How does one even make an attempt to objectively discuss something like the W.L. Weller lineup of bourbons? Buffalo Trace’s wheated bourbon mash bill has been inflated with such rampant hype that these once widely available, high-value whiskeys have been utterly sucked into the gravitational field generated by Pappy Van Winkle, perhaps never to return again. Years ago, they were the kinds of bourbons you recommended to new drinkers as being welcoming, easy to find and superior at their low price points. Today, those price points have been inflated so much by the secondary market and rampant price-gouging in the primary market that it’s impossible to use the word “value” in their vicinity.
This is all something we wrote about in much more depth recently, in a piece bemoaning the decision of many package stores to begin selling coveted whiskey at full-on secondary market prices. Although this price gouging at the retail level also affects bourbon from many distilleries, such as Heaven Hill, Four Roses and Brown-Forman, there’s no other distillery that sees its entire lineup gouged with half the frequency of Buffalo Trace. A frequent darling of whiskey neophytes in particular, the distillery’s limited releases have been subject to a constant feedback loop of hype and inflation by traders in recent years, who are happy to wait in lines for hours to snag bottles that are destined to be resold at 400% MSRP. It’s a hype cycle that sadly continues to normalize the stupid prices that too many drinkers are paying for certain bourbons.
And even among the Buffalo Trace brands affected, few have been affected more than W.L. Weller, or been more thoroughly transformed by association with Pappy Van Winkle. As recently as 10 years ago, it was still easy to stroll into a package store and walk out with any of these brands for MSRP, but those days vanished as whiskey fans pointed out that because W.L. Weller shared the same mash bill as Van Winkle, it was essentially “poor man’s Pappy!” Even the entry level W.L. Weller Special Reserve, which could be had on the shelf for less than $20 as of a few years ago, now commonly goes for more than $100 at unscrupulous liquor stores.
For these very reasons, it had been a good while since the last time I went out of my way to sample selections from the W.L. Weller line. Like at least some more prudent whiskey geeks, there are simply prices I’m not willing to pay. A friend, however, recently brought some samples my way, and I decided that it was likely time to reassess each of these whiskeys for their own merits. How are they drinking in 2020, and is it possible to justify paying what it costs to purchase any of them?
I have here samples of three of the most desirable bottles in the range: W.L. Weller Antique 107, W.L. Weller 12 Year, and W.L. Weller Full Proof. Let’s get to tasting.
Secondary/gouging price: $150-200
Probably the most unusual of these samples, both in terms of flavor profile and where it falls in the lineup, is the venerable W.L. Weller Antique. Before the advent of the newer Full Proof, this was the “strong” entry in the lineup at 107 proof, but it typically carried a lower MSRP than the W.L. Weller 12 Year thanks to the lack of an age statement. The last few years, however, have brought rises in MSRP from Buffalo Trace in an attempt to bring their SRPs somewhat into line with reality, which has resulted in the SRP of Antique (also known as “Old Weller”) rising to $50. This actually makes it higher than the MSRP I still see cited for W.L. Weller 12 Year, which is $40—rather odd, considering that the 12 Year is typically selling on secondary markets for $100-150 more. But hey, you’re not going to find much about this lineup that makes a lot of logical sense.
Regardless, today this is the most accessible of these three samples, by which I mean that you might be able to find it on the secondary, or via price-gouging retailers, for as little as $150. Which is not great, for a bourbon that was commonly available for $30 a few years ago, but not nearly as bad as the next two entries.
On the nose, I’m initially getting light caramel and vanilla on this one, and a slightly musty tone that is speckled with impressions of hay or grass. It’s actually a bit ethanol forward as well, although this blows off with time, revealing more spice (slight anise, cloves, cinnamon) and peach-like stone fruit. On the palate, W.L. Weller Antique is warm and fairly sweet, with significant cinnamon sugar, vanilla, prickly spice, light oak and some of those same grassy/mustier notes. I feel like if I was tasting this completely blind, I would peg it as a bourbon recipe with rye rather than wheat, which is surprising, although it does have pleasant viscosity and a somewhat sweeter profile. Additional notes of mint and spice close out this sample, but of the three I found it the least interesting—although there is a nice delayed heat blooming in the chest, and I can certainly appreciate that.
At the $50 MSRP, W.L. Weller Antique strikes me as an okay value—a novel treat if you’ve never sampled the Buffalo Trace wheated mashbill, but either of the other two samples here offers more bang for your buck if you’re somehow getting it at the list price.
Secondary/gouging price: $300
This is a bourbon I used to casually drink from time to time in the early 2010s, but even then I didn’t have a particularly strong attachment to it. It’s funny to think, though, that I bought a bottle of this for a friend’s birthday party in 2013 for probably … $25? Today, the same bottle would cost 1200% that price.
Before the Full Proof and Single Barrel expressions came along, W.L. Weller 12 Year was the de facto most expensive member of the Weller family, and was frequently advanced as being directly comparable to the 12-year-old Van Winkle “Lot B” bourbon in particular, given that the two have almost the same proof point of 45% ABV (90 proof). Unlike the other members of the W.L. Weller lineup, however, this one obviously carries a sturdy age statement, and it really is the better dram for it. With that said, it may be even harder to come across than the Full Proof in some circles.
On the nose, Weller 12 Year is notably more expressive than the Antique 107, even at the lower proof point. There are some lovely notes here of brown sugar and kisses of cocoa, fudgy chocolate and cherry-like red fruit along with substantial oak. It has quite an air of richness around it, which follows through on the palate. Here I’m getting plenty of toffee, moderate oakiness and cola-like spice, with plenty of red fruit. This bourbon has a greater degree of complexity lent to it by hints of oak tannin and leather as well—it’s pleasantly nuanced, although it might be that much better at 100 proof. Regardless, the W.L. Weller 12 Year truly has benefited from the additional time in the barrel. It’s not the most explosive of this lineup, but it’s probably my favorite.
At the $40 MSRP, this would legitimately be an excellent value. At 600% of that, it’s hard to recommend.
Secondary/gouging price: $500-600 and beyond
I added “and beyond” for this one, given that although most of the bottles being sold by price-gouging package stores online are going for $500 or $600, there are others that go even further into the realm of absurdity. Suffice to say, when you take the name “Weller” and stick it on a high proof expression, people lose their minds.
Which is funny, because “full proof” in this context is actually a fairly reserved 57% ABV (114 proof), no higher than the likes of say, the Old Forester 1920 you can find down at your corner package store. That’s because the bottled proof on this brand isn’t exactly “barrel proof” (the strength at which it came out of the barrel) but rather a standardized “full proof” of 114, which is the strength at which it went into the barrel. Like the Antique 107, this expression has no specific age statement, instead using its strength as the selling point.
On the nose, Full Proof strikes me as having more in common with the profile of OWA 107 than it does with the 12 Year—the same slight mustiness, but also more decadent sweetness at the same time. There’s a lot of confectionary stuff going on here—vanilla frosting, cloves, cinnamon sugar, caramel and raspberry like red fruit in particular. Surprisingly, the nose is actually fairly gentle—I might actually be getting less ethanol here than on the Antique 107, which makes me wonder if these barrels are also somewhat older than in the other brand.
On the palate, this is pretty rich and fairly sweet, and the standout to me is some very bright fruit notes that really pop, particularly in the form of strawberry/raspberry. It adds a very nice dimension to the backbone of cinnamon sugar, caramel and vanilla, and the overall effect is mildly decadent but easily enjoyed. Moderate oakiness ties everything together, making for a profile I’m finding increasingly intriguing. I don’t think it speaks to me quite as much as the darker, oakier dimension of the W.L. Weller 12 Year, but I do think it’s considerably more intriguing than the more conventional Antique 107.
At the MSRP of $50, it’s obviously one to grab up immediately. Of course, you won’t be seeing it for that price, which is the whole point. Is it worth $500? No, but you’d be hard pressed to get me to select any bourbon that is. W.L. Weller Full Proof is, however, worth pestering your friend for a sample if you get the chance.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.