top shelf bourbon

Top Shelf Bourbon To Drink Instead of George T Stagg

So...Buffalo Trace Cancelled George T Stagg for 2021

In old news at this point, Buffalo Trace cancelled George T Stagg for 2021. I recognize that this is an unprecedented occurrence for many bourbon lovers, and probably the first (and hopefully last) time this ever happens. It’s disappointing, but I’m truly not that bummed-out. The sort of good news is that there’s top shelf bourbon out there that can sort of fill the void.
Tons of people hope to get one (myself included), but in reality not many actually get the chance to try or buy it. And just like you, Buffalo Trace wasn’t sending me media samples either (although they should reconsider), so I’m not missing out on anything.
This unfortunate event then shifts the spotlight to non-Buffalo Trace bourbons to try to fill the void until next year when it’s hopefully released…and you and I probably still can’t get it again. The great news is that there are quite a few great Top Shelf and higher ABV bourbons out there to drink instead instead of George T Stagg, if you aren’t already.
Here’s the general criteria I’m using:

   – Higher proof: I’m picking 100 proof (50% ABV). Even though George T Stagg’s ABV has ranged from 58.45% to low 70%, my goal is to capture the essence of a higher ABV, but not limit myself to only cask strength / barrel proof bourbons.
   – Bourbons I’ve rated at least “Top Shelf”:  Narrowing this down to Top Shelf bourbon helps focus this list on what I think is excellent and remotely in the same ballpark as the “Top Shelf+” George T Stagg from 2015. That also means that you may not agree with my ratings, but that’s fine with me
   – Only rye’d bourbon:  George T Stagg is a bourbon with rye as the secondary grain in the mashbill, so I want to stay within that category for consistency’s sake
   – Try to focus on bottles you can actually buy (or a different single barrel / batch): So you have a chance to go out and buy them. With how popular bourbon is now a days, there’s no guarantee that they’re available everywhere, but they’re far easier to find than Stagg 
If you keep reading, I’ll even mention the one bourbon that I think is a particularly excellent substitute and is still somewhat available. Guess what, it’s not from Buffalo Trace or Sazerac either.
Before I get to mentioning other bourbons to try, I should state the obvious fact that there is no perfect substitute for George T Stagg. The 2015 GTS I reviewed is an insane rollercoaster of viscous and oily caramel, brown sugar, vanilla, maple syrup, dark fruit, sweet oak and alcohol that tosses me around nonstop and has me wanting to get on again. It surpasses even just Top Shelf Bourbon status and teeters on the edge of Glass Case.
You might even call the sweetness caramel and maple syrup extract. It’s the most intense (mostly in a good way) whiskey I’ve ever had, and there’s nothing else quite like it.  I guess that’s one major reason why it’s so coveted. 
I obviously haven’t had every bourbon out there (I don’t think anyone has), but I can think of quite a few that I’m also very happy to have. So with that, I’m going to try to be constructive and offer my thoughts on other great higher proof  bourbons you can try / continue to drink in the meantime. Some of my suggestions may get close-ish though. This is not an exhaustive list.
q? encoding=UTF8&MarketPlace=US&ASIN=B003VAWA68&ServiceVersion=20070822&ID=AsinImage&WS=1&Format= SL250 &tag=thewhiskeyshe 20

As an FYI, I bought and use these Glencairn glasses for everything (they’re the best): Glencairn Crystal Whiskey Glass Set of 6, Set of 4Set of 2, or just one. Full transparency, this is an affiliate link, so I may earn a commission if you buy this or something else from Amazon.

Actually, Let's Start With Sazerac

Actually, I lied because I’m going to start at the most obvious place first – other Buffalo Trace and Barton cask strength bourbons because they’re from the same distillery or parent company. Unfortunately though, Stagg Jr and EH Taylor Barrel Proof are so difficult to find these days that I can’t actually recommend replacing a unicorn with “just” rare ones that are often marked-up. Still, people do get these and so it’s worth briefly talking about them for completeness’ sake.

Stagg Jr

The name alone suggests that this would be a good substitute, if you’re lucky enough to find one these days. I remember walking into a store in 2018 and buying 2 off the shelf for $55 each…but I digress.  While it does have a somewhat similar personality with the same focus on caramel, vanilla, some little dried fruit, and oak spices, the younger age (~8ish years I think) places less emphasis on the sweet oak and oak spices, and a bit more on herbal licorice and fennel, and brighter fruits. Every batch is different though, so your experience may vary some.
From my experience, Stagg Jr is nowhere near as densely crammed with caramel, maple syrup, vanilla, and dried fruit either, as well as the same oiliness, intensity, and richness. It’s still a wonderful Top Shelf bourbon and a personal favorite that I wish was easier to obtain, but there’s a non-Buffalo Trace bourbon that does Jr better than Stagg Jr.

EH Taylor Barrel Proof

Wow you really got lucky if you have one of these. It’s clear to me that EH Taylor Barrel Proof is an intense and oily bourbon in it’s own right, with comparable heat and oiliness to the 2015 GTS. The main similarities end there because EH Taylor Barrel Proof is a lot more earthy and vegetal with noticeable rosemary, thyme, and caraway seed, which I didn’t really find in EH Taylor Small Batch, EH Taylor Single Barrel, or any other Buffalo Trace rye’d bourbon. Those earthy notes are interesting yet very out of character for Buffalo Trace Mash #1, and even #2.
EH Taylor Barrel Proof does have a comparable amount of apple and dark dried berries, but doesn’t have the same intense dark caramel, maple syrup, and brown sugar extract-like sweetness, and mature sweet and fragrant oak. Stagg Jr is closer personality-wise, but that makes sense since EH Taylor was never marketed as the Jr version of anything…you know, given the name. This is very much its own distinct experience, but a Top Shelf bourbon nonetheless.
So EH Taylor Barrel Proof brings much of the same intensity and oiliness, but with different scents and flavors than George T Stagg. Still, you’re having a great day if you’re drinking this. 

1792 Full Proof Bourbon

This is the Buffalo Trace’s full proof cousin, bringing high-ABV scents and flavors with far less attention. 1792 Full Proof brings a similar-ish intensity with big caramel sweetness, roasted oak, smoke, and wood spices, but with a bit more brighter fruit (especially orange) and not much in the way of dark fruit (such as cherry). Just like nearly everything else, it also lacks the same oiliness and dense, round, and layered caramel, brown sugar, and vanilla, in part because it’s ~8 years old vs 15 years for Stagg.
After comparing 1792 Full Proof to Stagg Jr, I learned that the Full Proof was very different (but still a Top Shelf bourbon), primarily because it was more oaky, wood spicy, tannic, dry, and citrusy, while Stagg Jr had a wider range of fruit on top of the slightly less intense oak and spice that made it more balanced for me. Still, you can’t go wrong with 1792 Full Proof, and it’s so much easier to find than Stagg Jr.

Top Shelf Bourbon

The actual list
Once you get outside Buffalo Trace, you have so many more Top Shelf bourbon options that are somewhat-to-mostly available, not nearly as marked-up, and still bring the same general spirit as George T Stagg does. As hot as bourbon is, there’s still a great assortment for your consumption.

Wild Turkey Rare Breed Bourbon

Top Shelf Bourbon #1

Price: $40-50

Rating: Top Shelf Bourbon

Wild Turkey Rare Breed Bourbon is the least expensive option on the list and one of the best, if not the best value in barrel proof bourbon. I’m obligated to include this on the list due to it’s incredible mix of accessibility, reasonable ~$50 price, and high quality to boot. As many other bourbons on this list, this is caramel and vanilla forward, but also with quite a bit of apple, cinnamon, licorice, and orange, as well as relatively controlled heat after airing it out.
It has some Stagg-like traits, but like so many other bourbons, lacks the outright viscosity, density, darkness, roastiness, and oiliness, as well as far less dried berry. It’s also brighter and more herbal, likely due to the age. If you’re reading this, you likely know about Wild Turkey Rare Breed Bourbon and possibly enjoy it. If you haven’t had it yet and/or are thinking about it, I highly recommend that you do so soon and join the club. Unlike so many Buffalo Trace whiskeys, it’s not going to put a huge dent in your wallet.

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon

Top Shelf Bourbon #2

Price: $60-80

Rating: Top Shelf Bourbon

This is known to be a brown sugar, caramel, vanilla, and spice (cinnamon, clove, nutmeg) bomb with fragrant roasted oak and supporting citrus, apple, and herbalness that all give it some GTS-like characteristics. It even has a bit of that oily viscosity. In terms of ABV, batches have also ranged from the low 60% to the low 70%, similar to Stagg, so there’s not much drop-off in ABV.
But even with somewhat comparable ABVs, I immediately was reminded that Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Batch C919, at 68.4% ABV, was far less hot than the 69.1% ABV Stagg. Elijah Craig was intense for sure, but it was generally manageable, while Stagg absolutely ran wild and beat me up every step of the way. I don’t know why that was the case, but it is what it is. The 12 year age statement also puts it in the sameish 15 year ballpark. 
Even with those similarities, Elijah Craig tends to lack the same level of dark fruitiness and outright caramel and vanilla density and viscosity. The scents and flavors are also a bit more muddled compared to the very defined and sharp (not in a bad way) Stagg. Still, a very high-ABV and 12 year old bourbon is always compelling, and Heaven Hill does a great job with these release after release.
Many of you already have discovered Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, and if you haven’t…well now you know. This is also getting a bit more difficult to find, but is worth buying if you find it.

Knob Creek 12 Year

Top Shelf Bourbon #3

Price: $60-80

Rating: Top Shelf Bourbon

This is a bit of an outlier because of the proof, but hear (read?) me out first. What Knob Creek 12 Year lacks in outright heft, it makes up with plenty of caramel, vanilla, cherry, chocolate, apple, roasted oak, cinnamon, tobacco, and more. It has a lot of the same notes with an added chocolate-y side, making it a mature, refined, and one of the better Jim Beam releases in recent memory. It definitely lacks the same explosive intensity, viscosity, oiliness, and dark fruitiness, but at the same time the 50% ABV makes Knob Creek so much easier to enjoy (and I did). Every now and then it’s nice to take it a little easy.
Like I said before, there is no perfect substitute, but Knob Creek 12 is so good in its own right that it’s a fantastic consolation that’s very approachable. Knob Creek 12 is also far easier to find and way less expensive, so you can actually enjoy it with less anxiety over replacing it, or actually the inability to replace it at all. 
I know that there’s a cask strength version out there, but I haven’t had it yet. Given how awesome the 100 proof version is, I can imagine that the cask strength version is even more awesome, taking everything great about the 100 proofer and bulking it up.

Woodford Reserve Batch Proof

Top Shelf Bourbon #4

Price: $130-150

Rating: Top Shelf Bourbon

This one seems to be growing in popularity as people finally catch-on to this fantastic bourbon, so I’m slightly breaking my own criteria to mention this annual limited release. Woodford Batch Proof is another intense bourbon with a strong caramel and vanilla focus, with a lot of dry oak, oak spices, nuts, grass, and surprisingly orange.
It’s actually quite citrusy as well as oaky and dry, and I noticed those things in my review and when I compared it to Stagg Jr. Just like George T Stagg, there’s a bit of that extra oak and spice, and the heat can be a bit intense at times. 
At the same time, it also doesn’t have the same dark berry traits and viscous / oily caramel and vanilla. Now that I think about it, Woodford Batch Proof may actually be closer to 1792 Full Proof or Elijah Craig Barrel Proof given the oakiness, dryness, and citrus. My only impression is from the 2019 release, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the more recent ones are similar if not better.

Woodinville Cask Strength Single Barrel

Top Shelf Bourbon #5

Price: $70-90

Rating: Top Shelf Bourbon

Woodinville is a bit of an outlier on this list for a number of reasons, but I am intentionally including it regardless. While it’s a younger-ish craft bourbon that’s 5 years old and not remotely close to 12 or even 15 years old, I wanted to make sure that I included one craft distiller and not cram this list full of stuff from the “big boys”.
I specifically chose Woodinville because I happen to enjoy it more than New Riff and Wilderness Trail Single Barrel Barrel Proof picks I’ve had so far, although I can imagine many will disagree with my sentiment. 
This particular Woodinville Barrel Pick I reviewed (and helped pick) is packed with caramel, vanilla, apple and oak like many other great bourbons, but brings a much more dark, earthy, and herbal high-rye side that Stagg doesn’t really have. It also has some of the dark berry flavors too. Smell and taste-wise it’s actually closer to EH Taylor Barrel Proof (yes seriously) than George T Stagg, but still has a close-ish oiliness that those two also have.
While you can’t get the Grootinville pick that I reviewed, I hope that other Woodinville Barrel Picks are comparable in fragrance and deliciousness, and hopefully even better. So while Woodinville in my experience so far is not much like George T Stagg, I am saying that it’s still worth trying. It can’t hurt to try something new.
To add on to all of that, the particular Woodinville I reviewed and picked really outdoes the Old Forester Barrel Proof I reviewed. Shoot, Woodinville is also older at 5 years old vs 4 years (although Old Forester does heat-cycles their warehouses to speed-up aging), and often about $10-20 cheaper too. Woodinville is doing great work in Washington State. 

Redemption 10 Year Barrel Proof Bourbon

Top Shelf Bourbon #6

Price: $100-110

Rating: Top Shelf+ Bourbon

This may come as a shock to you, but I think that Redemption 10 Year Barrel Proof Bourbon is the closest non-Buffalo Trace bourbon to George T Stagg. It’s a dark, roasty, oaky, and rich flavor bomb in its own way, also loaded with caramel, vanilla, cherry, sweet and roasted oak, apple, orange, oak spices, and dark chocolate. It’s so decadent and luxurious, and it greatly exceeded any expectations I had when I reviewed it.
That said, it has less dried fruit (I wish it had more) and far less oiliness. It’s also nowhere near as intense as Stagg (nothing else is), but wow Redemption 10 Year is incredible too and another one of my personal favorites.
Its 57.2% ABV is closest to the 2019 GTS’ 58.45%, and although I haven’t had the 2019, I wouldn’t be that surprised if they were comparable. While Redemption 10 Year Bourbon also retails for around $100, which I know is not affordable by any means, you can still go out and buy them for around that price. At least for now, I haven’t seen a retailer with the guts to charge 3-4x MSRP for Redemption.
I can’t guarantee that they’re easy to find, but I’d say that it falls into uncommon territory because it’s kind of a limited release (and still being slowly released), but not one that people have flocked to en masse (yet) to clear the shelves. 
There’s really not a huge cliff-like drop-off from Redemption 10 Year to George T Stagg, and I think it drinks more like the junior version of George T Stagg, outdoing Stagg Jr at it’s own game. This one is so compelling that I bought a second bottle, and I don’t do that very often. Buying a second or third bottle because of how it smells and tastes is the highest compliment I can give.

If you’re shopping on Amazon for Black Friday, Cyber Monday, the holidays, or any other occasion, support The Whiskey Shelf by shopping through my affiliate link – Shop Amazon. Disclaimer: I may earn a commission from your purchases.

There Are Many Great Top Shelf Bourbon Options Out There

So there you have it – a starting list of great Top Shelf Bourbon options to drink instead of George T Stagg until next year’s mania and likely letdown (because you can’t get it). Even though I only listed a handful of options, there are still many great options out there. Of course there’s still the likes of Booker’s Bourbon, Remus Repeal Reserve, Lux Row 12 Year Double Barrel, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon, and so many more.
Everyone’s preferences are going to be a bit different, but I think your glasses are in good hands / nose / mouth with this list to start, or at least help inform you as you make your own purchases. And of course, continue exploring, enjoying, and sharing to find out what you like best.
Alex author
Meet the Author: Alex

I have far too much fun writing about whiskey and singlehandedly running The Whiskey Shelf to bring you independent, honest, and useful reviews, comparisons, and more. I’m proudly Asian American and can speak Cantonese, Mandarin, and some Japanese.

There are no sponsors, no media companies, and no nonsense. Support The Whiskey Shelf by Buying Me A Shot.
q? encoding=UTF8&MarketPlace=US&ASIN=B07GL6Z1X3&ServiceVersion=20070822&ID=AsinImage&WS=1&Format= SL250 &tag=thewhiskeyshe 20

If you’re on the move, this Glencairn-like stainless steel snifter glass should survive your travels. Shattered glass Glencairn’s really suck. Full transparency, this is an Amazon affiliate link, so I may earn a commission if you buy this or something else from Amazon.

BrüMate NOS’R, Double-Wall Stainless Steel Whiskey Nosing Glass – 7oz (Matte Black)

Other Reviews


Comments are closed.