The entire Van Winkle line (except for the rye) is wheated bourbon, which is one of the reasons why people think it tastes special.
By law, all bourbon must be made using a mash of at least 51% corn, with many producers using up to 70%. After meeting that threshold, any grain combination can be used. Most producers will add a percentage of malted barley to aid in saccharification, which is the breakdown of complex carbohydrates into simple sugars that the yeast can eat up to make alcohol. Everything else is flavoring grain, with rye being the most popular in bourbon. Wheat is less commonly used, and will lead to a softer nose and sweeter taste. If you've ever tasted wheat bread vs. rye bread, you already know the difference between the two.
William Larue Weller is credited in marketing materials with making the first commercially viable wheated bourbon, but since W.L. Weller & Sons were primarily wholesalers and rectifiers, the credit should actually go to the A. Ph. Stitzel firm that did their contract distilling. (Editor's note: someone needs to name a whiskey after this man already!) The two companies merged out of necessity at the end of prohibition to form Stitzel-Weller, the distillery that was run by Pappy Van Winkle.
Today, there are a number of bourbons on the market that use wheat, although none of them are quite as old as the high-end range of the Van Winkle lineup. That there is no comparable product may contribute to the common assertion that it is the best bourbon on the market—indeed, it could just be a taste that people aren’t familiar with. Additionally, the heavy presence of wood tannins sort of defeats the purpose of using a mashbill that gives you a softer nose and a sweeter taste in the first place. If you want to actually taste the difference that wheat makes versus other grains, try one of these bourbons:
The best selling wheated bourbon on the market, moving over 1.4 million cases a year. Although it carries no age statement, it’s common knowledge that the product is aged around six years and bottled for taste. Maker’s Mark 46, which is regular Maker’s finished with new French Oak staves, debuted in 2010, making it only the second widely available product in the company’s lineup. In 2014, the company also began selling a Cask Strength version of its regular Maker’s Mark bourbon.
To read more about Maker’s Mark, check out the full article about it in this issue.
Weller Special Reserve, Antique 107, W.L. Weller 12 Year, William Larue Weller
Named after William Larue Weller, the whiskey wholesaler who gave Pappy Van Winkle his first job in the industry as a traveling salesman. The brand changed hands several times after Stitzel-Weller was sold, eventually ending up with Sazerac Co. at Buffalo Trace. The distillery now produces a single wheated mashbill formula, some of which will end up as Van Winkle products, and the rest as Weller.
While Weller Antique 107 and Special Reserve are fairly easy to find, the 12-year-old is constantly on allocation owing to the aforementioned fact that it is essentially the same juice and age as Van Winkle 'Lot B'. William Larue Weller is a cask strength version of the same juice, and is an absolute monster. It’s part of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, and produced in extremely limited quantities.
Old Fitzgerald Prime, Bottled in Bond, 12 Year, Larceny
John E. Fitzgerald wasn’t a whiskey maker or a founder of a distillery, as many people think. He was a treasury agent with the keys to the bonded warehouse at the Old Judge Distillery with a thirst for bourbon, often sneaking in and taking whiskey from the best barrels. When it came time to produce an exclusive whiskey for steamship lines, railroads, and clubs, the Old Fitzgerald name was used as a tongue in cheek way to denote that it contained premium whiskey. After the brand was bought by Pappy Van Winkle for $10,000 during prohibition, it became Stitzel-Weller’s flagship product and began using the Stitzel wheated formula. Now owned and produced by Heaven Hill, the bourbon is available as Old Fitzgerald Prime, Bottled-in-Bond (100 proof, 4 years), and 12-year-old. Larceny is a relatively new product that tells the story of Fitzgerald as a treasury agent with a penchant for, well, larceny.
A great value bottom shelf bourbon, Rebel Yell was conceived and produced at Stitzel-Weller. It is now made by Heaven Hill and marketed by Luxco.
Jim Beam Signature Craft Soft Red Wheat
Like all producers, Jim Beam does a fair amount of experimentation with different grains on a small scale in an attempt to discover novel new products. Their primary bourbon mashbill that powers Knob Creek, Baker’s, Booker’s, and the entire Jim Beam line contains around 15% rye and the mashbill for Old Grand Dad and Basil Hayden is around 30% rye, so a wheated bourbon is completely foreign to this distillery. This is a limited production bourbon that was distilled in 2003 and bottled in 2014.