Col. E.H. Taylor, Bourbon and the Problem of Tradition

E.H. Taylor: Buffalo Trace Sell Sheet


Here is my threatened follow-up post on some of the issues that came up when I was idly looking up the history of Colonel E.H. Taylor for my review of his namesake Small Batch bourbon released by Buffalo Trace. Before I get into it, let me first say what this is not and what it is.

It is not scholarship or even journalism: if I were doing either of those things I would spend months or weeks researching the subject. I would read every book on bourbon history to see to what extent and how this material has already been written about; I would investigate the archives of the distilleries and of the relevant locations (Frankfort, KY, for example); I would read historical studies of the Civil War and Reconstruction; I would interview experts like Chuck Cowdery, Mike Veach and Reid Mitenbuler. I have done none of these things because this is not scholarship or even journalism (and should not be confused with or held to the standards of those enterprises).

What this is is a blog post: it’s exploratory, it’s speculative, it’s a clearing of space in my own head which might possibly lead to more detailed exploration down the road or it might not; hopefully it will invite responses from people who can fill in all the things I would know if I’d done the research and point me to other places to look; and, even if it’s all redundant, hopefully it will spur some discussion: there are subjects which even if already known benefit from regular discussion and I think this might be one of them.

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E.H. Taylor Cured Oak, 17 yo

E.H.Taylor Cured Oak, 17 yo
Here is another bourbon from Buffalo Trace’s E.H. Taylor line. In my review on Wednesday of the Small Batch release in the line, and in the comments posted later, I made some observations about aspects of the history of the man whose name is on this series, Col. E.H. Taylor. I’d thought that I’d expand on and clarify some of those thoughts a little more in the introduction to this review but I think I’m actually going to put that in a separate post later today or this weekend. So if you’re interested in that please come back then.

For now here is a review of the 17 yo E.H. Taylor Cured Oak. It is so called because the staves used for the barrels in which it is matured are cured for much longer than the usual period; this is said by the distillery to result in richer oak flavours. With my sensitivity to overbearing oak, this is not very encouraging, and nor is Sku’s review, which stresses the oak. Well, let’s see what it’s like.   Continue reading

E.H. Taylor Small Batch, “Bottled in Bond”

E.H. Taylor, Bottled in Bond
E.H. Taylor is one of Buffalo Trace’s many brands. I know that it’s named for one of the important figures in the early bourbon industry, Col. E.H. Taylor, who in the 1860s purchased a distillery that eventually became Buffalo Trace. Taylor, who was born in 1832, was related to both Zachary Taylor and Jefferson Davis. We’re talking Civil War-era here and Zachary Taylor, though a Whig, was a slaveholder himself; and so I found it “interesting” that both Buffalo Trace’s website and the internets in general are a little skimpy on details on E.H. Taylor’s history prior to the end of the Civil War. Where the rank came from is not clear. Sku tells me, however, that Chuck Cowdery’s book Bourbon Straight, which I should really read one of these years, notes that Taylor was a purchasing agent on the Union side during the Civil War. So no messy skeleton then in the distillery’s cupboard, though it’s also curious that they don’t play up the fact that one of their forerunners was on the right side of history there. Or maybe not (please see the comments for more on this subject that I found well after writing up the above).  Continue reading

Elmer T. Lee

Elmer T. Lee, 2015 Release
I’ve barely reviewed any American whiskey in the last three months or so: just the port cask finished Heaven Hill and the Pikesville Rye 6, 110 Proof. So, this is a good time to take a bourbon break in the midst of all these single malt reviews. I have today the Elmer T. Lee. This sample was acquired from the meticulous Michael K. and so I can tell you that it was bottled this year. It is a single barrel release though so there’s no guarantee that one you might find will be exactly or very much like this one, but I suspect the blenders at Buffalo Trace (where this is made) are pretty good at maintaining the profiles of all their different labels/brands. What they’re not good at, apparently, is putting barrel information on the labels for Elmer T. Lee; the bottle code for this one, for what it’s worth, is B1505421:29K. Michael K. tells me that the mashbill for what goes into Elmer T. Lee is 15% rye and further that this is apparently one of Buffalo Trace’s higher rye mashbills.  Continue reading

George T. Stagg, 2013 Release

George T. Stagg, 2013
Here in a very timely manner is my review of the George T. Stagg from Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection release for 2013. Along with the Eagle Rare 17 it is the straight ahead bourbon in that collection—I believe they’re made from the same mashbill; someone who understands these things better will surely be along shortly to explain what the differences between the two whiskies are (other than the Stagg’s always massive abv—though this 2013 release didn’t get as close to 70%, or above, as some others have).

I’ve previously reviewed the 2010 and 2011 releases, both of which I liked very much indeed. I don’t believe I even bothered trying to locate any of the series in 2013. Anyway, complaining about how annoying the mania around the various American whiskey unicorns has gotten is now annoying as that mania itself. And I suppose if I really wanted to take a genuine stand against participating in this hype and all the folly attendant on it I would stop reviewing these bottles altogether. And so I will stop here and get straight to the review.

I got this sample from Michael K. His review is here.

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Ancient Age 86

Ancient AgeUS law requires that the duration of maturation be put on the label for any straight bourbon aged for less than four years but it does not require that the bourbon’s name have any obvious relationship to this number. Thus a 3 yo straight bourbon from the Buffalo Trace stable is called Ancient Age—presumably it beat out “Wino’s Choice” in focus group testing (it’s close to $10 in most markets for a full bottle). This is not, however, that Ancient Age and if you think that I wrote the preceding sentences only so that I could make the “Wino’s Choice” joke, well, you are correct.

This is an Ancient Age at 43% bottled in the early 1980s without an age statement (under current bourbon law that would imply it is more than 4 years old), quite likely before ownership of the brand passed to Buffalo Trace. The current 3 yo Ancient Age is at 40% and the only other extant Ancient Age is the 10 Star, which is at 45%. The only 43% one I know of is the now discontinued Ancient Ancient Age which was 10 years old—and Michael Kravitz, who is the source of this sample, informs that this is none of those. What relationship this 1980s bottling has to any of the later ones I have no idea. Indeed, frankly, I have no idea what I am drinking. Continue reading

Sazerac Rye

Sazerac Rye
Continuing with the theme of younger siblings of releases from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, here is the Sazerac Rye, a 6 yo*. It just barely clears the requirements for being labeled a rye whiskey, being distilled from only a 51% rye mashbill. Though it bears the Sazerac name I believe this is supposed to be the same whiskey as is sold as Thomas H. Handy in the annual Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, only cut down to 45%. (If that’s not true please write in a correction below.) Unlike the Thomas H. Handy, however, it is both easy to find and very affordable (and easier to find and cheaper than the Stagg Jr. as well).

*As per Patrick’s comment below, there is apparently no confirmation that this is a 6 yo and I realize that Bryan’s label has the words “I think” after 6 yo. So this may not indeed be a 6 yo. Continue reading

Stagg Jr.

Stagg Jr.The Stagg Jr. from Buffalo Trace is probably mostly an attempt to cash in on the George T. Stagg name more than once a year. It’s received very mixed reviews from the bourbon cognoscenti and so you will all be relieved that one who knows so little about bourbon is able to make the final pronouncement. Here you go!

Stagg Jr. (67.2%; from a sample received in a swap)

Nose: Some caramel sweetness but also a lot of sharp, dusty wood. As it settles the caramel gets richer with some orange peel but this is crazy hot. I’m going to wait a bit but this baby needs water. With time there’s more rye’ish notes: cold tea, some pine. Okay, letting this breathe for a good while is a good thing: not as woody now and there’s more fruit (plum). But it’s still pretty hot. With even more time the fruit intensifies but there’s just a little too much wood. With a lot of water the wood and heat recede and it’s now all about caramel and toffee and fruit (plum and overripe banana with a bit of orange peel). Continue reading

Eagle Rare 10

Eagle Rare 10
After yesterday’s Eagle Rare 17 from the 2010 BTAC here is the regular Eagle Rare 10. This is quite ubiquitous (most decently-stocked liquor stores have it), and very recognizable in its tall bottle. This is a single barrel release (not sure if this has always been the case); there’s surely some variation from barrel to barrel but I imagine they shoot for a pretty consistent profile in barrel selection. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never tried it before. Well, here goes.

Eagle Rare 10 (45%; B13 140; from a sample received in a swap)

Nose: Far less raisiny than yesterday’s Eagle Rare 17. More light molasses and maple syrup with strong notes of clove as well. With more time there’s some citrus, caramel and a touch of dusty wood. Gets a little brighter and a bit more floral with water. Continue reading

Eagle Rare 17, BTAC 2010

Eagle Rare 17 BTAC 2010Every famous group has one member that doesn’t get as much respect as the others from the general populace and the Eagle Rare 17 is the Charlie Watts of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. Of course, Charlie Watts was a great drummer and the Eagle Rare 17 is a pretty good bourbon too, despite being the one from the collection that’s most likely to hang around on shelves–at least that used to be the case; I’m not sure if it is anymore now that BTAC-mania has reached Pappy proportions. Anyway, this is from 2010– a more innocent time when there was no hatred in the world, every quarterback in the NFL was openly gay, and unicorns delivered free cases of the BTAC to every home in the land.

Eagle Rare 17, 2010 Release (45%; from a sample received in a swap)

Nose: Raisins soaked in honey, sweet caramel and slowly expanding wood. The sweet notes get richer with time and transition from caramel to toffee, and it gets spicier too–some rye, some cinnamon. After some time there’s also some wet slate/granite. With a lot more time it has a fair bit in common with some older sherried Highland/Speyside malts. With water there’s more dusty wood to go along with the caramel and also some nutmeg. Continue reading

George T. Stagg, 2011 Release

George T. Stagg, BTAC 2011As all bourbon comes from virgin oak it seems appropriate to post a review of a bourbon on Christmas. Also, I’m pretty sure George T. Stagg was one of the Magi.

This is the Stagg from the 2011 Buffalo Trace Antique Collection which remains the only time I’ve got my hands on the whole set, and that without too much pain involved. I split the set with my friends Jessica and Nate. They got half and kept the bottles, and I got my half in mason jars. I remember Sku getting a big kick in LA this past summer on hearing that I had the BTAC in mason jars. Anyway, this has been getting air in the jar for more than two years now and has probably softened quite a bit as a result. So please bear that in mind as you read my notes.

George T. Stagg, Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, 2011 (71.3%; from a split bottle)

Nose: Much softer than the 2010 with more obvious rye and less clove. After a bit caramel and toffee intensify, and there’s also some fudge and increasing leatheriness and a touch of orange peel. More toffee and less rye with water and more fruit too: marmalade and some dried apricot. Continue reading

George T. Stagg, 2010 Release

George T. Stagg, BTAC 2010This is the always high-octane George T. Stagg from the 2010 Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. The Stagg, as you doubtless know, is the big bully in the BTAC, the annual release of which is now just behind the Van Winkle releases in terms of mania (or hype if you prefer). In 2010 I think I’d only just begun to get the BTAC on my radar. I was a Scotch purist then and the thought of paying more than $40 for a bourbon would have seemed outlandish to me. The next year, however, I split the entire set with two friends (I’ve previously reviewed the Sazerac 18 and the Handy from that release) and was well on my way to learning to appreciate bourbon. Of course, that was pretty much the last year that it was possible to get the BTAC without jumping through burning hoops while juggling chainsaws on the back of a unicorn. As a result this sample of the 2010 is the only other Stagg I’ve had to date. Or am about to have–let’s get right to it: Continue reading

Thomas H. Handy, 2011 Release

Thomas H. Handy is the younger (6 yo) and higher strength rye released annually in Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection. As with last night’s Sazerac 18, this is from the 2011 release and was split with a couple of friends (they got half and the bottle, I got my half in a mason jar). Let’s get right to it:

Thomas H. Handy, 2011 Release (64.3%; Buffalo Trace Antique Collection; from a reference sample saved from my own bottle)

Nose: Somewhat closed at first (not surprising, given the strength). Opens up a little with time though: strong notes of cinnamon, pine resin, some mint and also some caramel and dusty wood. Increasingly sweet as well–brown sugar and also some sort of musky fruit. With water the pine/mint note gets pushed back and there’s some nice toffee and orangey notes. However, the wood also gets a little more astringent.
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Sazerac 18, 2011 Release

This Sazerac 18 from the 2011 release of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection may be the oldest rye I’ve tasted, but then again it may not; there are rumours that the Van Winkle Rye 13 may in fact be a lot older than 13. But this is certainly the oldest rye I’ve tasted by stated age. Why the American whiskey business can’t be more transparent, I don’t know. Anyway, I managed to get my hands on the entire BTAC release for 2011 when I was first trying to develop a sense of bourbon–back then it was possible to actually find and buy them all. I split the collection 50/50 with my friends Jessica and Nate–they kept the bottles, I took my half in mason jars because I’m hillbilly that way.

Last year I made an attempt to score some of the BTAC and failed. This year I don’t think I’m going to try very hard. It’s not that I don’t think the whiskeys are worth it; I think they are–despite the price increases they still present very good price/quality ratios compared to Scotch of similar quality. It’s just that my ability to truly appreciate this stuff is not very well developed and so the gigantic hassle of trying to score a bottle makes the entire experience not worth it. Continue reading