It’s that time of the year again, when all the major bourbon and rye whiskey producers release their limited edition whiskeys, and consumers scramble to find a bottle before they disappear. Your time and money is valuable, so I thought I’d offer some guidance on which whiskeys you should concentrate on buying.
I’ve tasted my way through the following whiskeys. My formal reviews will appear in the upcoming issue of Whisky Advocate, but here’s a quick overview of them, in no particular order.
Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (All $80, in theory)
My favorite of the line is the George T. Stagg (69.05%). The past two years have shown a tamer, more rounded and balanced Stagg. This one is a classic.
Sazerac 18 yr. Rye (45%) is similar, but not identical to, previous years. And I really like it. To me, it’s still the best example of a classic ultra-aged rye that’s released on an annual basis. This is the same whiskey that has been tanked in stainless steel and released annually over the past several years. It will continue to be until a new 18 year old rye is released in 2016.
Both Eagle Rare 17 yr. (45%) and William Larue Weller (70.1%), two perennial favorites, are showing more age this year. By this, I mean there’s more wood spice and resin. They are still very nice whiskeys, but to me the extra oak is gratuitous and unnecessary.
The disappointment this year is the Thomas H. Handy Rye (64.6%). This year’s release is thinner and less complex on the palate, with unintegrated spice, botanical, and feint vegetal notes dominating. Yes, there are other flavors thrown in the mix, but it doesn’t help. It’s easily the weakest whiskey in this year’s Antique Collection.
Four Roses 2014 Limited Edition Small Batch, 55.9%, $90
There’s more oak and dried spice when compared to the 2013 release (our American Whiskey of the Year last year) and, while not quite reaching that caliber — it’s not quite as seamless, drinkable, or complex — it gets close. Very impressive.
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength, 56.6%, $40
This is what I wish the standard Maker’s Mark would be: more mature, spicier, more complex, and with a richer finish. This was initially released in Kentucky only, but rumors are that it will get a wider distribution in the future. The best Maker’s Mark since the now extinct Maker’s Mark Black, which was released for export only. If you can track down a bottle, you won’t be disappointed. (Except for the fact that it’s only in 375 ml bottles.)
Yes, 23 years is a long time to age bourbon. And yes, there’s plenty of oak influence. But there’s an underlying sweetness that balances the oak spice (with this particular barrel; others may vary). I suspect that some of the barrels will be over-oaked, so be careful.
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon (2014 release), 12 year old, 48.5%, $60
This whiskey’s signature over the last several years has been wood-dominant, with plenty of dried spice (the exception being the 2013 release which I really enjoyed—it was chock full of balancing sweetness). The 2014 release is similar to the pre-2013 releases; a dynamic bourbon, but still leaning heavily on the oak spice.
Angel’s Envy Cask Strength (2014 Release), 59.65%, $170
The third cask strength release and, like all Angel’s Envy bourbons, this one is finished in port barrels. When compared to the standard Angel’s Envy bourbon, this Cask Strength release is packed with more of everything: alcohol, port fruit notes, and oak. While very enjoyable, it pushes the envelope of the port finishing. If port finishing isn’t your thing, then you should think twice before buying.
I’ll throw in a bonus wheat whiskey too:
Parker’s Heritage Collection Original Batch Wheat Whiskey 13 year old, 63.7%, $90
Heaven Hill’s straight wheat whiskey, Bernheim Original, is a pleasant drink, but I always felt that some extra aging and a higher proof would give it additional richness and complexity to propel it to a higher level. That’s what this new whiskey accomplishes. If you like Bernheim Original, you’ll love this one.