Something whiskey drinkers might not be aware of is that one of the most sought after, mythologized, and exorbitantly priced bourbons is actually a wheated whiskey. I’m talking, of course, about Pappy Van Winkle, the great white whale for every discerning Ahab of a whiskey drinker. In order for whiskey to legally be called bourbon, the mash bill must be at least 51% corn. The remaining 49% is usually some combination of grains like malted barley, rye, or, in cases like Pappy, wheat.
Chances are, most of the bourbon you drink is not a wheated whiskey. And there’s a better chance that it doesn’t have a 100% wheat mash bill. But there are some brands that fall into these categories that are outstanding, and while some of them may be hard to find outside of their home region, they are affordable, delicious, and well worth seeking out. Here’s a list of some fine examples of American wheat whiskies that just might convince you to give up your dreams of scoring that $750 bottle of Pappy.
Larceny Kentucky Straight Bourbon’s roots can be traced back to both Julian P. “Pappy” Van Winkle and John Fitzgerald of Old Fitz fame, giving it the whiskey version of street cred. It’s now part of the Heaven Hill family of whiskeys, and is a great entry into the world of wheated whiskey. It has a mild, tasty, buttery mouth feel with a pleasant butterscotch nose that tastes great neat, on the rocks, or in any cocktail. If you’re paying more than $25 for a bottle of Larceny, you’re paying too much – but that’s a compliment, as this is one of the best budget wheated whiskies you can find.
Another member of the Heaven Hill Distillery family, Bernheim Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey is aged seven years and has a mash bill comprised of at least 51% “soft winter wheat.” This is a very nice, light sipping whiskey with hints of caramel and burnt orange in its nose and flavor. I can see how this whiskey might be overwhelmed in complicated cocktails, but complicated cocktails are usually pretty bad anyway. I’d recommend drinking Bernheim neat, with just an ice cube or two, or as a substitute for rye in a Manhattan that will be a bit on the sweet side, but not cloyingly so.
Weller is a truly fine, inexpensive wheated bourbon that is part of the Buffalo Trace family, and hence a cousin of Van Winkle. There are three expressions—12 Year Old, Special Reserve, and Antique. The wheat replaces the rye in the mash bill for all of them. Although nothing matches the incredibly luscious mouth feel of Pappy, this whiskey is pretty damn close, as far as flavor goes, and should not be missed. I sampled the Special Reserve, which is sweet, smooth, and ever so slightly woody. At around the same price point, this leaves other well-regarded Buffalo Trace whiskeys, like their eponymous bourbon, in its dust.
Chapel Hill, N.C.
North Carolina’s TOPO whiskey, one of the two 100% wheat whiskies I sampled, perplexed me at first. Vanilla and butterscotch is the dominant nose and flavor, almost candy-like to the unsuspecting drinker. But then I took a closer look at the bottle, and it all made sense. Submerged way down at the bottom is a piece of vanilla toasted oak, imparting this organic Carolina soft red winter wheat whiskey with a spectacular and very unique flavor. This is the perfect after dinner dram, although there’s no reason you couldn’t substitute TOPO in any whiskey cocktail as well.
Pronounced “O-Why-O,” this Ohio distillery has two wheat whiskeys on the market that are some of the best I tried. The first is their flagship spirit, a single cask whiskey made from 100% Ohio soft red winter wheat. Its color is beautiful dark amber and it tastes of wood, cherry, honey, and spice. But it’s OYO’s Oloroso Wheat Whiskey that really blew me away. This is a double cask whiskey that’s aged in oak barrels before being finished in sherry casks, giving it a flavor and nose that reminds me of Glenmorangie’s Lasanta single malt. I wouldn’t waste this one on a mixed drink; this is a lovely, complex, expressive sipping whiskey, through and through.