When you're 17 years old, you're sort of half way there—old enough to drive in most states, but not to vote. It turns out that a Bourbon of the same age can be old enough to fly.
Eagle Rare, one of our greatly respected Bourbons in its 10-year-old, single-barrel permutation, makes a soaring impression at the relatively superannuated age of 17, with balance and finesse, but also loads of flavor. The Bourbon is part of Buffalo Trace's Antique Collection, comprising five whiskeys that were made using a combination of extended aging, novel recipes and high proofs.
In the Bourbon World (most of which exists in Kentucky, although that's not a legal stipulation), spirits tend to age in leaps and bounds compared with other whiskies. That can be laid in part to the scorching temperatures that arise in the warehouses in the state's hot summers. A Bourbon of 17 years, therefore, is maybe two or three times as mature as a comparable Scotch whisky that spent its formative years in the cool confines of a Highland distillery. Buffalo Trace, furthermore, steam heats its brick warehouses in the winter, when most Bourbon leave their barrels to the fluctuations of the climate.
We always approach Bourbons of great age with some wariness as extended exposure inside charred, white-oak casks can produce a markedly tannic whiskey after many years. This is not the case with Eagle Rare 17. It announces itself with a lovely fruit nose and then progresses to subtler maple, vanilla and cream notes on the palate. For the cigar lover, there are also tobacco leaf and leather notes deep into the palate and continuing onto the finish. The hallmark of the whiskey, however, is balance, and those who infer from the age that they will be rocked by outsized flavors will be proved wrong.
The mash bill contains Kentucky corn, Minnesota rye and North Dakota malted barley. The proportions of grains, however, are not revealed. By law, Bourbon must contain at least 51 percent corn.
The Eagle Rare was distilled at 135 proof in the spring of 1993 and aged in Warehouses C, H, I, Q and K in 74 barrels of the high-char level of 4 (55 seconds). Charring the insides of casks is one of the elements that defines Bourbon and is done so that the spirit can more easily access the sugars in the wood.
When this whiskey was finally bottled at 90 proof this past fall, it had lost 49.3 percent of its original volume, an expensive proposition for any spirits maker. The price of the Eagle Rare 17 ($70) is in part a reflection of that loss (although it is relatively inexpensive compared to Caledonian whiskies of that age). While this is not a bang-for-buck whiskey like its 10-year-old younger brother, it is an excellent choice as a gift as we look forward to Father's Day and graduations in June. That is, if you can resist the temptation to keep it for yourself.
The Antique Collection (all at $70 for a 750 milliliter bottle) also includes Sazerac 18-Year -Old Kentucky Straight Rye, an intensely spicy 90-proof whiskey with a sweet spearmint undertone.
George T. Stagg Kentucky Straight Bourbon (17 years), uncut and unfiltered, is the leader in alcohol level among the group at 143 proof and carries if off well with a complex mixture of honey, spice, maple candy and walnut.
William Larue Weller Kentucky Straight Bourbon (126.6 proof, 12 years), also uncut and unfiltered, is made with wheat in place of rye in the mash bill, but still manages a fair amount of spice among its honey, nut and cedar charms.
Thomas H. Handy Straight Rye Whiskey (126.9 proof, six years) is the spice leader of the group with loads of nutmeg and cinnamon, but a beguiling hint of cake icing.
Eagle Rare Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 17 Year Old
(90 proof, 45 percent alcohol by volume, 750 ml., $70)
APPEARANCE: A dark amber color that its age would suggest. Gives up its sturdy legs only begrudgingly.
NOSE: While subtly floral and fruity, the aroma fairly blossoms out of the glass and you'll swear you can pick up its candy at half an arm's length.
PALATE: The sweetness of the nose turns surprisingly dry at the first flush on the tongue. Then the sweetness slowly builds back, revealing maple candy, vanilla and some orange peel.
FINISH: On the long, lush ending comes the rewards of leather and pipe tobacco.