There's few letters that get thirsty Americans riled up faster than BTAC.
The Buffalo Trace Antique Collection is the yearly autumn release of Buffalo Trace Distillery's very best* bourbon and rye whiskeys. These bottlings are received year after year with very high marks from fans, whiskey critics and even celebrity chefs, which has lead the popularity of nearly the entire line to skyrocket.
Released with a suggested retail price of $80, recent years have seen stores pricing their small allotment of bottles in excess of $200 — and that's a conservative number! Resolving to buy any of these elusive bottles is both an expensive and time-consuming affair, even as you may not have ever tasted them before!
But here's the secret: the bottlings are actually expressions of the company's three main products: Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Sazerac Rye and W.L. Weller Wheated Bourbon. Meaning you can (kind of) try before you buy. But don't let this fact mislead you.
What truly separates the Antique Collection from Buffalo Trace's regular expressions comes from the distillery's exhaustive knowledge of its rickhouses, particularly that lower floors and higher ventilation means better whiskey. It's a regular occurrence for cellar masters to find exceptionally well-aged Honey Barrels among their stock, and that's what the BTAC is: only the absolute best barrels.
Below is a breakdown of everything you need to know about all five bottlings, which will hopefully help you decide on which to set your sights. Retail availability begins at the end of September. Best of luck to you!
George T. Stagg Barrel Strength Bourbon
This bottle's antlered brand looks like a hunter's prize, and there's a good reason for that. George T. Stagg is the most coveted bottle from the collection, even so much as to have spawned Stagg Jr., its controversial spin-off brand. But there's no replicating this masterpiece. Named after one of the distillery's early owners, Stagg 'Sr.' is an unfiltered bourbon of about 15 years — and the same mash bill as the distillery's namesake Buffalo Trace Bourbon. An incredibly flavorful dram, with chewy chocolate and date flavors, it's best taken with just a drop of water.
Eagle Rare 17 Year Old Bourbon
Stagg and Eagle Rare 17 may only be separated by a few years but only ER17 is a single barrel bourbon, weighing in at a smooth yet hefty 45% ABV. It hedges towards the standard Eagle Rare 10 expression, but expect much stronger vanilla-oakwood, lots of tobacco bass tones coupled with that mild dryness signature of the brand. This expression has a lovely bouquet and, though some might cry blasphemy, that dryness is what makes an old fashioned made with this ultra-rare Bourbon so special.
Thomas H. Handy Barrel Strength Rye
Named after the founder of the Sazerac Company, this whiskey is the youngest of the bunch weighing in at about 6 years, the same as standard Sazerac Rye bottlings. Its incredibly strict selection process makes it one of the smallest of the five releases, but somehow Handy is also the easiest to find. That might change as it was a near-universal critic's pick for 2013. This recipe was arguably made for cocktails and, at barrel-strength, Manhattans made with the citrusy, spicy, sometimes even coconutty Handy rye are unmatched.
Sazerac 18 Year Old Rye
The oldest of the bunch (officially anyway) this is Handy all grown up and ready for its road test. Like ER17, Sazerac is a little oakier and a little smoother at 45% ABV. But that rye spice is still there, even dipping sometimes into holiday cake, coconut, mint and other rum-like flavors, and is followed by an exceptional finish. Old reserves of Trace-distilled rye are used for this 18-year, but that stock will soon be gone. Especially as rye whisky continues to rise in popularity, expect big changes to this gold-medal brand in upcoming years.
William Larue Weller Barrel Strength Bourbon
The unabbreviated William Larue Weller is probably the BTAC's second most popular bottling, yet dukes it out yearly with Handy for smallest release — no doubt because this 12-year wheated bourbon competes with the ultra-rare Pappy Van Winkle in selecting the choicest barrels of W.L. Weller. For the 2014 release, Weller has been trumpeted as the bottle to watch, with a record-breaking 70.2% ABV. As Pappy has become no easier to obtain, expect Weller to disappear as fast as Stagg.
Blanton's, Elmer T. Lee and E.H. Taylor are not in the BTAC, despite being very amazing brands made by the distiller. Certainly all three are of punching weight with Stagg or Weller, but so long as supply can keep up with demand, Buffalo Trace is not inclined to make them seasonal products. Pappy Van Winkle is also not officially part of the BTAC as it is a co-venture between Buffalo Trace and the Van Winkle family, but it is released in a similar manner.