We Got An Early Sip Of The Buffalo Trace Antique Collection 2023 And Ranked Every Bottle

While some folks may look forward to pumpkin spice latte or pumpkin ice cream as the sign that autumn has truly arrived, here at the Tasting Table bar we feel it's not truly fall until the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection drops alongside the leaves. The BTAC (pronounced "Bee-Tack" if you're in an abbreviated mood) features some of Buffalo Trace Distillery's best barrels in stock that represent already highly sought line-ups. If you're not familiar, this is the stuff that rivals fellow Buffalo Trace brand Pappy Van Winkle in cost and collector fervor.

And like Van Winkle bourbons, these are released at a fair price — really, a discount — that almost nobody will find in the wild. The BTAC assortment of two ryes and three bourbons are released at a suggested retail price of $125 — up 25% from last year, but still shy of the four figures these bottles universally rocket to wherever shops are lucky enough to receive an allocation. The annual release hasn't seen any slowdown since making additional labels available. If anything, getting just enough extra into more hands has spread its gospel to create a demand increase that far exceeds production.

And lucky us, we recently sipped some for breakfast at Louisville's Repeal Steakhouse to tell you which ones to wish for if you start hunting or win your state's purchasing lottery. Although let's be honest — there are no regrets here.

5. Thomas H. Handy Sazerac rye whiskey

This is merely a last place by default, as Thomas H. Handy Sazerac drinks beautifully and is inarguably the more complex of the two rye whiskeys in the collection, and perhaps the prettier with its true copper color. While it compares ably with last year's 130.9-proof release, this year's 124.9 is viscous to the point of oleaginous, and you have to really love a fat whiskey (we do!) to treat that as entirely a positive. Those who don't won't change their minds here.

While not quite proving its fattiness, Handy's legs are sardine-tight: a trait that starts here and includes all but the 18-year Sazerac, with increasingly tighter and smaller beads of whiskey that must signify some desirable alchemy. Despite being the oiliest sip, Handy's coating's the least compact of these micro-legged marvels.

It's also the hardest nose to pinpoint in the five bottles, as it pops off in a Glencairn with a burn that hides all but traces of grapefruit and pepper, the latter never a surprise in a rye. But get it in your mouth and it immediately becomes a briny, savory swish that might find its biggest feat in elevating rye without embodying the most common rye notes. Still, we remain skeptical of Buffalo Trace's claim that it's the ne plus ultra to make "the best Sazerac [cocktail] of your life" while the regular bottle performs perfectly.

4. William LaRue Weller bourbon

Last place in the 2022 BTAC ranking climbs to a higher point on the slopes of Mount Weller, both embodying the wheated bourbon's essentials while also rising further above what even those pricy bottles of W.L. Weller can do. Perhaps that's to do to the hefty 133.6 proof, which much more certainly gives it that punch and sizzle, though far less than you'd expect this high up the alcohol-o-meter. The success in these releases really is how they grip the best of their brands while somehow stutter-stepping obstacles that seem innate.

William LaRue Weller's remarkably sticky legs don't fall, but stay put like dew tightly strung along a spider-web at the high mark of a swirl. After that feat, you are welcome to detect subtle notes in the nose, but all we found was a mix of rubbing alcohol and sweet fruit. Taste-wise, it's got more char to it than you'll find in your Weller Special Reserve or 12, but will be immediately recognizable to fans of BT's wheated mash bill.

If you're chasing a taste of every Weller in the lineup, this is definitely superior to last year's Antique, and arguably the one to pick over the Daniel Weller Emmer Wheat's similar sticker shock, but it might be easier and cheaper to try both at a bar. If you're in a position to have to choose, you're doing alright in life.

3. Sazerac 18-Year-Old rye whiskey

We found last year's 18-year Sazerac Antique delightful, and that's still true, but the presentation feels almost like it switched places with Handy. This time the latter suggests salty and savory olive juice, while Sazerac 18 is now the sweet and complete cocktail in a glass. It's easy to see why Buffalo Trace calls this "the rye for bourbon drinkers," and we'd even argue specifically for wheated drinkers. It never assails you with rye spiciness, but instead shows up soft and smooth. As with the Weller, there's a specific char sensation, but it arrives at the end while the drink is making a big flourish of its rye notes at last.

But we're ahead of ourselves. The lone drink in this year's release to offer spaciously thick legs, the 18's nose offers orange, anise, cinnamon, and clove. Don't wait till December to get a bottle open — it's the perfect pour for Thanksgiving and Black Friday with family, welcoming in winter with these sensations that tend to hang out when it finally reaches your tongue.

Of all the samples we dosed with a drop of water, Sazerac may be the only one muted by it. The Weller Antique was also better neat, but only because it leaned into its burn and astringency as it opened up. The conclusion is clear: No need to dilute this bottle. It's just perfect as it is.

2. George T. Stagg bourbon

Last year's clear winner is this year's real tough call. The uncut and unfiltered godfather of Buffalo Trace bourbon was all but neck and neck with its fellow product of mash bill No. 1, Eagle Rare. Stagg is once again a really magnificent bourbon, and if we add a drop of water to it, it likely beats Eagle Rare 17 neat and definitely beats it if the latter also gets a drop. But for pure, knee-jerk reaction, it's Eagle Rare 17 by a beak.

Not to say that George T. Stagg isn't a thing of beauty from its tightest-compressed leg beads to its gorgeous metallic brown. This 15-plus-year whiskey is soft on the nose, yet tantalizingly rye-forward — odd considering this isn't Buffalo Trace's high-rye mash bill.

Taking a sip, you get a very characteristic cherry. We didn't detect the chocolate that others did, but perhaps it's found in what we liked most here: an abiding sense of oak without woody bitterness. This still feels like the perfect bourbon to sip by the fire in winter. Perhaps at a lodge? You should buy a lodge.

1. Eagle Rare 17 bourbon

Somehow, impossibly, Eagle Rare 17 had even smaller and compressed legs than Weller but wasn't the finest band of pearls in the ocean. Yet where Weller Antique stayed, put, these beads fall, not in traces, but as a wave. If we're harping inordinately on texture in this article, indulge us, because four bottles sharing a phenomenon is no coincidence, while each executing it differently is a mystery with an informative answer. 

Ah well. Let us tell you about our favorite, Eagle Rare 17 (actually the youngest barrel in this year's batch is 19 years). A nose both minty and fruity offers no trace of ethanol. Sniff it as long as you want. Indulge it. This is 99th-percentile bourbon, and we say that coming off a pour of Pappy Van Winkle 20 the day before. Its taste is so central it feels like it plucked the best from the rest of the lineup. It's sweet, savory, salty, smooth, and a smidge smokey. It's absolutely wonderful. On the chew, Eagle Rare 17 finally gets into the rye as you gnash it. Some mintiness returns and all you can say to describe it is yes, yes, that is good. A drop of water will bring more rye forward, but there's no point to it. You don't need to alter what already greets you with loving arms.