Looking "high" and "low" for bourbon? Over the past 75 years, Ancient Age has been both a "top shelf" and a "bottom shelf" bourbon. What is today's product like? .
Upward Growth in Down Markets
While many are more familiar with the household names that come out of the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, such as E. H. Taylor, Elmer T. Lee, Blanton's, Stagg,Weller, and bargain shelf Benchmark, many would not recognize Ancient Age as part of the Buffalo Trace stable.
Produced by the Schenley conglomerate at the George T. Stagg Distillery (now called Buffalo Trace). Ancient Age first hit store shelves in 1946. Unfortunately, at this time, bourbon and dark spirits in general started a decades-long decline as wines, light beer, and clear spirits, like vodka, stole market share. While many brands saw falling sales, brands such as Ancient Age, Wild Turkey, Maker's Mark, and others managed to hold their own.
In 1983, with bourbon sales still in freefall, Age International purchased the Stagg Distillery, acquiring the grounds and its brands. When acquired, Ancient Age was positioned as a "top shelf" bourbon and included some 10-year-old varieties.
Bourbon continued its slow decline and the Takara Shuzo Company took over Age International in 1992, and sold that Stagg distillery to Sazerac (who renamed the distillery in honor of the buffalo herds that once crossed the nearby Kentucky River).
Today, you'll see the Age International / Ancient Age International as the distiller. At one time, you could still see the Age International name on Blanton's, Elmer T. Lee, Hancock's Reserve, and Rock Hill Farms bottles.
Buffalo Trace keeps the mash bill recipes close to their chest, using two rye-based mash bills, one wheated bourbon mash bill, and a rye whiskey mash bill. Most consider Ancient Age to use what is, affectionately, referred to as Mash Bill #2 - which contains at least 51% corn (of course it does, since this is bourbon), 12-15% rye, and the remainder comprised of malted barley. It should be noted that Mash Bill #2 is used not only for Ancient Age, but also for Elmer T. Lee, Rock Hill Farms, Hancock's Reserve, and Blanton's. The label shares that the bourbon has been aged for at least 36 months and is bottled at 90 proof.
Color: Light honey. A few thick legs displayed in the Glencairn glass after a fair amount of swirling and coaxing.
Nose: Vanilla, caramel, and light oak. This is actually better than I expected. I caught some ripe pear and peach notes, as well. Overall, light, but not an offensive nose.
Palate: Pepper-spice arrives first, followed by vanilla, caramel corn, and oak.
Finish: Short with a hefty dose of spice and oak tannins.
Overall: Overall, this isn't a bad bourbon. This is inexpensive bourbon, and for that, it's just fine. If you're wanting to try this on a dime (well, maybe a little more than a dime), you can often find this behind the counter. No, it's not that kind of top-shelf bourbon - I'm referring to it being readily available in pints. There is also an 80-proof version; at that proof, it's a really light sipper. This 90-proof expression definitely allows for more flavor and utility.
This is "ok" - there's nothing off-putting or any bad notes. But it is pretty simple, though with decent flavor for its youth. You'll typically find it in 750 ml bottles for $14.99 - placing it in a similar price as Jim Beam White and Evan Williams - both of which are straight whiskeys that have been aged at least 4+ years and have a bit better base flavor.