Five rare and expensive bourbons you need to try now

It's no secret that we love our bourbon in Australia, but only recently have we started taking it seriously.

"At one stage, we were the highest per capita consumers of bourbon in the world," says Buffalo Trace Bourbon ambassador Gee David.

"But those numbers were unfortunately a reflection of sales of premix cans."

It's probably no surprise then, that David became accustomed to watching Scotch whisky enthusiasts turn up their noses at the mention of bourbon.

Yet he says attitudes are changing, as drinkers become exposed to more premium American whiskies with heritage and complexity on par with those of the Old World.

An antique lineage

Few Scotch distillers can boast the lineage of Buffalo Trace, which has been producing whisky at its Frankfort, Kentucky distillery for more than 200 years.

Released annually, its Antique Collection comprises five of its oldest and rarest whiskies, which David says have proven to convert even the most one-eyed Scotch drinker.

"When you bring out those uncut, unfiltered bourbons, that really changes everybody's perception of what bourbon is all about," he says.

"The response is, 'I never knew bourbon could be like this'. It really is a game changer."

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Available now in Australia, the 2018 collection comprises Eagle Rare 17 year old bourbon ($1000 RRP), William Larue Weller bourbon ($750 RRP), Sazerac Rye 18-year-old ($950 RRP), Thomas H. Handy rye ($750 RRP) and George T Stagg bourbon ($850 RRP).

Old as time

The age of some of these whiskies contrasts starkly to the vast majority of their peers. 

The intense oak flavour extraction that occurs in bourbon due to its ageing in virgin wood means it is typically considered to peak at between four and seven years of age.

David says it was somewhat of an accident that Buffalo Trace discovered some barrels in its warehouse were able to mature beyond these genuinely accepted benchmarks, without going "over the edge".

"Over the edge is basically when you've got a whiskey in a barrel that's got too woody and too oaky, all the influences of the wood have just overtaken the spirit, it's too far gone," he says.

"In these instances they found that there was a balance between the spirit and the wood.

"They were finding that they were still able to age these whiskies for that length of time and the quality they were getting, they were really excited about."

Mysteries of the distillery

Exactly how this occurs at Buffalo Trace is the subject of some mystique. The distiller itself says: "If you asked us what makes for a great ageing floor in one of our warehouses, the truth is we can only speculate. But airflow, temperature fluctuations and humidity all play a role."

David says it is clear that, given the right positioning in the Buffalo Trace warehouse, the interaction between wood and spirit starts to diminish significantly after the first few years.

He points out that while George T Stagg is released at between 15 and 17 years of age, it has a younger sibling, Stagg Junior, that already shows the telltale signs of significant wood interaction upon release at a much younger age.

"The colour of the whiskey and the intensity of the flavour is definitely apparent in the Stagg Junior after nine years," he says. 

"You've got this rich mahogany, almost ruby red, beautiful colour. So basically what you're looking at is there's a definite change of pace, you slow everything right down after a certain amount of time, because the barrel can only give so much."

Time for tuppence

This lengthy ageing is reflected in the price and scarcity of these whiskies, which lose upwards of 50 per cent to evaporation as they rest in the barrel.

"This year with Eagle Rare 17-year-old we witnessed the highest loss ever when we picked the barrels, which was 89 per cent overall," says David.

"But we're not really focusing on the loss, we're looking at what is left in the barrel and how that flavour can then contribute to a release."

A very limited drop

Availability of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection is extremely limited, with the Australian allocations of Eagle Rare 17 and Sazerac 18 amounting to just 15 bottles and 45 bottles respectively.

The collection is ranged in full at NOLA Smokehouse & Bar and Webster's Bar (Sydney), Beneath Driver Lane (Melbourne), The Gresham (Brisbane), NOLA Craft Beer and Whiskey Bar (Adelaide) and Varnish on King (Perth).

James Atkinson is creator of the Drinks Adventures podcast and a previous editor of Australian Brews News and drinks industry publication TheShout. A Certified Cicerone® and 2017 winner of the Australian International Beer Awards media prize, James regularly contributes to other publications including Halliday, Good Food, QantasLink Spirit and more.

Check out the gallery above to see the full Antique Collection.

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