When many of us hear the word “Sazerac,” it’s usually regarding Buffalo Trace (and possibly 1792 or Fireball) and, more specifically, their parent company. One could be forgiven for forgetting that the spirits giant owes its name to the cocktail, not the other way around. The reputation stemming from this drink has been nothing if not radiant, given the contentious claims of it being the first example of an American cocktail and the popularity Sazerac Company holds in today’s market. Even the team at Sazerac are keenly aware of their history and utilize it as such; “with almost 400 years of rich history, we have a storied past and an even brighter future.”
Despite that much attached history, the existence of Sazerac rye whiskey itself is hardly tenured. Launched in 2006, it was meant to reflect “the original 1880s bottle”. At that time, rye whiskey was often used in lieu of cognac for the cocktail’s base spirit due to a phylloxera epidemic. Sazerac Rye initially carried a 6-year age statement, but has since become an NAS expression that some markets see plenty of while others are lucky to see it all for south of $70 (I’m absolutely projecting). I was able to try it for the first time in store pick form thanks to a sample. This selection was from Liquor Barn in 2021. It’s bottled at 45% ABV and MSRP is roughly $30.
Nose: Bright and big with sweet citrus (orange) and cherry overtones. Green apple and lemon candies with an expected (but not overt) presence of light brown sugar. Faint mint, clove, and tobacco beneath the sweet exterior. Has a generously sweetened green tea quality to it, like melting hard candies and using them for sweetener. Over time I get a soft, fluffy bread essence.
Palate: Light but just syrupy enough to avoid feeling thin. Surprising hints of mustiness become a nice complement to the ensuing candy-sweet flavors. Notes of cherry, lemonheads, and orange peel. Brown sugar and bright caramel come to mind while the citrus brings much-needed levity to the pour’s otherwise saccharine nature.
Finish: Comes across slightly dry and citric in an almost-astringent way, like how some artificial sweeteners can present. Lingering lemon-lime and bright caramel are the main notes, and though they keep the sweet experience going, it’s ultimately light and pleasant.
I’m well on record for holding mixed emotions towards Buffalo Trace products. The lucky occasions I’ve had George T. Stagg or Pappy Van Winkle were just that: lucky, and not just because I regarded them so highly. Yet if we shut the lights off on those then we’re left with prospects that, though not dim, certainly aren’t glowing. To that end, Sazerac Rye blends in with just enough of a subtle glimmer to appear more welcoming. As my palate and portfolio expand, coming back to Buffalo Trace has felt like entering a candy shop once loved during childhood. But now that same shop prompts winces instead of overflowing excitement. Sazerac Rye is very much a part of that shop, but rather than being a child’s free-flowing search for a sugar rush, it’s a medium bag of Lemonheads and green apple gummies.
Although Sazerac Rye isn’t the only rye whiskey Buffalo Trace produce, it may as well be, considering the others occupy two of the five slots in their Antique Collection. And it’s a bit of a shame. The makings of something great aren’t just present, they’re tangible. My chief complaint with many Buffalo Trace bottles boils down to them being too damn sweet for their own good. Sazerac Rye doesn’t necessarily avoid this pitfall, but the rye-dominant mash bill helps bestow enough citrus overtones to provide much-needed levity to the core profile. Coming off the heels of Weller 12-Year, this feels far more palatable and in-line with something I’d consider keeping handy (pun not intended).
Is this to say that I think Sazerac Rye earns the hype it enjoys simply by being produced at the distillery who also puts out Pappy and BTAC? Not even remotely. It’s a fun and relaxed rye that should cater to fans of sweet citrus flavors and easygoing cocktails, namely those that flirt with bourbon and rye for the main ingredient. But even at MSRP, there are other options that offer a close enough (if not superior) experience.