferred to stainless until 2005).

  7. John Hansell says:

    Ethan, what you say makes sense. The current Sazerac Rye 18 might indeed be 18 but that doesn’t mean that previous ones weren’t.

    I guess what really matters is how it tastes, and I think we can both agree that this whiskey has always been a benchmark for aged rye whiskeys.

  8. Louis says:

    John,

    Do you know if the same situation exists for other memvers of the BT Antique Collection? You rated the Eagle Rare 17 year old 2005 release 93 and the 2006 only 88. I adored my bottle of 2005 which was polished off in record time, while my bottle of 2006 is still unopened. As the labels only say ‘bottled in’, I wonder now, if they might have come from the same batch.

    Cheers.

    Louis

  9. John Hansell says:

    Louis, I contacted Mark Brown this morning and asked him. Here’s what he had to say:

    “The only whiskey currently in stainless is the Straight Rye (18yr.) and a small amount of Weller 12 year old, soon to be bottled.”

    Very admirable of Mark to be so open with us in these matters. This should put all this Buffalo Trace stainless discussion to bed. (For now, anyway.)

  10. John Hansell says:

    Oh, and regarding the Eagle Rare 17 year old, I think the 2007 vintage may be the best vintage yet. Looks like you now have a new quest.

  11. John,

    I was wondering if you or Mark might comment / confirm whether or not the tanked Sazerac Rye was a marriage similar to Julian’s Van Winkle rye at the time of tanking? Thanks.

  12. John Hansell says:

    Greg, a marriage of what?–John

  13. There was some discussion that Buffalo Trace (may) have brought in & used supplemental whiskey (rye) of a similar age, (from an outside source) to marry and thus increase the volume on being tanked.

    Per Mark: “The only whiskey currently in stainless is the Straight Rye (18yr.) and a small amount of Weller 12 year old, soon to be bottled.”

    It was my understanding that Julian’s Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye was also tanked. Has that all been bottled now?

  14. John Hansell says:

    If you read between the lines of Mark’s comments, he does only discuss the present and, I suppose it is possible (and even likely) that he had other whiskeys in stainless in the past. But I don’t know for certain.

    Regarding Julian’s Rye, I do remember Julian telling one once at Kentucky Bourbon Festival that his 13 year old rye was actually more like 17 years old. So, if he did put some of his rye whiskey in stainless, it many not have been until after it had racked up a few extra years in oak first. Maybe if Mark is lurking, he can confirm.

    Bottom line, really, is how the whiskey tastes. That’s really all the matters in the end.

  15. Bernhard List says:

    Hi John
    I am not an expert on the above topics but I did notice one thing: I had the Sazerac bottled in 2002 and later and everytime I open a new bottle I kinda get disappointed since I remembered the smooth taste of the previous year. Now on the 2007 release the same thing happened and after having 2-3 samples I had put it back on the shelf (thinking: so-so!) Yesterday (3 months later) I had a glas again with a friend and to my surprise it tasted as wonderful smooth now as I had remembered all the other Sazes. Now to come to a conclusion maybe Rye does smooth out when it comes in contact with Oxygen.
    Mine is definitely much better now and dwindling fast!
    Bernhard List
    Germany

  16. John Hansell says:

    Good insight Bernhard. Thank you for the posting.

  17. Thomas Wright says:

    Mark, by chance have you had to oportunity to sample the Sazerac 18 year old Rye bottled in 2008?

  18. Halon Archipelago says:

    Thank you gentlemen, I know now that I can store my best in a SS (stainless steel) thermos without fear. This has been a concern when embarking on fishing trips since my companeneros are whisky experts and glass just will not survive…
    Regards
    BG

  19. Hudson says:

    The 6-year Sazerac Rye is disgusting. The metallic aftertaste is a complete turn-off.

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