As Bourbon Season shifts into high gear, your probablly flooded with the buzz of big name bourbons, and understandably so: George T. Stagg, Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, Pappy Van Winkle, Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch. These are just a few of the many names you’ll hear, and rightfully so; they’ve won some of the highest awards and boast a long list of accolades that few whisk(e)ys ever will, making them some of the finest whiskeys in the world. However, commonly overlooked during this time of year, often by the bourbon bandwagoneers and the lovely “whiskey fans” that are looking for every opportunity to flip said bottles to the highest bidder, are many of the limited rye whiskeys that are released alongside their bourbon brethren. These ryes are undisputed as some of the finest whiskeys in the world as well. Among them is the Thomas H. Handy Sazerac rye whiskey.
Thomas H. Handy, commonly referred to as Thomas Handy, or simply Handy, is a 6 year old cask strength rye whiskey, and is one of two ryes and three bourbons released each year in the fall, that make up the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC). This collection of five is some of the most sought after domestic whiskey in the world: George T. Stagg, William Larue Weller, Eagle Rare 17, Sazerac 18 and of course, Thomas H. Handy Sazerac. Handy is typically overlooked of the five and is the most commonly found for that very reason.
Coming in at just 6 years old, Handy is the youngest of the five but like Stagg, and Weller, is bottled at cask strength. This means the whiskey is not chill filtered, has had no water added to it and comes straight from the barrel, which accounts for its variability in profile each year and very high proof, ranging over the years from the mid 120’s to the mid 130’s. This is a bold, rich, robust rye, and is one of only a handful on the market bottled at cask strength.
Before jumping into the rye itself, some of you may be asking “why the name Thomas H. Handy?” Thomas H. Handy and his connection to the Sazerac cocktail is actually part of a long and very complex tangled web of cocktail history. To make a long story short, Thomas H. Handy worked at the Sazerac House in New Orleans during the mid to late 1800’s which was one of several establishments that helped make the Sazerac cocktail famous. Thomas Handy was the gentleman most often associated with replacing the traditional brandy/cognac in a Sazerac, with rye whiskey. Ergo, Buffalo Trace (who’s parent company is named Sazerac Co., interestingly enough) named this formidable beast of a rye, after Mr. Handy. You can read more here about the very detailed history of Thomas H. Handy, and his involvement with rye and the Sazerac from Robert F. Moss who I found to be very informative.
The 2014 Thomas H. Handy was distilled in the Spring of 2008 making it 6 years and 3 months old. Bottled at 129.2 proof and aged on the 5th floor of Warehouse M, a total of 47 hand picked barrels were used yielding a (rough) total of 8,440 bottles.
2014 Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye
ABV: 64.6% // 129.2
Age: 6 years, 3 months
Recipe: Minnesota Rye, Kentucky Corn; Distillers Grade #1 and #2, North Dakota Malted Barley
Mash Bill: Buffalo Trace Rye Mash Bill (undisclosed)
Barrel Total: 47 Barrels
Location: Warehouse M // 5th floor
1 of 8,440 bottles (estimate)
Nose: Heaps of dried fruits – persimmon, apricots, figs, raisons, cranberries and prunes laced with caramelized spices – ginger nutmeg and cinnamon. Some dried red apple slices, like you get at Trader Joes. Old dried, dusty leather saddle from an even older barn. Their is this interesting clay like, Destin baby ointment note that is noticeable, kind of medicinal. Dried tomato dust, fresh cotton balls, calcium tablets and this leadiness, a distinct minerality comes on the back nose. Some overripe banana pops out too. Vanilla and new oak is definitly their too at the end which is interesting considering the old leathered qualites of this rye. Some fruit leather rollup snacks from my childhood come out of the glass also. Overall theirs a very chalky, musty texture to the nose. Great nostalgic stuff and I’m not even into the palate.
Palate: Dry. Bone dry. Then bursting yellow fruits cut through with some plush leather. More dried apple turns to black crushed pepper. Although their is weight to this whiskey, it posses a medium body. At just six years old, this tastes much older. Smokey rye notes make themselves heard. Molasses and dark caramel with medium spices on the tongue. From the nose, the dusty qualities follow through – this drinks like a dusty old book. Menthol tannins play with now more older tasting oak. Rye bread with dried dates and figs. Just a beautiful balance of dried fruits and soft, dusty, leathery textures, I really can’t describe this whiskey any other way than that. Just before the finish the menthol turns medicinal on the back. Very rich mouthfeel.
Finish: Very long. The typical rye and black pepper spices linger w menthol and a little of the Desitin sticks around. Some sawdust/lumber qualities trail with an earthy blackberry concentration. Complex for a finish. Apricot jam, dates, scallops and a black cherry syrupy-ness. Theirs a slight plasticity that almost compliments the rye spices rounding out the finish as light smoke echoes and the dried fruits, having come full circle from nose to finish- they just trail and trail….you’ll be tasting this for up to 10 minutes after your last sip.
Bourbon and House Rating: 95.5
Although the least sought after of the BTAC, I always look forward to Handy each year, behind WLW. I know Stagg is always stellar and ER17 is consistently executed well. Sazerac 18 is good, but their is little fluctuation from year to year being that it is literally sitting in a metal tank. Few things, in my opinion, can top a cask strength rye, especially one such as Thomas H Handy. It’s young enough to retain a rich youthful vibrance that is most common in younger whiskeys, but has a substantial amount of variation from year to year adding depth and complexity that few whiskeys could ever hope to posses. Also orthodox bourbon drinkers will at the very least respect and probably appreciate this rye due to the fact that it doesn’t have that super earthy “green” rye profile that so many rye whiskeys are known for. Keep an eye out for this years 2015 Thomas H Handy as it should be the most available.