August 20, 2019
Distillery: Buffalo Trace
Type & Region: Rye Whiskey, Kentucky, USA
Composition: Rumored to be 51% rye, 39% corn and 10% malt
Aged: 6 years 4 months
Price: $100 MSRP, $300+ secondary
From the Buffalo Trace website:
“Named after the New Orleans bartender who first used rye whiskey in the Sazerac Cocktail, this uncut and unfiltered Straight Rye Whiskey is bottled directly from the barrel, just as it was over a century ago. Full of rich flavors, this authentic American rye whiskey is a symbol of the timeless history of New Orleans and the legacy of Thomas H. Handy.”
Thomas Handy Sazerac Rye, one of the five whiskeys from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and often called THH or Thomas Handy for short, is a small batch rye whiskey that celebrates Thomas H. Handy, the founder of the Sazerac Company (which owns Buffalo Trace). You can read more about the company’s founding and Buffalo Trace’s letter detailing how THH was made. Each year’s release is a little different, and this 2018 edition comes from barrels aged no less than 6 years and 4 months at a potent 64.4% alcohol. While the rest of the line is 12-18 years old, antique isn’t a misnomer because it can be used to indicate age or the past.
Since this is part of BTAC, I’d be remiss not to mention that Thomas Handy is super desired, highly allocated, and terribly expensive at anything besides the $100 MSRP. You could argue that it’s still very expensive at $100. The hype is insane, so let’s find out if Thomas Handy Rye comes close to meeting it in this Thomas Handy review.
Buffalo Trace Lineup of Reviews
Thomas Handy rye is fairly dark with honey, caramel, and a little vanilla and maple syrup sweetness. Mingled in the sweetness is fragrant and floral dried orange peel, cherry, and mint with a touch of sour bread. Thomas Handy really smells more like a high-rye bourbon than a rye whiskey, but that’s not surprising since it “barely legal” at 51% rye. Regular Buffalo Trace to me has more rye-like mint and anise on the nose, but there’s also a lot less of everything else to draw my attention. Surprisingly, there’s not that much cinnamon, nutmeg, or clove, and the wood influence is not that strong. The darkness seems to come mostly from caramel and dark fruits, and less from roasted wood and cocoa. The alcohol definitely has some kick but is far from overwhelming. Blind, I’d guess it was around 55-60%.
Swirling changes the nose a little, introducing a stronger floral and grassy nectar character, as well as a little more mint, eucalyptus, and anise to the sweet honey, caramel, and maple syrup. A little bit of cocoa, milk chocolate, sour corn mash, and musty wood contribute to the overall darkness and depth, providing a cola-like quality similar to Stagg Jr. The heat picks up, adding to the nose-singeing intensity, but still allows the sweet and fragrant cinnamon and mint spices to flow freely with a slight citrusy bite. There’s a lot to enjoy with Thomas Handy rye. It’s incredibly fragrant and hot, but never harsh.
While the nose is a little reserved at times, Thomas Handy Sazerac explodes with very sweet and spicy flavors. It’s an intense blend of caramel, orange, cherry, honey, and cinnamon with just a little less wood, cocoa, sour corn mash, and heat. Noticeable mint, anise, and bread tastes from the rye stand out from time to time, reinforcing how spicy and rich Thomas Handy is. THH is not overwhelmingly hot, but it certainly has an intense and spicy punch.
With “chewing”, I still taste sweet caramel and fresh and dried oranges with almost as much mint and eucalyptus layered over cornbread. The woodiness provides a stronger cinnamon, nutmeg, and black pepper kick in conjunction with the fairly intense heat, coating my mouth with tingly alcohol and drying oils. While it’s not dark and oaky overall, I find hints of cocoa powder and charred wood, as well as a light tropical fruitiness that I also find in WhistlePig 10. It’s a thick slab of rye bread lathered in intensely spiced and alcoholic marmalade. The richness and intensity are a lot to process all at once.
The finish is lengthy and outstanding, starting with sweet heat from alcohol, honey, spice, and cherry, as well as a healthy dose of wood tannins that start to ramp-up. As the alcohol fades, I’m left with a pleasant and refreshing mint, anise, and citrus sweetness that lasts for ages. “Chewing” leaves a lingering herbal sweetness and spice with cinnamon, anise, and mint. Over time, it turns into tropical orange and banana custard, an interesting twist. Thomas Handy 2018 is full, rich, and wonderful.
Thomas Handy rye whiskey is an amazingly fragrant and flavor rye whiskey. It’s easy to fall for such a rich, spicy, intense, and interesting rye that offers more of a bourbon-like experience instead of the sweet, herbal, and vegetal one that Bulleit 12 Year and Sagamore Spirit provide. Thomas Handy is one of the spiciest whiskeys I’ve ever had, but in a cinnamon and pepper type of way. With the rest of BTAC being at least 12 years old, it just goes to show that barrel selection is just as important as age in creating great whiskey, although I’m still a sucker for older age statements.
It begs the question, “then why didn’t you rate Thomas Handy higher”? Thomas Handy is certainly an excellent rye whiskey, but it just doesn’t do enough for me to say or think, “holy shit”. It doesn’t absolutely blow me away with how deep the scents and flavors are, and nothing is truly exceptional. This isn’t the perfect comparison, but Scotches such as Ben Nevis 18 just blew me away from the first smell to the last sip. It brimmed with so much tropical and fruity character that I had no doubt that it was “Top Shelf+”. I just don’t feel as certain about giving Handy a “Top Shelf+” rating, so I won’t, but it still doesn’t take away from it’s greatness. Thomas Handy Sazerac is an awesome rye whiskey that suffers from having to live up to ridiculous expectations and hype.
Full disclosure, I think that Thomas Handy is far from $300+ good (this review doesn’t consider price), and $100 is already pushing it for me. Here’s my hot take: I truly think that Stagg Jr may actually be your best alternative, although it also suffers from limited supply. Thomas Handy is sweet and spicy like Stagg Jr, but with more anise and mint from the rye and less cherry cola and oak. It’s not a perfect match, but it may be close enough.