I’ve always thought of bourbon as, on the whole, being better value than scotch. Certainly single malt scotch. Above £40 the playing field starts to level, and once you’re into £50+ Scotch starts to pull away a bit – though mainly on breadth of variety, rather than quality per se.
On the whole though, for under £40 (which is what the average punter pays for a bottle of whisk(e)y) bourbon tends to offer more bang for your buck. (Or, since Malt is a UK-based site, more sauce for your Sterling. Though I’m not sure I like that expression, and wish slightly that I hadn’t just coined it…)
It’s worth mentioning, because in the £50 and upwards category, American whiskey prices are starting to creep inexorably skywards. Part of this is the trend for very limited releases with fancy marketing spiels, part of it is the demand for rarity, part of it is the ever-swelling plethora of ambitiously priced “craft whiskies”, and part of it is simply that there are a lot more folk drinking bourbon (and other US juice) than there used to be.
In the sub-£40 category though, bourbon remains a source of immensely rich pickings to those who don’t constrain themselves to a single-malt-scotch-only philosophy. You’re unlikely to find a better whisk(e)y for under £20 than Buffalo Trace, or for under £30 than Wild Turkey 101. Elijah Craig 12 has now all but slipped away, but its replacement, whilst not as good, is still very decent. And you can hang your hat on anything that comes out of Four Roses.
But the most fêted name you’ll find for under £40 is Weller. Specifically W.L. Weller 12, and Old Weller Antique 107. Wheat-recipe bourbons from Buffalo Trace, they’ve achieved near-legend status for their price, and can be seen trading hands at auction for upwards of £150. (Which is miles more than they’re worth – please don’t pay that for them).
If you can find these bottles – and it will take some hunting, they’ll set you back about £40 for the 12, and £35 for the OWA. And there’s no Scotch with nearly the same reputation for that price. But there’s a third option too, and I’m not talking about the pretty mediocre Special Reserve.
You may have heard of the astonishingly hyped, insanely rare, and rather expensive Van Winkle range. These days it’s made from the same mash bill and at the same distillery as the Wellers. To the point that a blend of 40% Weller 12 and 60% OWA has been christened “Poor Man’s Pappy” by online bourbonistas. Designed to be a substitute for the Old Rip Van Winkle 10, or the Van Winkle Lot B 12, it’s certainly cheaper and easier to come by.
But is it actually greater than the sum of its parts? Having a bottle of each, and an empty sample bottle for the blend to marry in, I thought a side by side was in order. Which brings us to this.
W.L. Weller Aged 12 Years (45% ABV)
On the nose: Really caramelly, in a dark caramel kind of way. Development clearly in evidence; none of that acetone spirity nonsense you find in so many too-young wheaters. There’s distinct oak influence of cinnamon alongside slight leather and old furniture. Some milk chocolate too, but this is mostly about that dark caramel and muscovado. Not screaming out of the glass, but you don’t have to really get your nose in.
In the mouth: It’s a silky palate this one, and I don’t often use that as a descriptor. Caramel bomb again; cut through by a light prickle of alcohol. Actually, though silky, the palate is ever-so slightly dilute. Not too much, but just enough to be noticeable. Alongside the caramel there’s a toffee popcorn and a little sandalwood. Not quite as complex as the nose. Very easy to drink, without being one-dimensional. It’s a very classy and unaggressive bourbon. Finishes a little more quickly than I’d expect though.
Old Weller Antique 107 (53.5% ABV)
Colour: Pretty much identical to the 12, being younger but more concentrated.
On the nose: Boom. There’s the intensity the 12 wasn’t quite delivering, though the alcohol isn’t set to nostril-shrivelling. The fact that it is younger is immediately evident; there’s certainly more presence of grain, though it’s old enough to have overcome any acetone. The caramel is fresher, and everything is more lifted. Alto to the 12’s Tenor. Where 12 was wood, leather and cinnamon, this one is vanilla, coconut and spicy white pepper. Something intriguingly incense-like too.
In the mouth: Much lusher palate than the 12; that sense of slight dilution has gone entirely. Oilier, more viscous. Lots of corn oil, then that fresher caramel again. A slight nuttiness; pecans and macadamias, rather than darker walnuts. Alcohol is prominent, but not unduly so. The weight of the palate just keeps it in check. Again, I think the nose is better, but this is still excellent stuff, particularly for £35. More liveliness and intensity than the 12, for sure.
“Poor Man’s Pappy” (50.1% ABV, if you get the blend exactly right.)
Colour: See OWA.
On the nose: The depth of caramel returns from the 12, springboarded by the vibrancy and spice of the OWA. Instantly the most interesting animal of the three. There’s a nutmeg character that I didn’t find in either of the previous two, and the nuts of the OWA have deepened and darkened. A little of the 12’s leather and old furniture too, with a touch of red fruit and even post-mix cola.
In the mouth: Palate steps up from the 12’s viscosity, and holds its alcohol better than the OWA does. There’s also no graininess; this feels older than it technically is. The flavours follow through from the nose, with the addition of hickory, roasted corn, and char. The more I sip, the more that cola seems to appear. It’s better balanced and more complex than the OWA, with more weight and assertiveness than the 12. Definitely my pick of the three.
The Wellers have a hard-won reputation, which for the asking price they fully live up to. These are excellent, excellent whiskies, and a million miles above most of the far more expensive, underaged wheat-recipe stuff becoming increasingly trendy in the states.
I’d recommend taking a look at our scoring band categories again to fully appreciate the ratings I’ve given. If we fussed around with half-scores I’d probably rate the 12 a 6.5, and the OWA a 7, but in terms of the bands they both fall into the same one. Namely, if you find these whiskies, you should buy them on the spot.
If you’re lucky enough to find both though, get yourself an empty bottle and blend yourself a “Poor Man’s Pappy”. It marries the best aspects of its constituents, whilst ironing out their slight kinks, lending assertion to the 12, and balance and complexity to the OWA. In short, it does exactly what a blend should. In fact, in a blind tasting of the full Van Winkle range last year, the Poor Man’s Pappy beat both the Pappy 15, and the Van Winkle Lot B 12. So it’s rather a no-brainer.
And you’ll have enjoyed all 3 for a total of £75. The best value still left in whisk(e)y? It’d be pretty close.