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The Decline of Stagg (Jr)

The Decline of Stagg (Jr)

Walk into any liquor store in 2024 and you’ll have no problem finding multiple barrel-proof bourbon options. But it wasn’t always like this. Having such a large amount of these high-proofed bottles ready for you to purchase is a relatively new phenomena. If you wanted to narrow down when the shift towards increasing barrel proof options happened, I’d say sometime around the spring of 2013.

Why that date? For starters, that’s when Heaven Hill released the first batch of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof. Wait! I know you want to know more about Stagg (Jr), but you first have to understand the origins of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon. ECBP – as the enthusiasts call it – was novel in many ways when it first appeared. Sure there were other barrel proof offerings at the time (Smooth Ambler deserves to be recognized), but nobody else was really taking barrel proof bourbon this old (12 years), selling it for this cheap (~$50) and doing it this frequently and consistently.

Stagg Jr Batch 16 vertical

Buffalo Trace realized they were slipping behind in this arms race, so their product planners went to work to figure out how to catch up. Barrel proof whiskies weren’t entirely new to Buffalo Trace, though. One year prior saw the first release of EH Taylor Barrel Proof bourbon. That label was released in very limited numbers and was only an annual release. Buffalo Trace needed something to release more often. Their solution was Stagg Jr.

Stagg Jr’s rise to the top

The formula for Stagg Jr was to take barrels that had similar a profile and age as Buffalo Trace boubon and bottle it at barrel proof. No, they have never outright admitted its age, but for years the popular opinion has been that Stagg Jr. was a blend of 7 to 9-year-old barrels.

One of the main issues that many enthusiast’s had with Stagg Jr. is that it didn’t seem to be close in profile to the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC) version of George T. Stagg (GTS). That may seem like a strange thing to have a problem with, but you’d be surprised how many people fully expected to taste GTS minus some oak. Instead, Stagg Jr. was noticeably more fruity with cherries being front and center in virtually every batch.

The batches differed slightly as time went on. Sometimes the sweetness level was higher in certain batches and sometimes it was more fruity. Some of the batches were known for a more mature, oaky profile. Stagg Jr really began to hit its stride around Batch 9 (one of the more desirable batches) and continued all the way up until Batch 17.

Stagg Jr changes its name… and something else

Sometime after the release of Stagg Jr Batch 15 in the second half of 2020, Buffalo Trace announced a change. They were going to be dropping the “Jr.” part of the Stagg Jr. label. Now it was going to be known as just “Stagg.” No (valid) explanation was given by Buffalo Trace and many enthusiasts saw this as yet another ridiculous decision by Buffalo Trace to fix something that wasn’t broke.

The first batch after the name change was commonly known as Batch 18. It was released in the second half of 2022 instead of the first half and came in at 131 proof. But what came next was truly confusing. A couple months following the release of Batch 18 another batch was released. Strangely, this one would sport a new feature to the label – a tiny “22B” was added next to proof. Many enthusiasts were puzzled when they learned this was the new batch number. But if the previous batch of Stagg was believed to be Batch 18, then shouldn’t this one be Batch 19? What happened to the other batches in between?

Curious enthusiasts sent Buffalo Trace these questions and here is the response they received:

Buffalo Trace was now switching to a more congruent model for labeling batches. The number on the label would be the batch. 2022 would see two batches (an A and a B) while 2023 saw a total of three batches (A, B and C). Strangely, the A, B and C variants don’t seem to indicate their order of release, but are rather more like a regional designator. Not every region gets every letter. Confused yet?

Knowing the new batch numbering system is all well and good, but there was something deeper that changed at the same time. I’m talking about the flavor profile. I’ve had these new batches and they’re all noticeably different from their “Jr.” predecessors.

What changed? Well for starters, the cherry (and other fruit) notes are virtually gone. This has allowed distinct spice and chocolate note to become more prevalent. Alternatively, the barrels they are picking to blend with could just be missing these notes. But why the shift?

There has been no explanation. It should be noted that a couple of my friends claim they don’t taste anything different. But the majority of my friends have noticed a change. The barrels they are picking to batch together aren’t the same. The profile is “flat.” It does taste more in line with GTS now (which typically leaned more towards oak, tobacco and chocolate), but still seems inferior to previous batches when it wore the “Jr” on the label.

Stagg is quickly falling out of favor among enthusiasts

You may think that I’m exaggerating with this next part, but enthusiasts aren’t really talking about Stagg anymore. There seems to be this universal silence towards the recent batches. I’ve also noticed it’s not on anyone’s “Top Bourbons of…” lists anymore. Sure, people are still buying it, but believe me when I say that showing off your new bottle of Stagg isn’t the big deal that it once was.

If you’re circumspect about my opinions being too pessimistic, then I encourage you to look at the sharp drop in value on the secondary market. Batch 17 – the final “Stagg Jr” batch – had a secondary market value of $325 in early 2022. Nowadays the newest batches are barely fetching $200. Reviews and reviewer’s opinions are a dime-a-dozen, but the secondary market is the truest gauge of how great a bottle is. And what it’s telling us is that people don’t value it as much anymore.

In the past, there would have never been this many bottles allowed to set on a shelf

So if Stagg is so bad now, what happened to the better barrels that it used to be made from? It’s hard to tell. I do have one theory, though. I think they’re going into the updated Benchmark labels. Many enthusiasts like to joke that Benchmark Full Proof is essentially “Stagg Jr. Jr.” but maybe they’re on to something. My impressions of Benchmark Full Proof is that it has the cherry and citrus peel notes that Stagg Jr was known for. Yes, it’s younger, probably chill-filtered and not true barrel proof, but I think the fruit-forward barrels have been diverted towards that line. Enthusiasts looking for a taste of what Stagg Jr would be wise to check that label out.

What does the future hold?

It’s hard to tell what the next step for Stagg will be. I’d like to think that it will regain its lost flavor profile and we can all put these new batches behind us, but knowing Buffalo Trace, I won’t hold my breath. I know they’ve socked away an incredible amount of barrels recently and most have gone into their new palletized warehouses. I’m sure that Stagg will be made from those barrels in the near future. And if you’re thinking to yourself “why would a palletized warehouse matter?” my answer is that they’re are intended more for efficiency and less about quality. Barrels need air movement to be the best versions of themselves. But this is all a story for another day.

I have no doubt that people will continue to idolize Stagg. There will always be a secondary value to them and it will always be allocated. I just don’t think that we’ll see the frenzy for it that we once did. The most respected voices in bourbon aren’t singing it praises any more and this is becoming just another Elijah Craig Barrel Proof fiasco where quality is being shunned in the name of quantity.

In the past, comparisons were everywhere between the newest batches of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof and Stagg Jr. But since Stagg has declined so much, it’s not really a contest anymore. ECBP has taken the crown.

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Jake

Tuesday 21st of May 2024

I think the real difference is supply and demand. It seems like there's a lot more Stagg out there. That's why it doesn't fetch the same price on secondary that it used to and why it no longer "tastes as special."

I think people hype themselves into thinking that rarity is the same as the best taste. So once it's more available, they have to taste what's actually in the bottle.

I A/B'd stagg jr batch 15 versus 22A in a bar and we all agreed 22A was a clear winner.

I think Stagg was never superior to ECBP, it was only more rare.

Craig Slist

Tuesday 21st of May 2024

My 23B is just fine. But I agree, everyone should drink Scotch and don't waste your time with bourbon anymore. 😉

Casey S

Tuesday 21st of May 2024

Buffalo Trace and Heaven Hill should take notes from Wild Turkey when it comes to Barrel Proof expressions. There is no reason Stagg(jr) or ECBP should be allocated when Rare Breed is on the shelves everywhere all the time. It's almost as of Wild Turkey is all about getting down to business rather than focusing on marketing. The line at Buffalo Trace each morning will point that out.

K Myers

Sunday 12th of May 2024

I have to respectfully disagree, I have batches 11 and 15 and while good, they are both a bit of a hot mess...in contrast, the batches 22A, 22B, and 23B are some of the best batches they have released in my opinion and all three are reminiscent of Batch 12, Which I believe to be the very best batch.

Regarding prices, prices are pretty much down across the board in secondary for about the last year...I also think that with the new still online, and with BT able to nearly double their production, they are releasing larger batches and simply making the whiskey more available...greater availability would certainly relate directly to lower secondary prices. All BT core products have seen an uptick in availability over the last several months...Weller, Eagle Rare, EH Taylor, Buffalo Trace, even Blanton's, all of them. As far as interest, I really haven't seen any drop in interest in Stagg...again, better availability would cause Stagg Jr chatter to be down simply because people don't have to hunt as hard for it...but that doesn't mean interest has dropped. When it is found, it doesn't last long! I noticed the photo you included with the caption "In the past, there would have never been this many bottles allowed to set on a shelf" which isn't entirely true...in the past nobody would have ever received that much from a distributor, which is REALLY why one would never see that many bottles on a shelf...and even with that supply sitting on the shelf, I would be willing to bet that a day or two later, there wasn't a bottle to be found wherever that photo was taken...THAT's the measure of interest in my opinion, how fast they sell their supply.