By the time that I had my first taste of Stagg Jr, the general mood towards it was overwhelmingly negative. By then I had already fell in love with the far less anticipated Elijah Craig Barrel Proof that came out a month earlier, so Stagg Jr had a very high watermark to meet in my eyes. I tried approaching Stagg Jr with an open mind, knowing that negativity can sometimes snowball out of perspective, but I found Stagg Jr to be just plain bad.
Almost a later, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof is on its fourth release and remains one of the most popular bourbons on the market. Stagg Jr is just starting its second release, and has become somewhat of an afterthought in the shadow of Elijah’s popularity. As the new dump of 128.7 proof Stagg Jr starts making its way around the country, I am extremely eager to hear what people think. Is the brand salvageable? Was the negativity overblown? Or should Stagg Jr be put out to pasture?
Though public opinion was low on Stagg Jr, some blogs and publications still seemed to enjoy it. Yes, the only rave reviews I found came from blogs that review free samples, but I usually do not discount those reviews on sight. Ignoring grades and overall enthusiasm, I find that most of the tasting notes from these blogs are relative to my own palate.
I could only find one trusted blog review where it was clear that the blogger actually possessed a bottle, rather than reviewing free samples sent by the distillery. I have read the Smoky Beast blog for about a year and find that he is a straight shooter. He is also a purist when it comes to bourbon. He usually forgoes the usual non-distiller bias in favor of overall whiskey quality, but even he couldn’t hide his disappointment in Stagg Jr. The last paragraph in his review explains that he did everything imaginable to resuscitate Stagg Jr and nothing helped bring out the familial “Stagg” resemblance everyone was hoping for.
Since my only taste of Stagg Jr to this point was a small sample from a friend, I have been very interested to revisit Stagg Jr to see if it fares any better with a second pass. That same friend also sent me a sample of the new 128.7 proof Stagg Jr that just hit his market so I can see if they were able to improve on the poorly received maiden release.
I like to think that they chose a bunch of lower proof barrels after noticing that a majority of reviews cried out for water, and lots of it. Buffalo Trace is not the kind of distillery to make the same mistake twice, and even though the first dump of Stagg Jr still sold extremely well in the face of overwhelming negativity, there is no doubt that they saw that negativity as a giant red flag.
Stagg Jr 134 Proof
Nose: Hot, sharp pepper, chili, and tobacco. There is decent caramel like you would expect from a “Stagg” as well as a nice cinnamon raisin bread, but the proportions are all out of whack, almost as if I am nosing regular Stagg with a severe head cold.
Sip: Big rough burn that is mostly hot spice and unrefined oak. The front has some toffee and caramel corn sweetness with a slight dark berry and plum fruitiness, but the back is leathery and astringent. Again, the usual rich profile of a true Stagg is muted in the background while youth and possibly even poor blending leave Stagg Jr a cutting, messy throat burner.
Finish: Lengthy for sure, but in a way where you almost want it to end. Nothing is able to stay above the alcohol burn and harsh oak.
Overall Grade: C
OK, this was worse than I remember. You can tell what they were trying to do, but very little is noticeable beyond the burn. Hardly uncharted territory for cask strength bourbon, but the fatal flaw is how it compares to Elijah Craig Barrel Proof. Well, maybe the fatal flaw was naming this after one of the most prolific cask strength whiskies in the world, but either way, not great.
Stagg Jr 128.7 Proof
Nose: A much more approachable nose, still showing youth with a decent corn note, but caramel, maple syrup and that cinnamon raisin bread help it along. The back is still sharp, but less rough and the oak is less peppery and more of a smoldering camp fire and tobacco.
Sip: Caramel candy, toffee and a fruity mid palate bring a much, much better profile. Cinnamon apple oatmeal, and a maple syrup are welcome additions. The back is still tough to parse through, but the formerly bitter grain and oak has simmered to a bitter baker’s chocolate, and only a mildly annoying sharpness from the rough spice and char.
Finish: Still unpleasant.
Overall Grade: B-
Stagg Jr is definitely moving in the right direction. The 128 proof Stagg is still a mile behind any of the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof releases, but it is gaining ground. The latest dump has uncovered a layer of depth that was not present in the first batch, and I would be pretty excited if the finish was more enjoyable.
Summary of the Staggs
The new Stagg Jr release is much better, so my faith in the Stagg Jr line is restored. There may not be enough George T. Stagg DNA to link these two as father and son just yet, but the potential is definitely there and they are moving in the right direction.
I won’t be buying (or drinking) any more 137 proof Stagg Jr, but when the 128 proof comes to Colorado, I will definitely be a buyer.