*Updated October 2016

 

“Hey Bill, what are the best wheated bourbons I can buy?”

I got that message twice this week from readers, and that’s not a rarity.  There can be no doubt that a certain 3-word label has greatly influenced bourbon and bourbon demand over the past decade.  But nowhere is the impact of the Pappy Van Winkle lineup more prevalent than in the trickle down effect it has had on other bourbons made with wheat as the secondary or “flavoring” grain.

Old Fitz LineupFor the uninitiated, wheat used as a secondary grain was really pioneered at the old Stitzel-Weller distillery in Louisville, birthplace of the Weller lineup, the Van Winkle lineup, and the Old Fitzgerald Lineup.  Larceny and Maker’s Mark can be viewed as offshoot descendants of that distillery due to the connections the labels have with those original three or connections the distillers had with the principal players in that distillery.  They all use a similar mash bill, and some reportedly even use yeast strains derived from the original Stitzel-Weller batch.

Wheat as the secondary grain provides a bit of a subtle, yet noticeable contrast to the traditional rye component of standard bourbons.  Wheat adds a creaminess to the mouth feel of the bourbon, and has sort of a prickly sweet flavor that is slightly lighter than the sweetness typically derived from the majority corn recipe.  Pappy Van Winkle, in his infinite wisdom, allegedly chose wheat in his recipe because he felt is matured more quickly, and bourbon could be moved to market at a younger age.  My personal opinion is a little different.  Really young wheat whiskey (4-5 years and younger) can be harsh and almost astringent, while rye-based bourbons tend to have a spicy characteristic that offsets that at a younger age.

Weller 12 Old Fitz 12 Van WinkleAfter a reasonable period, however, that flips for me.  Rye based bourbons aged longer than 12 years, in most cases, become far too woody, and they begin to become overpowered by the barrel flavors.  There are obvious exceptions, most related to older rye based bourbons that are bottled at a higher proof such as George T. Stagg.  But by and large, I find traditional bourbons aged past 12 years to be more often worse than their younger siblings (Elijah Craig is a good example).

glencairn-amazonWheat bourbons are different.  After about 7 years, they start becoming nice sips.  At 12 years, they become really nice sips, and out towards 20 years, they can still be outstanding whiskey.  After 20 years, they, too, begin to deteriorate- and they do it quickly.  Hence, I find the 20 year Van Winkle offering to be a truly fine bourbon, while the 23 year is a mess in the bottle.  That hasn’t stopped the collectors, however.  Anything wheated with even a hint of age is hard to find, and even some younger offerings have become to be so desired by the bourbon-buying public that you’re better off giving up the chase if you don’t follow release dates closely in some areas.

Old Fitzgerald Bonded

Old Fitzgerald Bonded

But what are the best wheated bourbons out there?  That’s really a loaded question because there are two ways of looking at it.  The first is as a collector’s item.   I don’t collect, so secondary value is so worthless a determination to me that I couldn’t even tell you a ballpark value of most bottles.  I drink bourbon.  So the second way to look at it is really what this site is focused on- how it tastes.  And THAT I can provide some help on.  It’s really a question we get very often: What are the Best Wheated Bourbons?

There have been quite a few individual barrels of wheated bourbon released, or reportedly released over they ears.  I’m not ranking single barrel releases, or one-time releases.  So no Jim Beam Soft Red Wheat, none of the individual Willett bottlings, none of the Michter’s  10 year bottlings that were(or were reported to be) wheaters, and none of the buffalo trace Single Oak or experimental  releases that were wheated.  That’s not to say some of those  weren’t fantastic.  Jefferson’s has released a few wheaters in their Presidential Select lineup that were great as well.  But if they aren’t regularly released with a wheated mash bill as a rule, they’re one-offs, and not on the list.

 

The major labels are:

  • Maker’s MarkWL Weller SR 6
  • Maker’s 46
  • Maker’s Cask Strength
  • Larceny
  • Old Fitzgerald (80 proof)
  • Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond
  • Very Special Old Fitzgerald 12 year
  • Rebel Yell
  • Rebel Yell Small Batch Reserve
  • Rebel Yell Single Barrel 10 Year (added October 2016)
  • Weller 12 Year
  • Weller Special Reserve
  • Old Weller Antique
  • Van Winkle 23 year
  • Van Winkle 20 year
  • Van Winkle 12 year
  • Van Winkle 10 year
  • William Larue Weller (Buffalo Trace Antique Collection)

But that list has a problem:  Almost half of them are so limited in production or so high in demand that most readers will never see them a retail.  So let’s divide them into two categories: Standard Production and Limited Release.

Here are my rankings the Best Wheated Bourbons in each category.  Where we have full reviews, scores, or tasting notes, I have included links:

Standard Production:

  1. Maker’s Cask Strengthmakers-46-vertical
  2. Old Weller Antique
  3. Larceny
  4. Maker’s 46
  5. Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond
  6. Weller Special Reserve
  7. Maker’s Mark
  8. Old Fitzgerald (80 proof)
  9. Rebel Yell Small Batch Reserve
  10. Rebel Yell

Limited Release/Extremely Hard to Find:Pappy 12 15 20

  1. Pappy Van Winkle 20 year
  2. William Larue Weller (Buffalo Trace Antique Collection)
  3. Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year
  4. Very Special Old Fitzgerald 12 year
  5. Rebel Yell Single Barrel 10 Year
  6. Van Winkle 12 Year
  7. Weller 12 Year
  8. Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year
  9. Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year

 

 

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About Author

Bill is the Co-Founder, Editor-in Chief, and official Bourbon-o-Phile for ModernThirst.com. He is a native of Louisville, KY in the heart of Bourbon Country. He attended the University of Kentucky in the mid to late 1990s. Since college, he has dabbled in beer, bourbon, wine tasting, beer making, and currently works in finance. He has also been published on Liquor.com. He has conducted various bourbon and whiskey tastings in cities across the country. He is married with two daughters, and lives in east Louisville. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter @BillStraub and email him at Bill@ModernThirst.com.

9 Comments

  1. Nice article Bill.
    I recently did a blind taste test comparing some Wheaters and surprisingly rated Makers 46 as my top pick among Makers Mark, Larceny, Old Weller Antique, and Bernheim (a pure wheat whiskey).
    Will be looking to sample some others on your list particularly the Makers Cask Strength.
    Maybe even one day I will get to try some Pappy!!

    • Maker’s 46 is a good pick. It’s essentially a barrel finished bourbon, and that extra spice is a nice kick to an otherwise soft, wheated profile. I like it. I like some of the new Maker’s Private Select picks even more, but they’re single barrel private picks, so I didn’t include them on the list.

      If you get a chance to visit Loretto, pick up a bottle of the Maker’s 46 Cask Strength sometime. It’s excellent.

  2. Nice article.

    With all the “easily” available wheaters around, it really makes little sense to go through the Herculean effort and expense to obtain the limited editions. Been there, done that, feel silly… never again.

    A store near me does private barrel selections of OWA and they are outstanding. I have a couple of them in my bunker. All the Maker’s versions, and Larceny should sate your wheater crave.

    I am looking forward to trying Old Fitzgerald.

    I’ve had/have 5 of the 8 limited/hard to find editions and they are not worth the effort, schmoozing, and gouging required to obtain. I have not had the VW 23, VW 20, and VSOF12. If they land in my lap at MSRP, like some have, I’ll bite. I admit I have gotten extremely lucky obtaining a few of these bottles. But I spent last “season” working the phones and visiting many stores, and I will not do that again.

    I do not covet, nor feel compelled to obtain something that is nearly unobtainable for the challenge. With no effort and normal market prices, I can have Maker’s, Larceny, and OWA.

  3. Ive had or have everything on the easy list. Futile efforts to obtain any of the 2nd list has been a waste of time. Ive tasted vw 10 @$45 for a dbl in savannah. It was a great taste but will never pay that much for it again.

    • Unfortunately, the surging popularity of bourbon has made most any wheater over 6 years old nearly impossible to find. I’d keep my eye out for the upcoming single barrel Rebel Yell as well as any private barrel selections you can find from Weller, or Maker’s Mark in particular. They can range from “okay” to “excellent.”

      I almost included Bernheim Wheat Whiskey in this list, since even though it’s a wheat whiskey, it taste a LOT like a wheated bourbon due to its high corn content. While I think the standard version is fine, I’ve had two private barrel selections that were great. And the 2014 Parker’s Heritage Original Batch Wheat Whiskey really showed what that mash bill is capable of with age and proof.

  4. Makers is my flagship wheated bourbon. Bernheim wheated whiskey a bit harsh imo. Had a $45 shot of PVW 23 a few years back in Louisville and wasn’t blown away for the price. Just bought a bottle of Larceny and the more I get into the bottle the more Iike it. Had a shot in Kentucky a few years back when it was introduced. Best I ever had was a couple weeks ago in a Chicago speakeasy the Office. A $125 1oz shot of Old Fitz bonded 1965-a real treat!

  5. I’ve been drinking bourbon for 50 years and liked your article on wheated bourbons. My favorite by far of the standard production you mentioned is Larceny. Great mouth flavors. Let me share a funny story. About 10 to 12 years ago, Total Wine opened a store in Clearwater Florida. I walk in and find 15 year old Pappy in a red velvet sack sitting on the shelf for about sixty dollars a bottle. I bought two. Maybe I should have bought two cases. Last I heard it was going for about three thousand a bottle if you could find it.

  6. Recently have gotten into bourbons. Wheaters are my favorites, but I like ryes too. Glad to find your listing. What’s really frustrating is that living in KY just an hour or so from all these distillers you can hardly find some of these choices, and they’re ridiculously expensive if you do. Really looking forward to the release of the RY 10 Single Barrel.

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