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The Weller name has been associated with American whiskey and, specifically, wheated bourbon since the 1930s. While the company has had several iterations and was even briefly closed down, the Weller name still carries the pristine reputation of nearly one hundred years of bourbon production.
So what exactly is in a name anyway? I’m a whiskey lover, especially when it comes to bourbon, and I’m here to walk you through the coveted W.L. Weller 12 Year Wheated Bourbon. Let’s discuss the history of W.L. Weller, why this particular bourbon is so expensive and hard to find right now, and what it even tastes like!
True to form when it comes to the history of American whiskies and their distilleries, the W.L. Weller bourbon story is a lot of mythology mixed with buying, selling, and finally: delicious bourbon.
Firstly, there is no W.L. Weller Distillery, not anymore. There was, at one point, a Stitzel-Weller Distillery which was founded in 1935 and shuttered in 1992.
Today, W.L. Weller bourbons are made by Buffalo Trace Distillery and owned by the parent company, the Sazerac Company, while the Stitzel-Weller facility is owned by Diageo. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves!
W.L. Weller himself was a distributor in the mid-1800s. Though legend has made him a distiller, he was not. He purchased whiskies from nearby distilleries and blended and filtered them to make a new whiskey according to his desired tastes.
He would then bottle and package these new whiskies with his brand and sell them as his product. You can understand then how the confusion that he was the distiller began.
Somewhere along the line of doing this, W.L. Weller created the first-ever wheated bourbon. The year is unknown, but you can estimate this happened somewhere between the opening of W.L. Weller and Sons in the 1840s and W.L. Weller’s retirement in 1896.
And in 1896, when Weller retired, W.L. Weller and Sons did not go to a son but was rather purchased by the young sales representative he’d hired only three years prior. His name was Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle. Yes, that Pappy Van Winkle.
Van Winkle continued W.L. Weller’s work exactly as Weller had done it by sourcing the bulk of his whiskey from the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery nearby. Two years after Repeal Day, the two businesses made it official and merged, opening the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, which was operational until 1992.
I know it’s hard to imagine now, but in the ’60s, bourbon popularity was plummeting. The vast majority of Americans just weren’t reaching for whiskies at the time; they preferred clear spirits, especially vodka. In 1965, Julian Van Winkle died and passed his distillery to his son, also named Julian Van Winkle.
Sadly, Van Winkle Junior could not maintain the business with bourbon being so unpopular and had no choice but to sell the Stitzler-Weller Distillery in 1972.
For those of you wondering, the bourbon we know as Pappy Van Winkle did not hit shelves until 1994, which means the original Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle was long gone.
Furthermore, the hype around this bourbon did not happen until 1996, when the Van Winkle 20 Year was given a nearly perfect score (99/100) by the Beverage Tasting Institute. This was the highest score ever given by the Beverage Tasting Institute. The rest is history.
Norton-Simon purchased the Stitzel-Weller Distillery from Van Winkle Junior in ’72 and renamed it Old Fitzgerald Distillery. They then changed the name again to United Distillers. United Distillers was purchased by industry giant Diageo in 1992, and the mash bills and names were sold off throughout the decade.
Diageo reopened the Stitzler-Weller space in 2014 as a stop on the famous Kentucky Bourbon Trail. It showcases the history and origins of three whiskey brands: Blade and Bow, Orphan Barrel, and I.W. Harper. And just a little tidbit from me here!
The Orphan Barrel project is one of my favorite whiskies to enjoy. I love learning about their unique offerings, and I highly recommend trying any of their products that you happen across!
Back to the ’90s, though. In 1999, Buffalo Trace purchased the W.L. Weller recipes and names from Diageo and had been distilling those bourbons out of the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky, ever since.
(You may notice the font of ‘Weller’ on both the Stitzel-Weller Distillery branding and the W.L. Weller branding being the same. I believe this is done on purpose, a respectful nod to their shared roots.)
So as of 2021, the W.L. Weller 12 Year is distilled by Buffalo Trace in Kentucky and owned by The Sazerac Company. I hope that all the changing of hands, names, and processes didn’t get too confusing!
So What Exactly is a Wheated Bourbon?
You probably already know the definition of bourbon. Just a quick recap: bourbon must have a mash bill of at least 51% corn, must be aged in virgin American oak barrels, and must not have anything but water added (other whiskies allow flavoring and coloring to be added).
The proof of the bourbon cannot be higher than 125 when barreled and cannot be less than 80 when bottled.
After the 51% or more corn is in the mash, many bourbons use rye to make up a significant portion of the rest of their mash. In a wheated bourbon, though, the rye is replaced with wheat. This switch-up results in a softer, sweeter tasting bourbon than whiskies that are made with rye.
Three of the most famous wheated bourbons today are Maker’s Mark, the desirable Pappy Van Winkle (no surprise there as Van Winkle has roots in the Weller origin story), and of course W.L. Weller itself.
The W.L. Weller 12 Year Process
As you can imagine, the mash bill of this wheated bourbon is very secretive. Finding details about how this bourbon is made is very difficult.
So here is what we do know. Firstly, this is very obviously a wheated bourbon; it’s right in the name. That means it has 51% or more corn and wheat instead of rye in the mash bill. We also know that it was aged for twelve years.
Furthermore, since it is a bourbon, we can definitively say that the W.L. Weller 12 Year has been aged in virgin, charred, American oak barrels. We also know that being in Kentucky, Buffalo Trace is just one of the distilleries that utilize that purified, limestone-filtered water for all their whiskies.
Limestone filtered water has a higher pH, which helps with the fermentation process. It also adds minerals like calcium and acts as a natural filter for unwanted impurities. It’s not a huge amount of details, but it’s something!
Why is the W.L. Weller 12 Year So Expensive?
The answer is Pappy, of course! The fact is that as you start to dive into different bourbon mash bills, you will find that a lot of distilleries make the same recipe and age them differently to create wildly different bourbons.
This is common; this is fun, there is nothing wrong with this. This is what Maker’s Mark does with their original Maker’s Mark bourbon to make their Maker’s Mark 46.
What happened was, after some digging, it was found out that the W.L. Weller 12 Year is not just a delicious bourbon; it is the bourbon that didn’t quite make the cut to be called Pappy Van Winkle 12 Year. And this is why it’s so difficult to get your hands on a bottle of Weller 12 Year, reasonably priced or not.
So someone found this information out and spread the word around the world, and the internet and whiskey enthusiasts all over started clambering for this nearly-Pappy bourbon.
While it isn’t the same, the gentle nuances of another aging process or even the nuances that a master distiller could pick up on versus the average palate are indecipherable for most people. This created a mad dash, and the bottle that was once listed in the $75 range is now unattainable for less than $350.
If you don’t already know, Pappy has been a long-time coveted bottle of whiskey for any whiskey enthusiast, but they are rare and nearly impossible to come across whether it’s at a bar or for your home bar.
Pappy bottles often start at $500 and only go up from there, especially the older they get. So if you can get a nearly-Pappy bottle for $350, you could rationalize spending the money because you may consider that quite the bargain.
Weller 12 Year is, therefore, literally the next best thing to Pappy Van Winkle 12 Year, and if you stop and think about the high standard that Pappy adheres to, it is quite an accomplishment to come in second place!
W.L. Weller 12 Year Awards
Here is a list of awards dating only as far back as 2019. If you’d like to see the full list, you can visit the Buffalo Trace website.
- 2020 Silver Medal – San Francisco World Spirits Competition
- 2020 Silver Medal – World Whiskies Awards
- 2019 Silver Medal – New York World Spirits Competition
- 2019 Gold Medal – Whiskies of the World
- 2019 Double Gold Medal – North American Bourbon & Whiskey Competition
- 2019 Silver Medal – Los Angeles International Spirits Competition
- 2019 Silver Medal – American Whiskey Masters
- 2019 Double Gold Medal – San Francisco World Spirits Competition
- 2019 Bronze Medal – World Whiskies Awards
- 2019 Silver Medal – Denver International Spirits Competition
W.L. Weller 12 Year Appearance
The Weller 12 Year has a deep amber hue. It is clear, without any clouds. Overall, it’s darker and richer than other wheated bourbons like Maker’s Mark. This is the result of the aging process, as it has been left in charred oak barrels for twelve years. Remember, no additional coloring can be added to any bourbon.
W.L. Weller 12 Year Tasting Notes
And finally, the best part! On to the tasting!
The nose of this bourbon is very soft with virtually no heat. It has really lovely caramelized oak and woody notes.
As you expect from a wheated bourbon, the palate is also soft. I get milk chocolate, candied banana, lots of light caramel. It’s creamy, with hints of spice, a little cinnamon, and charred oak at the end.
The finish is a lot of charred oak and white pepper. I’m left with the light charcoal notes of toasted marshmallows and brown sugar. I am left wanting more.
This is a lovely wheated bourbon. It is soft but interesting, complex yet approachable. This is what wheated bourbon should taste like.
W.L. Weller 12 Year Stats
- 90 Proof
- Wheated bourbon
- Aged 12 years
- Price range $350-850
How to Drink the W.L. Weller 12 Year
I cannot stress enough how much I would not recommend making a cocktail with a bottle of whiskey this expensive.
Because other ingredients add their element to each cocktail, if you’re going to mix with a wheated bourbon, you will get very much the same result by using a less expensive wheated bourbon such as the W.L. Weller Special Reserve, for example.
This is a bourbon that is meant to be sipped and enjoyed neat. While you could add a cube if that’s how you prefer to drink whiskey, because this is a wheated bourbon, it makes it softer. Cubes or water tend to open up whiskies and cool down hotter whiskies. The W.L. Weller 12 Year does not need either of those things.
So, in short, the best way to enjoy this bourbon is neat. And trust me, you will enjoy it!
W.L. Weller 12 Year Bottle
Each of the W.L. Weller bottles has almost the same label on a different color backdrop with a matching twist-off cap. The Weller 12 Year is on a black label.
All the font is gold, with the only script being the signature Weller “W” and the word “Weller” itself. The “W” is at the top of the label, centered and encircled by a garland. A simple, art deco design spans out from the crest on either side; the same design also lines the bottom of the label.
“Weller” in bold, is beneath the “W.” And then smaller, beneath that, read the words “the original wheated bourbon.” Finally, “aged 12 years” appears on the lower half of the label, with the number 12 being bolder and larger than the words surrounding it. A pretty and delicate design underlines those words, followed by the details of the bottle’s contents.
The bottle itself is simple with a narrower bottom than the top, which fans out slightly as it reaches the neck. The neck has a roundness to it, making it easier for pouring.
W.L. Weller 12 Year Pros and Cons
- The next best thing to Pappy and therefore more available and affordable than any Pappy bottle you’ll find.
- Delicious. Truly a beautiful bourbon.
- A piece of American bourbon history.
- The price! I paid $350 for my bottle, which I found online. I had to pay for shipping, too, of course, and I threw in an extra insurance policy just in case anything happened to my precious cargo. This brought my total to $400. Ouch! In my search, I even found bottles for as much as $850!
- The search. This could also be a pro if you’re a treasure-hunter at heart. But for me, I have to call it a con. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t like to have a panic attack while looking for a rare bottle of whiskey. I’m more of a casual stroller through aisles, reading histories and labels and choosing that way.
Comparable Wheated Bourbons to the W.L. Weller 12 Year
Pappy Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Year
Pappy Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Year is an obvious choice. This is the same whiskey as the Weller; it just is considered slightly ‘better’ by the master distillers at the Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Pricewise, these bottles can be a lot. Sometimes they get up to $500, while sometimes, you can find them for closer to $300. It’s all about the luck of the draw. Happy hunting!
Maker’s Mark is always a solid choice for a wheated bourbon. It’s also less expensive and readily available (for now)! Pricewise, Maker’s is usually in the $35 range, so it’s significantly less expensive than the Weller 12 Year.
1792 Sweet Wheat Bourbon
1792 Sweet Wheat Bourbon is appearing on a lot of lists for solid wheated bourbon options. Ringing in at about $200, it’s probably the closest you can get to the Weller 12 Year that’s not going to be quite as expensive right now. Buy it, you see it, though; this is a limited edition!
W.L. Weller 12 Year FAQs
Answer: The original price tag on this bottle was a steal. If you can find it for around $100, you should one-hundred percent buy this bourbon. If you find it for around $300, I’d also say buy it. Above $500, you might as well just buy Pappy (if you can find it)!
Answer: It’s hard to say. I’d like to be fiscally responsible and say no, but I honestly probably would!
Answer: I have had the privilege to have had several vintages of Pappy Van Winkle. I won’t lie and say that I can distinguish the nuances of different high-end whiskies from memory. What I can say is that this is a wonderful bourbon, and while I’m not sure I’d pay $350 for any bottle again, I’m glad I did this time!
Final Thoughts on the W.L. Weller 12 Year
The world of whiskey is a wild one. It has deep roots in American history and can very quickly become an expensive game of allocations and name-dropping. However, if you know your stuff, you can avoid getting taken advantage of and even making out with a good bargain.
As far as the craze of the W.L. Weller 12 Year and everything that lead up to it, I believe this whiskey lives up to the hype. I would not pay $850 for this whiskey because I simply couldn’t afford it. But I would recommend it to anyone who finds it for a reasonable price who cares about bourbon, history, and a little notoriety.
Cheers to Pappy, to Stitzel-Weller, to Buffalo Trace, and to this gorgeous bourbon we can all hopefully enjoy because of them!