February 2017: Four Brothers – The Weller Lineup

by Stephen Netherton

W.L. Weller

Our February 2017 Tasting Event featured the current bottles of the Weller brand in a blind tasting.

Although the Weller brand is familiar to most, some brief history is appropriate. The bourbon is named after William Larue Weller, who was a whiskey producer in the mid-1800’s. Whether he distilled any whiskey himself or not (this is the subject of much debate), he is credited with formulating the recipe that the Weller brand continues to use today. The brand finds its roots in the William Larue Weller & Brother company, which sourced the whiskey and sold it from a shop in Louisville.

In 1893, William needed to hire some help outside the family. He hired a young man named Julian Van Winkle. After William’s death, Julian and William’s two sons merged the family business with the A. Ph. Stitzel Distiller to form the Stitzel-Weller Distilling Company. The company changed hands several times before finding its current home – the Sazerac Company. Now, the bourbon is distilled and aged at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort Kentucky.

Unlike most bourbons, whose mash bills contain a percentage of corn, rye, and barley, Weller substitutes wheat for the rye. Though this does not necessarily make Weller completely unique from all other bourbons, Weller does claim to be the “original wheated bourbon” (although there is doubt as to whether this is accurate, it could just be Weller’s response to Maker’s Mark’s claim as the “inventor” of wheated bourbon, see Chuck Cowdery’s article).

Wheated bourbon would likely not be the magnanimous statement it is, were it not for the fact that Pappy Van Winkle is also a wheated bourbon and assumedly the exact same mash bill as Weller.

Today, there are four expressions for the Weller brand – W.L. Weller Special Reserve, Old Weller Antique 107, W.L. Weller 12-year, and William Larue Weller. A limited release W.L. Weller 19-year was released along with the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection from 2000-2002, but was then discontinued. Also, W.L. Weller Centennial, a 10-year expression and bottled at 100 proof, went out of production in 2009.

So, what differences are highlighted in this lineup featuring four bottles from the same distillery with the same mash bill (and all sour mash)? The Special Reserve and Old Weller Antique are both no-age statement blends with different proofs—90 and 107. The Weller 12 and William Larue Weller are age-stated (12 and 13 years), but again have differing proofs—90 and 135.4.

  • Cocktail:
    • Name: Rock ‘n’ Rolla
    • Ingredients: 2 oz. bourbon, 1 oz. apple juice, ¾ oz. lemon juice, ½ oz. maple syrup, ¼ oz. St. Elizabeth allspice liqueur, 2 dashes Angostura bitters, freshly grated nutmeg
    • Recipe: In a cocktail shaker, combine bourbon, apple juice, lemon juice, maple syrup, allspice liqueur, and bitters. Fill with ice and shake well. Strain into a rocks glass over a large ice cube. Garnish with grated nutmeg.

We blind tasted each of the four bottles and recorded our tasting notes as we progressed. The bottles were arranged in the following order:

Weller 12

  • Bottle 1:
    • Name: W.L. Weller 12-year
    • Distillery: Buffalo Trace
    • Proof: 90
    • Price: $32.99
    • Purchase location: Central Wine and Spirits
    • Tasting Notes:
      • Nose: Butterscotch, caramel, molasses
      • Palate: Creamy, cinnamon, oak
      • Finish: oak, clean, slightly bitter baking spice, medium length
    • Why this bottle is featured: Not many years ago, this bottle was widely available at an affordable price. The bourbon craze of the past decade, and the likelihood that more product was gradually earmarked for the Van Winkle line, has resulted in Weller 12 becoming a ghost. And, with the trend towards dropping age statements, it is becoming a rarity for any bourbon to be aged longer than 10 years while remaining affordable. Nevertheless, despite the drop in proof from the Old Weller Antique, it is difficult to find something to criticize with its taste. Some may expect more, given its scarcity, but when you recall its intended availability and price, it certainly over delivers.
    • Blind guess: The group was nearly evenly split between the Weller 12 and the Special Reserve.

Weller 12

  • Bottle 2:
    • Name: William Larue Weller (12 years 7 months)
    • Distillery: Buffalo Trace
    • Proof: 135.4
    • Price: $149.99
    • Purchase location: Central Wine and Spirits
    • Tasting Notes:
      • Nose: Deep, vanilla, alcohol, cherry
      • Palate: Cinnamon, brown sugar, high proof
      • Finish: Warm and long, cocoa, cinnamon, brown sugar, vanilla
    • Why this bottle is featured: This bottle needs no introduction. Its reputation and awards speak volumes. However, Buffalo Trace saw fit to include within a case the following, printed on company letterhead:

Dear Friend of Buffalo Trace,

Many thanks for your purchase of William Larue Weller, our uncut and unfiltered Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. The William Larue Weller release from last year was named “Bourbon of the year” in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2016.

We hope you and your customers are very pleased with the wheated bourbon contained in these bottles. In distilling and aging this product, we have attempted to make some of the finest American whiskey ever made.

Our William Larue Weller bourbon has been produced in response to consumer requests for more well-aged and barrel strength whiskey. We filled these particular barrels at 114 proof in the year 2003, but after twelve years of aging the whiskey is now 135.4 proof.

The glass bottle chosen for William Larue Weller is designed to showcase the whiskey’s dark and rich color. The black label provides a full product description. Every case has been hand bottled and labeled to ensure the highest quality finish. The tissue paper has been added to protected the finished package.

On the reverse side of this letter you’ll see a fact sheet about the barrels selected for this particular release. Hopefully you and your customers will find the intricate details of these particular barrels interesting.

In closing, thank you again for your purchase of this very limited supply of William Larue Weller.

  • Blind guess: a slight majority guessed the William Larue Weller, but some were convinced it was the Old Weller Antique

Weller Special Reserve

  • Bottle 3:
    • Name: W.L. Weller Special Reserve
    • Distillery: Buffalo Trace
    • Proof: 90
    • Price: $19.99
    • Purchase location: Davis Liquor Outlet
    • Tasting Notes:
      • Nose: Melon, light/low proof, vanilla
      • Palate: soft pepper, sweet, breakfast cereal
      • Finish: short, creamy
    • Why this bottle is featured: This bourbon was formerly aged stated at 7 years. Now, it is a blend without an age statement. This current rendering represents, presumably, the youngest of the Weller family, and also the lowest proof. It serves as an introduction to the other family members by being quite approachable and affordable. For a low-shelf bourbon, this is hard to beat.
    • Blind guess: Almost unanimously – the Special Reserve.

Weller Antique

  • Bottle 4:
    • Name: Old Weller Antique
    • Distillery: Buffalo Trace
    • Proof: 107
    • Price: $28 (1 Liter)
    • Purchase location: R&J Discount Liquor
    • Tasting Notes:
      • Nose: fruity/apple, pepper, pear, cinnamon, baking spices
      • Palate: peppery spice, creamy, cinnamon, rich
      • Finish: mild lingering, oily, cherry
    • Why this bottle is featured: Also previously age-stated at 7 years, the current expression is blended without an age statement. Thought to be a blend that adds a bit more age than the Special Reserve, this bottle also kicks up the proof, which helps when enjoyed neat. It is rumored that the reason why this (and, in fact, many other bourbons) is bottled at a seemingly random 107-proof is because in the 1940’s, distillers barreled at 100-proof and could not bottle any higher than 110-proof. So, 107 became a sort of “sweet spot.” In any event, at its price point and proof, it is difficult to think of a better value bourbon.
    • Blind guess: Almost an even split between the William Larue Weller and the Old Weller Antique.

Results/Conclusion:

This tasting pitted the 2 lower proof bottles with one another and the 2 higher proof bottles with one another. No one in the group really struggled with confusing the bottles between those two groups. Therefore, the order was important. The Weller 12-year, as the first bottle, did not have much of an opportunity to shine. And, by following the William Larue Weller with the Special Reserve, the Special Reserve did stand a fair chance to showcase its positive attributes.

There emerged two important lessons. First, the mystique surrounding the Weller 12-year overlooks the bourbon’s original intent as an affordable, quality, and mature mid-shelf bourbon. Its scarcity has only inflated expectations, which could yield disappointment for some. The lesson here is that this bottle delivers on its promise, but not if it is purchased for secondary market prices.

Second, the Old Weller Antique, when given time to breathe (the tasting glasses were poured approximately 45 minutes prior to the tasting), can shine among some of the best. Unlike the Weller 12-year’s beautiful display of balance, the Old Weller Antique is out of balance – but in a pleasant direction, particularly for those who prefer higher proof bourbon. This bottle is one of the best bargains available. At least, for now.

Gentlemen devoted to the finest.

2 Replies to “February 2017: Four Brothers – The Weller Lineup”

  1. Great lineup!

    From top to bottom, Weller produces such a strong lineup. But the heavy hitters are for sure the Old Weller Antique and the William Larue Weller (despite the cult-like following of the Weller 12). The two high proofers – once they have breathed – are so full flavored and approachable, they steal the show!

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