s the winter holidays loom, bourbon and rye whiskey enthusiasts proclaim this to be the most wonderful time of the year. Those exclamations aren’t a reflection of the upcoming holidays, but instead are an acknowledgement that once-a-year allocations of rare and highly sought-after American whiskies are coming to market—albeit it in very limited supply.
These are the whiskies that, if you’re lucky, you’ll find on store shelves priced only a few hundred dollars above their suggested retail prices and not the thousands of dollars that the secondary market commands (and that some stores adhere to). If you’re really lucky, you might have a chance to buy one of these bottles at close-to-suggested-retail-price through holiday raffles that other retailers implement.
Buffalo Trace has long enjoyed a prominent place at the forefront of these holiday allocations with the release of its annual Antique Collection—bottles of rare, highly mature bourbons and rye whiskies. In past years, some of the expressions within the collection are skipped over—an acknowledgement that Buffalo Trace scrutinizes the liquid inside all of the barrels that are earmarked for these releases—but this year all five brands are leaving the distillery’s Kentucky bottling line. Kingdom was fortunate enough to receive samples of all five of those releases, and without further ado, here’s what we’ve learned about the rare contents inside each of those bottles.
On the rye side of things, this year’s release of Sazerac 18 Year (90 proof) drinks similarly to past releases—this we know only because the author was fortunate enough to acquire a bottle of Sazerac two years ago through one of those aforementioned auctions. Sweet cherries and caramel apples dominate the nose, while subtle undertones of spiced brown sugar drift in. On the palate, the whiskey is luscious and smooth, with the peppery notes of rye subtly folded into flavors of cherry cola, crème brûlée, and cinnamon toast. It is—as it always has been—an elegant, mature whiskey.
The other rye whiskey in the lineup, Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye (124.9 proof), brings considerably more heat to the table, though such a characteristic is to be expected given the spirit’s potency. Offering up loads of dark brown sugar on the nose with hints of pink peppercorns and a touch of salinity on the palate, Thomas H. Handy drinks far more assertive than the Sazerac 18, though a splash of water helps to smooth things out. In the end, this particular whiskey drinks like a vanilla-forward rye, albeit one that lacks the depth that imbibers will enjoy with the Sazerac 18.
For years, the Antique Collection’s William Larue Weller has represented many enthusiasts’ great white whale. Historically, this cask-strength, wheated bourbon has delivered rich and robust flavors in a smooth package that somewhat belied the liquid’s strength. This year, however, the powers that be at Buffalo Trace have decided to appease consumers’ demand for highly mature, barrel-strength whiskey and have bolstered this particular expression’s strength, bottling it at 133.6 proof (about 7% stronger than previous batches). It’s a move that renders the bourbon a touch too hot to sip neat, which is unfortunate given the whiskey’s enticing nose of baking spices and sweet cherries. With a splash of water, however, the 2023 William Larue Weller transforms into a wonderful blend of soft brown sugar and candied cherries that finishes with a faint anise-like kick of pepper.
This year’s batch of Eagle Rare 17-Year-Old Bourbon is slightly misleading, albeit it in a good way. The whiskey is actually more than 19 years old. According to Buffalo Trace, 17 years is the minimum age at which this bourbon can be bottled; however, as the distillery explains, flavor dictates bottling decisions each year, which means the age of the actual barrels used to produce it will vary annually. In years past, this particular bourbon seemed to be somewhat overshadowed by the two other bourbon labels that make up the collection. But in 2023, Eagle Rare 17-Year (bottled at 101 proof) is bringing some unique character to the party. It offers traditional aromas of baking spices and muted leather on the nose, but delivers hints of dark berries on the palate, with a fascinating blueberry pie undertone that lingers across a dry and spicy finish.
If boldness is what you’re after, the 2023 release of George T. Stagg (bottled at 135 proof) is certain to satisfy. Yet, there’s more to this limited-edition bourbon than simply brute strength. With a nose defined by hints of chai tea—which slightly conceals the spirit’s potency—this more-than-15-year-old bourbon can, surprisingly, be sipped neat. Rich and flavorful on the palate with a pleasing, velvety mouthfeel, this year’s installment of George T. Stagg delivers a sweet, nostalgic caramel corn character that lingers long after the sip. Add a splash of water, however, and those sweet caramel corn flavors rush to the forefront, allowing spicier oak notes to take center stage on the finish. While each whiskey in the collection is desirable in its own right, this is the bottle we’ll be hunting for this holiday season.