Weller Special Reserve vs 12 Year: How These Two Famous Siblings Compare

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The Weller name has been well-respected in respect to bourbon in America since the 1930s. With a brief break from production in the ’90s, this distillery has been a dependable brand for crafted and quality American whiskey.

Compared to other whiskies, Weller has the reputation of standing out because it is a wheated bourbon. In fact, W.L. Weller has credit for creating the first wheated bourbon ever, which he did by blending and filtering other whiskies. (More on that later!)

But how do two of the most famous of the W.L. Weller bourbons stack against each other? Let’s discuss the history of the distillery, the process of how the W.L. Weller Special Reserve and W.L. Weller 12 Year are each made, and what each of them tastes like. In the end, I’ll let you know which Weller I prefer, but I always invite you to try for yourself if you can! I’m a big whiskey drinker and a former bartender with more than a decade of cocktail development and hospitality under my belt. Tasting these two Weller bourbons has been really exciting for me, so I hope you’ll enjoy my nerdy journey too!

Main Differences Between Weller Special Reserve vs 12 Year

The main differences between Weller Special Reserve vs 12 Year are:

  • The Weller Special Reserve is significantly less expensive, though its price has risen dramatically in the last year. It was initially marketed as the affordable and approachable Weller bourbon, usually costing about $20, whereas the Weller 12 Year was closer to $100 a bottle until that price skyrocketed recently as well. Still, the Special Reserve is going to cost about $65 nowadays, while the Weller 12 Year is in the wildly dramatic price range of $350 and up.
  • The Special Reserve is aged between four and seven years, whereas the 12 Year (you guessed it) is aged twelve years.
  • The 12 Year is going to be darker in color, whereas the Special Reserve is lighter since it spent much more time in a barrel.
  • Due to the price,  you won’t want to mix with the Weller 12 Year, whereas you can feel good about mixing fabulous cocktails with the Special Reserve.
  • The Weller Special Reserve is more grain-forward, woody, and hot, whereas the Weller 12 Year is leather, oak, and chocolate.

Weller History

Like many American whiskies, W.L. Weller bourbon history is a convoluted mash rich with American history, Prohibition, Repeal Day, and good old-fashioned buying and selling.

First of all, a Weller Distillery does not exist. (Insert mind-blown emoji here.) Weller bourbons are made by Buffalo Trace Distillery, one of the main roots in the big old American whiskey family tree. It is owned by the Sazerac Company, an even bigger root in the American whiskey family tree.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. W.L. Weller, the man, has often been mythologized as a distiller, but he was actually a distributor who blended and filtered whiskies purchased from other distilleries for the desired taste. He then repackaged them with his own label and sold them as his own product. (This makes sense that many believed him to be the sole distiller.) Somewhere in this process, W.L. Weller created the first wheated bourbon, between the opening of W.L. Weller and Sons in the 1840s and his retirement in 1896.

Upon his retirement, his business was purchased by the young sales representative he’d hired in 1893. His name was Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle. You heard me! Van Winkle continued W.L. Weller’s work, sourcing most of his whiskey from the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery. Once Prohibition ended, the two businesses made it official and merged. They became the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, which operated until 1992.

In 1965, bourbon sales were dramatically declining in America. That same year, Julian Van Winkle Senior died and passed his distillery on to his son Julian Van Winkle Junior. Due to the loss of sales because of bourbon’s drop in popularity, Van Winkle Jr. had no choice but to sell the Stitzel-Weller Distillery by 1972.  Norton-Simon was the buyer, who changed the name to Old Fitzgerald Distillery, and later, United Distillers. By 1992 it was purchased by Diageo, who shut the doors until 2014.

The mash bills, or recipes, and names for these beloved bourbons were sold by Diageo in the ’90s. Buffalo Trace purchased W.L. Weller from them in 1999 and has been distilling those bourbons out of their distillery in Louisville, Kentucky, ever since. You will notice the similarities in the front of ‘Weller’ on both the Stitzel-Weller Distillery branding and the W.L. Weller branding. I believe this is a very intentional nod to their shared roots.

Today, the Stitzel-Weller Distillery is on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. It is a facility showcasing the history and origins of Blade and Bow, Orphan Barrel, and I.W. Harper.

However, as of the day this article was published, the W.L. Weller Special Reserve and W.L. Weller 12 Year are each distilled by Buffalo Trace and owned by The Sazerac Company. I told you it was a lot of history, buying, and selling!

tasting whiskey

What Is a Wheated Bourbon?

The definition of bourbon is that it 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 in order to decrease the proof of the whiskey. That proof cannot be barreled at higher than 125 and cannot be less than 80 when the bourbon is bottled. Other whiskies allow flavoring and coloring to be added, but bourbons do not.

A wheated bourbon still uses 51% or more corn, but the very common ingredient of rye in a bourbon is replaced with wheat. This change gives the whiskey a softer, sweeter profile than whiskies with rye. Some of the most famous wheated bourbons are Maker’s Mark, the coveted Pappy Van Winkle (no surprise there as Van Winkle has roots in the Weller origin story), and of course W.L. Weller.

W.L. Weller Special Reserve Process

Let’s get to how this gorgeous bourbon is made!

So, we know that both the W.L. Weller Special Reserve and W.L. Weller 12 Year are wheated bourbons, meaning the mash bill contains wheat rather than rye. Other than that, the Buffalo Trace website is not transparent about how long it is aged or if it is a blend. Don’t worry. I did some digger deeping (I do it for you!)

According to TheBourbonCulture.com, Weller Special Reserve is aged four to seven years and chill-filtered before bottled. Chill-filtered is exactly as it sounds; it means that the filtration process is done at a chilled temperature. The whiskey is cooled and then run through filtration systems, making this system a bit more tedious than standard filtration. Why go through the trouble? Chilled filtration is done to stop any clumping that can happen amongst fatty acids, which creates cloudiness in bottles. Those clumps are eliminated by the chilled filtration system, keeping your whiskey looking clear.

W.L. Weller 12 Year Process

Much like its sibling, the Weller 12 Year does not have a lot of information from Buffalo Trace about its mash bill or process on the website. We, of course, know it’s wheated, but Buffalo Trace does not give away information on the aging process. Once again, I dug deeper!

What I found answered a few questions for me. I had been wondering why this bottle was so hard to find and so wildly expensive. I spent $350 on the bottle I purchased for this article! Some websites boasted having it for as low as $75, but those bottles were long sold out. Many are selling this for $400 and up. So what gives?

Well, it’s to do with the secret recipe. It has been exposed and circulated around the internet that Weller 12 Year is in fact the same mash bill as Pappy Van Winkle. The difference between the Pappy Van Winkle 12 Year and the Weller 12 Year is that the two were separated as the Weller bourbon was not quite up to the Pappy standards.

So the Weller is “not good enough” to be called Pappy, but it is good enough to be considered second best to the best in the world. I for one, am more than thrilled to be in possession of this second-best bottle.

And this trend seems to have also affected the price and availability of the Weller Special Reserve bottles. I was shocked to see many other websites siting it as the more “affordable” of the Wellers, saying they got it for $25 as recently as 2020. My theory is that since the Weller 12 Year has such a reputation now, its once-affordable little sister is now less affordable. I paid $64.99 for my bottle of Weller Special Reserve in Rhode Island. That means the price more than doubled in a year!

W.L. Weller Bottles

Photo by Thea Engst

Each of the W.L. Weller bottles stands out from one another because of the color of their respective labels. The Special Reserve is green while the 12 Year is black. The Antique is red, and the Full Proof is blue, and so on. To keep from being redundant, I’m going to describe both labels at once.

On each label all the font is gold. The signature “W” is centered on top, surrounded by a handsome garland in a circle around it. A simple design spans from the crest to the left and right, the same design also lines the bottom of the label.

Beneath the “W” is “Weller” in the signature Weller font you will also see on the Stitzel-Weller brand. Beneath “Weller,” smaller, are the words “the original wheated bourbon”. Beneath that in bold reads “special reserve” or ” aged 12 years” respectively, with another simple design dividing the words with the details of the bottle’s contents.

The bottle itself is very classic looking, with an elegant neck that has a roundness, making it easy to grip for pouring, it is topped with a twist-off cap the color of the label. The bottle’s body is wider up top and gently becomes more narrow towards the bottom. It is elegant, simple, and classy.

W.L. Weller Special Reserve Appearance

Photo by Thea Engst

The Special Reserve is lighter than the 12 Year. Though it is still amber, it just lacks the dark richness of its sister bourbon. Remember that adding color to bourbon disqualifies the whiskey from being categorized as a bourbon, so this color and the color of the 12 Year are both all-natural.

W.L. Weller 12 Year Appearance

Because of that chill-filtered process, the Weller 12 Year is clear, but it is slightly darker than the Special Reserve. Its dark amber coloration is due to it having been aged in charred oak for twelve years. (The Special Reserve is only aged four to seven years, so it makes sense that it is less dark than the 12 Year.)

W.L. Weller Special Reserve Tasting Notes

Photo by Thea Engst

The nose of the Special Reserve is grainy. I really get the dried wheat and corn here, which is very cool and enticing. Still, it has no heat at all.

The palate is grainy too, but soft. The oak comes through with hints of spice and pepper, almost resembling rye if not for the signature wheated bourbon softness. There are hints of oak but nothing too strong.

The finish of this bourbon is a little hot, but not overwhelmingly. The spice, like on the palate, is reminiscent of rye. Then, it is gone, fading away nicely. I’m not meaning to say it is boring, the sips leave me wanting more. I’m simply saying this whiskey does not linger on the tongue as many do. The resounding taste I am left with is the oak.

A small cube or drop of water does well in this, though I don’t think it’s necessary. Too much water will overpower this subtle, soft, sippable bourbon.

W.L. Weller Special Reserve Stats

  • 90 Proof
  • 45% alc/vol
  • Wheated bourbon
  • Aged 4-7 years
  • Price range is around $65 and up these days

W.L. Weller 12 Year Tasting Notes

Photo by Thea Engst

The nose of the Weller 12 Year bourbon has nearly no heat at all. True to the wheated bourbon form, it is as soft on the nose as it will be on the palate. The notes I’m getting are caramelized oak and wood. It’s almost like creme brulee but not quite. It isn’t quite as toasted, more of the caramelization.

As I said, this palate is soft like the nose. I’m getting very light caramel and lots of it. I also get milk chocolate and candied banana with hints of spice and charred oak at the end. Yum!

The finish is full of charred oak and white pepper with hints of cinnamon. Interestingly, I am left with the light charcoal notes of toasted marshmallows. And it shouldn’t surprise you that I’m left wanting more. Much, much more. Wow. This is truly a delightful bourbon!

W.L. Weller 12 Year Stats

  • 90 Proof
  • Wheated bourbon
  • Aged 12 years
  • Price range $350-850

W.L. Weller Special Reserve Awards

These are just some of the most recent awards for the W.L. Weller Special Reserve, to see the full list visit the W.L. Weller Special Reserve awards page on the Buffalo Trace website.

  • 2020 Gold Medal – San Francisco World Spirits Competition
  • 2019 Gold Medal – New York World Spirits Competition
  • 2019 Silver Outstanding Medal – Whiskies of the World
  • 2019 Silver Medal – North American Bourbon & Whiskey Competition
  • 2019 Gold Medal – Los Angeles International Spirits Competition

W.L. Weller 12 Year Awards

These are just a few of the many awards that the W.L. Weller 12 Year has received. To see them all, visit the W.L. Weller 12 Year awards page on 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

How to Drink the W.L. Weller Special Reserve

Photo by Thea Engst

This is a great wheated bourbon for sipping, but it’s also ideal for mixing. In fact, please mix with this whiskey rather than its sister the 12 Year. The 12 Year is not meant for mixing, it’s meant to be sipped neat!

I digress, the Special Reserve could do well with a drop of water to help open it up and cool it down. Just don’t add too much, this is still a wheated bourbon and that makes it soft, not too hot.

I mixed my Weller Special Reserve in a classic Manhattan using Carpano Antica as the sweet vermouth and oh my goodness! This cocktail really sang.

The Special Reserve plays really well with the richness of the Carpano Antica. It really brings forth a warm, dried cherry palate. This is a great classic cocktail to enjoy in these upcoming winter months. I highly recommend it!

Manhattan Recipe:

  • 2 ounces Weller Special Reserve
  • 1 ounce Sweet Vermouth (Carpano Antica recommended)
  • 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
  • Stir, strain up over a Maraschino Cherry

How to Drink the W.L. Weller 12 Year

I’m going to say this one more time: do not mix with this bourbon. Enjoy it neat. Yes, a drip of water wouldn’t hurt, but trust me when I say this bourbon doesn’t need water’s help to be drinkable.

It doesn’t need bitters or sweet vermouth, it doesn’t need citrus and it surely does not need to come anywhere near soda.

Enjoy responsibly, and by that, I mean drink this fancy bourbon neat.

Pros and Cons of W.L Weller Special Reserve:

Pros:

  • Price is decent for a W.L. Weller at least. This was significantly less than the Weller 12 Year and therefore significantly more affordable.
  • A really lovely bourbon, definitely worth tasting whether it’s at a bar or buying yourself a bottle.

Cons:

  • Price, yes, again! This price has risen only on the merit of the Weller 12 Year, which is disappointing to me. The only reason this bottle costs around $65 these days is because it has the Weller name on it. This is a silly impact of whiskey culture and I’m not here for it.
  • Difficult to find. The Weller 12 Year boom has made all Weller bourbons tough to get your hands on!

Pros and Cons of W.L. Weller 12 Year:

Pros:

  • Oh goodness gracious this is delicious!
  • The next best thing after Pappy, which is still an amazing bourbon.

Cons:

  • Price! While this bottle should be around $100, its rarity pushes prices up. I purchased mine for $350, and I had to order it online so I paid an additional $37 in shipping and handling, with a $9 charge for insurance should anything get damaged.
  • Difficult to find.

Comparable Wheated Bourbons to the W.L. Weller Special Reserve:

  • Maker’s Mark 46 is comparable to the Special Reserve in that it isn’t as costly as the Weller 12 Year. It usually costs about $45 and it has the softness the Special Reserve has with the hints of spice and oakiness as well.
  • Larceny Small Batch is significantly less expensive than the Weller is right now, but keep in mind the Weller Special Reserve was initially sold for around $20-25. The Larceny rings in at around $20 as well and has all the hits the Weller does, without the inflation.
  • Redemption Wheated Bourbon will run you about $50, but some websites have it listed as low as $40, this bourbon has everything you will find in the Special Reserve, without the hype.

Comparable Wheated Bourbons to the W.L. Weller 12 Year:

  • Pappy Van Winkle 12 Year seems too obvious and too expensive, but if you can get your paws on this bottle, it won’t disappoint. Remember, the W.L. Weller 12 Year is literally Pappy Van Winkle 12 Year that didn’t make the cut, so you won’t find bourbons more similar than these two siblings.
  • Garrison Brothers is a cinnamon-forward, buttery, well-balanced wheated bourbon that won’t disappoint. It costs about $70 too, so significantly less than the Weller 12 Year.
  • If you haven’t had anything from the Journeyman Distillery, you’re missing out. Their Buggy Whip Wheat is 100% wheat bourbon and like all their products, it is to die for. It has orange, vanilla, and caramel notes and is blended differently per batch to ensure consistency in taste. What’s more? This is usually only about $50!

glass of whiskey

FAQ Questions awebout W.L. Weller Bourbons:

Question: Does the Weller Special Reserve taste like the Pappy Van Winkle 12 Year?

Answer: The Weller Special Reserve has more heat than the Pappy Van Winkle does.

Question: Is the Weller 12 Year worth the price?

Answer: If you can find the Weller 12 Year for around $100 you’re just plain silly for not buying it. If it’s around $300 I’d still say go for it, but more than that is a lot of money to spend on one bottle. I have a friend whose rule is never more than $300 on a bottle of nice whiskey because after that you’re paying for availability, not product. That being said, it is limited availability for a reason…

Question: Will the prices of these bourbons go down?

Answer: I can’t really say yes or no to this definitively, you never know what the market is going to do. I will say that once a company gets used to making money, it rarely reduces prices. So I believe you will continue to see both of these bourbons being quite costly.

Question: Would you mix with these?

Answer: I would mix with the Weller Special Reserve because it was less money. In fact, I did make myself a beautiful Manhattan with it. The Weller 12 Year is so expensive though, it’s a bourbon best served neat. Savor it!

Final Thoughts on the W.L. Weller 12 Year and W.L. Weller Special Reserve

In the end, both of these wheated bourbons are valuable and worth trying in their own right. You are not going to be disappointed by either, especially if you don’t end up paying $850 for the 12 Year.

While the Special Reserve itself has risen in price, it is still a worthy bottle to have on your bar. It’s going to sip nicely and mix beautifully. It scratches the itch of having a soft, wheated bourbon at your fingertips without breaking the bank, even though the cost has more than doubled in a year.

The 12 Year is a different story. Since it is so sought after and the price get so outrageous, I’d caution against spending too much on this. Yes, it is the next best thing to Pappy Van Winkle 12 Year, but if you’re going to pay $850 for a bottle, make it a Pappy. At that point, you can certainly afford it!

Regardless of price, these are gorgeous, soft, and balanced wheated bourbons that both deserve their time to shine.

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