At least 45% of us spend 57% of our time obsessing about percentages. Product discounts, interest rates, inflation, exam results - all measurable as a proportion. And when it comes to whisky this inborn desire to quantify is just as appreciable –“What % ABV is that?”, “what percentage of cask fills are sherry?” “What proportion of people ask you the exact same questions?” Enthusiast fact-finding is never a chore to answer – indeed it sometimes leads to further interesting and esoteric discussions – but I do find it baffling how we’re all by and large predisposed to ask a similar set of questions when it comes to our whisky geekery.
Outside of alcoholic volumes, nowhere does our fixation on percentages manifest itself more than when discussing and dissecting US whiskey mash bills. And whilst there’s both fervent demand and avid discussion on the precise percentage composition of the grains which form a mash – rarely, if ever, do these discussions move beyond the raw numbers and the act of measurement itself.
Think about it like a culinary recipe. You’d likely be pretty confused were you presented with this:
40% - Meat
30% - Vegetables
20% - Stock
10% - Puree
In essence this is the cooking equivalent of what a publically disclosed mash bill is - I.E. it completely lacks any specificity. But for the most part enthusiasts are largely contented by simply knowing the overall percentages of their grains within a mash – “60% Corn, 30% Wheat & 10% Malted Barley – good to go – moving on to another question.” And yet each of these components, particularly when it comes to more regionally grown grains, has much more to say than just stating its proportion of the greater whole.
Corn is not just corn. It too has a variety of genus’s, geographic origins and potential ways to treat and process it. Sweet corn, flint corn, flour corn, pod corn and the one most commonly used to make liquor - dent corn (named because of its physical appearance of being pitted when the kernels have begun to dry out). The inherent characteristics of grain types – their starch and sugar content levels – ergo their extractability and fermentability – all affect the eventual profile of what it is possible to distil and mature. But outside of the terroir preoccupied, and distillers themselves – these facets are rarely discussed. Just tell folks the mash bill percentages and they’ll be happy.
The phenomena is part human nature – most folks want to appear knowledgeable about their hobby, but few are prepared to put in the effort to really learn about it. They ask the questions – the same questions – and then move on happy with a simple, easy to comprehend answer. And percentages, assuming they all add up are easy to digest. But mash bill disclosures also say something about the scale of production (grains are often dealt with in bulks) and the producers themselves – it being fair to suggest that most whiskey consumers do not require the nth degree of information. There’s geekery and there’s geekery. As such there’s a swathe of enthusiasts – content with knowing percentages, happy when the terms ‘spring’ or ‘winter’ are added to a grain description, who are largely wilfully ignorant about gleaning any deeper knowledge
And you know – perhaps that’s enough? One person’s nerd fest is another’s afternoon snooze. We can’t all be instinctively interested in the minutiae – because at that point there’ll be no more questions to ask.
But, in many cases, the information is there if you want it – as is the case with today’s review – a somewhat legendary bottling in the form of the 2002 Thomas H Handy Sazerac Rye from the venerated Buffalo Trace Antique Collection.
Here we’ve got a whole host of information about the composition, crafting and maturation of this whiskey – we’ve event got some geographic grain origins (Minnesota rye, Kentucky Corn - distiller’s grade 1 & 2 and North Dakota Malted Barley). Ack – no percentages! Don’t worry – these are rumoured on the Interwebs to be 51% rye, 39% corn and 10% malt – you can rest easy now.
Bottled at a barrel proof of 129, this lauded whiskey was distilled in the spring of 2002 and bottled 7 years later in the fall of 2009 – having been matured in #4 char (alligator) new white American oak barrels. The original price was around $70-90 – but like all BTAC bottlings – price and accessibility are two different things. You’ll have to dig deeper for this particular expression nowadays – between £300 and £500 depending on whether you frequent auctions or retailers.
Nose: Torched orange peels and glace cherries are joined by sugary confectionery – Black Jacks and cola cubes. Opening quickly in the glass, sticky pan sugars and honeycomb (just at the point before turning) sits with ginger nut biscuits and coconut oil, whilst wholemeal crackers are joined by an aside of green pepper and cinnamon. The addition of water immediately reveals a creamy quality – crème caramel and coconut infused custards – alongside dainty honeysuckle, dried berries and notes of dusty-floored warehouses and basements.
Taste: Big, bold and stompy. The arrival is thick, viscous and sticky, offering a progressive delivery of swirling sugars and piquant spices. Cinnamon dusted spiced apples are stewed and topped with brown sugar-laced crumble mix. A sour orange and cherry sugar syrup combination is tempered by anise and nutmeg, and air-dried stone fruits (apricot and peach slices) bring with them intense roiling pepperiness. Reduction still allows the whiskey to hold its shape – there’s a lot of ABV to play with. Turkish Delight and rosewater joins popped corn and creamy rice – whilst the spicing (pepper-led) is pushed into the back-palate – reduced, but still highly expressive.
Finish: Long and progressively drying – the oakiness only now rearing its head. Green leaves and perky chilli spices join pepperiness and reside fading fruit-forward sweetness
The innate quality of this 2002 Handy will leave you in no doubt why (in liquid terms) BTAC releases are sought after. Despite offering intense, concentrated spice throughout - there's a deft touch here that can be felt from nose to finish. Expressive, discernible and defined aromas and flavours – all underpinned by an impactful (but never jarring) layered spicing. Reduction may, or may not, be required depending on the particulars of your palate – but either way, there’s both plenty of scope to do that at the barrel proof bottling strength, and likewise an impressive retention of the overall shape even when diluted. A perfect end of week treat. Excellent.