The Great Hunt For My House Bourbon continues! I recently picked up a bottle of Eagle Rare 10 year, which lately has become better known as the younger and more-available version of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection’s Eagle Rare 17, which is almost as difficult to acquire as Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. Funny how in this era of whisky obsession that the standard is eclipsed by the limited. Having been guilty of dismissing the 10 year as “not worth my time” in the past, I certainly can’t point fingers.
I want several things in a house bourbon. I want it to be under $30 (preferably under $25). I want it to be regularly and widely available. I want it to be high enough quality to enjoy neat but also play nice with ice, bitters, and sugar to make a top-notch cocktail. As I am still trying to find the perfect house bourbon for under $30, I figured I’d give this one a try, especially since it’s made by the same distillery as my current front-runner, Buffalo Trace.
The Eagle Rare brand, originally a 101-proof Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey aged at least 10 years, began in 1975 under the ownership of the Seagram Company. It was sold to the Sazerac Company (later named Buffalo Trace) in 1989, which finally discontinued the 101-proof version in 2005. In its place, a 90 proof (45% ABV) 10 year-old single-barrel and a 90 proof 17 year-old became the standard Eagle Rare releases. The 17 year-old is part of the limited annual Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC), and is generally difficult to find. Recently during a label redesign, Eagle Rare’s “Single Barrel” designation was dropped and the age statement moved to the back of the label. According to this interesting account by Clay Risen in 2014, this is due to a change in the bottling procedure for Eagle Rare, which is still bottled one barrel at a time, but can no longer be guaranteed to contain liquid only from one barrel.
Eagle Rare uses Buffalo Trace’s “Low Rye” mash bill, which is shared with the Buffalo Trace bottling, Stagg Jr., George T. Stagg, and others. This also means that Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare 10 differ only in barrel selection and age. One might think of ER 10 as a longer-aged version of Buffalo Trace with more picky barrel selection. Not a bad trade-off for only $5 – $8 more per bottle…
Nose: Sweet and a little tart – orange peel and unripe cherries. Soft sweet corn, and a layer of caramel. Little or no spice.
Palate: Silky smooth body, with the tart cherries up front, a bit of a burn, and then creamed corn, malted cereal, orange marmalade, and a hint of oak.
Finish: Medium length, with just a ghost of the palate flavors. A little caramel, a little orange peel, then gone.
With Water: Water seems to neither improve nor harm the whisky.
Overall: A very nicely balanced nose, with both tart and sweet notes in harmony. I could wish for some hint of rye spice and a more robust finish. Still, I already prefer this to the similar and similarly-priced Elijah Craig 12. While the EJ12 has an edge in ABV and a more robust nose, Eagle Rare is miles ahead on the palate and is much more balanced. Eagle Rare 10 is also a very different animal than Buffalo Trace, despite being made at the same distillery from the same mash bill. ER10 has none of the Buffalo Trace sugar cane / vegetal complexity, and an entirely different fruit profile. While I would definitely drink this neat, with those orange and cherry notes it’s practically begging to be made into an Old Fashioned (no actual cherry and orange please, keep it subtle).
Well, it’s official. The only attribute that Eagle Rare 10 lacks on my “house bourbon” wishlist is consistency – as a Single Barrel release (or nearly so), it might vary from bottle to bottle. Still, I’ll take the individuality and chance of greatness over consistency any day. I now have a new house bourbon! If you haven’t given Eagle Rare 10 a chance because of Internet consensus that its big brother is the underdog of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, you really should take another look.