We recently had friends and family over to celebrate a birthday and took the occasion to share some fine bourbon. On this occasion, we shared a flight of Weller products – the flagship Weller Special Reserve, Weller 107, and a Van Winkle cousin, Weller 12 year.

StiTzel-Weller and Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle Sr. 

Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle Sr. became connected to bourbon lore when he began as a traveling salesman for W. L. Weller and Sons in 1893. Through mergers, the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery and the Weller Distillery joined forces on Derby Day in April of 1935. Stizel-Weller became noted for its wheated bourbon. You may recall that bourbons have to be at least 51% corn and are typically followed by a mixture of rye and malted barley. In wheated bourbons, the rye is replaced with soft winter wheat, resulting in a softer, smoother taste. Bill Samuels came to a similar conclusion when experimenting to develop Maker’s Mark in the 1950s.  

Following Pappy’s death in 1965 at the age of 91, son Julian Jr. ran the business until its sale in 1972 to settle ownership issues. Julian Jr. snatched a pre-prohibition label called Old Rip Van Winkle and bottled some of the remaining bourbon stock from the former Stitzel-Weller Distillery.  In 1981, his son – Julian III – took over the business when his father passed away. Julian purchased the Old Hoffman Distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY for barrel storage and bottling.  

In 1999, Buffalo Trace approached Julian III about joining forces. While there was plenty of bourbon aging at the Old Hoffman Distillery, the Bourbon Boom was starting and there was concern about future stocks, as the Van Winkle name had been growing in popularity and accolades. Later that year, Buffalo Trace bought the W.L. Weller label and has been making the bourbon. By 2002, they were also producing the Van Winkle bourbons using Pappy’s original recipe. Rumor has it that while the Van Winkle and Weller brands share a common mashbill, the barrels are aged in different locations.

I’ve read the Van Winkle story a couple of times. Each time, it leaves me a little melancholy as folks, at that time, didn’t realize the truly great gift that was present in that fine crafted bourbon.  It was with great foresight that Buffalo Trace acquired the distilling rights to keep the brand thriving.

The Lineup 

Buffalo Trace does a great job of keeping their mashbills under wraps. It is widely thought that the Weller brands contain 16-18% wheat in place of the typical rye.

Weller Special Reserve: The flagship brand and most readily available of the Weller Brands.   It carried a 7-year age statement not too long ago, but now carries NAS (no age statement), but is generally thought to be a blend of 6-8 year bourbons.  

Weller 107: As the middle-child in this line-up, it often gets overlooked for its more prevalent lower-proof sibling or its older “Pappy-want-to-be” sibling.  

Weller 12 Year: The Pappy-want-to-be. As prices skyrocketed and supplies tightened for the Van Winkle brands, many flocked to this less-expensive, but still exceptionally flavored close relative sharing an identical mashbill.

The Tasting 

For my tasting today, I’m joined by my daughter’s boyfriend and bourbon-lover, Joel. We’ll taste these in order (though full disclosure – Joel did go right to the 12-Year!) and share our impressions.

Weller Special Reserve

$28 (retail is around $20)

Joel Joseph Bourbon
Eye Light Fired copper
Nose Maple and
Vanilla, caramel, with honey-crisp apples.  There’s a lovely layer of oak and an old rick-house in there, too. Lovely and sweet.
PalateVanilla and caramel forward
FinishShort-medium with some oak at the end
Overall Classic bourbon – always on my shelf I pulled out another mass-market wheated bourbon to compare this one too. No comparison.Hands down, this is a GREAT everyday wheated bourbon (as long as you can find it!). This isn’t very complicated, but it’s also one that you can easily share with friends who are beginning to expand their palate.

Weller 107

$50 (retail is around $25)

JoelJoseph Bourbon
EyeLightDark Copper (darkest of the 3)
NoseSpicyFried pie dough and vanilla
PalateEarthyVanilla and caramel with light fruit notes. A trace of crème’ brulee. A couple of drops of water reduces some of the alcohol burn and really opens up some of the more subtle notes
FinishExhilaratingMedium-long and smooth
with spicy notes of peppercorn and cinnamon.
For the higher proof, this is surprisingly smooth and very drinkable.

Weller 12 Year

$99 (retail is around $30)

JoelJoseph Bourbon
EyeLightMedium Copper
NoseVanillaWarm and inviting with loads of vanilla and caramel
PalateSweetVelvety and incredibly smooth
FinishSmoothMedium with some vanilla and layers of spice
OverallTop tier – best of groupThis is EXCEPTIONAL.  I’ve had the chance to try the VanWinkle 10 year, and for the money, this is the better bargain and every bit (if not more) flavorful than its cousin.

It’s unfortunate that word has gotten out on these brands. Just a few years ago, these bottles were readily available at most locations. Now, they are in limited supplies – even for the flagship Special Reserve, let alone the incredible 12-year. And if you do spot one, its likely to be priced well over retail. I used to find the Special Reserve in the mid-$20s – now mid-to-upper $30s. I just replaced my $60 bottle of 12-year with a near-$100 version. The proof isn’t the only thing that’s rising!

All-in-all, this was a great time spent with family and friends tasting a flight of product with a long and heralded story. The Van Winkle Family can rest assured that their proud tradition of exceptional products lives on with new caretakers.

Today, the legacy of Julian P. “Pappy” Van Winkle Sr.’s mantra lives on at Buffalo Trace:

We make fine bourbon at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always fine bourbon. 

Good words to live by.

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