The more I taste bourbon, the more I’m settling into preferred flavor camps. I hadn’t really noticed this with scotch (I’ll enjoy almost any scotch without too much young grain in it), but I’m really starting to prefer straight rye and wheated bourbon. Straight rye has a lot of interesting spice notes, along with herbal spikes of menthol, mint, or eucalyptus. I drink rye when I want something to think about and analyze. Wheated bourbon, on the other hand, is full of cereals, comfort-food sweetness (think Marshmallow Fluff), and comes across the palate as soft. I drink wheated bourbon when I want to sit back and relax… the spiritous equivalent to a mug of hot cocoa on a cold night. Even the high-proof stuff (like Pappy Van Winkle) is flavorsome in a deep, fully-fledged way that is very satisfying… even as it burns the tastebuds off your tongue. All of this may be because I taste less of that “fake” corn-syrup flavor in wheated bourbons than I do in rye-flavored ones. I don’t have an explanation for that – they’re both still mostly corn.
W. L. Weller is named after the eponymous William Larue Weller. Weller is thought to be the first distiller to use wheat as the flavoring grain for Kentucky Straight Bourbon, and built a successful business on the idea. His distillery eventually merged with Pappy Van Winkle’s Stitzel distillery to form the Stitzel-Weller distillery that yielded all that craze-making Pappy juice. Of course, both W. L. Weller 12 and (now) Pappy Van Winkle are made at Buffalo Trace’s distillery since Stitzel-Weller was closed in 1992.
This is the 12 year-old expression, and not to be confused with the annual Buffalo Trace Antique Collection bottle (“William Larue Weller” with a vintage year, usually 12 years old and at cask strength), which is as nearly impossible to find as Pappy. W. L. Weller 12 is sold alongside its (younger) non-age-statement siblings W. L. Weller Special Reserve and W. L. Weller Antique, and is basically 12 year-old Pappy Van Winkle bourbon that didn’t make the barrel selection cut for Lot B. While “failed Pappy” doesn’t sound like a great selling point, it should be pointed out that although the maturation differences resulting from barrel warehouse location and barrel individuality are well-documented (and the whole basis for the “single cask” phenomenon), the differences are often slight or incremental and are averaged together during vatting. In other words, 12 year-old Pappy is statistically only slightly better than 12 year-old W.L. Weller. This suddenly starts to matter when you look at the price tag: W. L. Weller 12-year is $26 a bottle. Failed Pappy 12 for $26? Sign me up!
Note: Someone might argue, rightly, that sometimes individual barrels are WAY better than the same barrel from another part of the warehouse. This can increase the average quality of the vatting they go into, and further accounts for the popularity difference between Pappy and Weller, as is the fact that the most popular Pappy (the 15 year) is cask strength, and 3 years older.
Nose: Lovely round profile, classic wheated bourbon notes of soft caramel and sugar-dusted breakfast cereals. This one has a sour twang, like sour cherries, and a distinctly corn-oriented acetone note. A little wood is detectable as a vein of ground cinnamon.
Palate: Very soft on the palate. Silky, even. Moderate tongue burn. A little anise on the front, some nice fresh corn notes in the middle, and a continuous acetic acid throughout, like cider vinegar or vermouth.
Finish: Medium length, with vanilla and some light drying barrel tannins. Caramel reappears, with honey-flavored candy (candy corn). No bitterness. Pleasant.
With Water: Several drops of water add maybe a hint of maple syrup to the nose. Alas, the water seems to introduce a bitter note in the finish. I personally will skip the water.
Overall: There is a nice array of pleasant flavors and aromas, although just because this is a wheated recipe does not mean it bears much resemblance to Pappy Van Winkle 15. There just isn’t that much depth in the W.L. Weller. Still, for the money this is an easy-going sipper – an uncomplicated glass of bourbon, both with and without an ice cube.