Buffalo Trace is a one-ton-bison of an enterprise, with nearly 2.6 million liters of annual production supporting a dozen brands of whiskey and countless expressions therein.
The Buffalo Trace Distillery, including its predecessor entities, has a long and storied history. The details are recounted in a timeline on the distillery’s website, which bears reading if only to reinforce that the tale of whiskey everywhere is a meandering trail of happy accidents, periodic financial ruin, and most of all, outsized personalities.
On the topic of personalities, the parade of names associated with this distillery should ring bells for even the casual bourbon drinker: Col. E.H. Taylor Jr., George T. Stagg., Albert B. Blanton, Julian P. “Pappy” Van Winkle, and (most germane to this review) William Larue Weller.
Each of these luminaries has been honored with their own nameplate in the stable of Buffalo Trace brands. Starting with the lowly Ancient Age and Benchmark bottom-shelf bourbons, products ascend through the ubiquitious namesake Buffalo Trace bourbon, up into more premium bottlings. Mark tried the Taylor Single Barrel Bourbon back in 2014, while Jason has more recently taken on the Cured Oak expression. There’s also Blanton’s Single Barrel, Eagle Rare, Stagg Jr., and Sazerac Rye at the upper end of the range, before we ascend to the rarified heights of Pappy Van Winkle.
To describe the latter as “highly sought after” is like saying the Crusaders “highly sought after” the Holy Grail. We can debate whether there is another whiskey brand in the world which provokes such furious excitement. What is not debatable is that sharing a distillery lends an attractive halo to the other brands, including Weller. In his recent review of the Weller siblings, W.L Weller 12 Years Old and Weller Antique 107, Adam noted that these are sometimes blended by consumers to create an ersatz Pappy substitute.
Setting aside its famous stablemate, let’s turn our attention to Weller. W.L. Weller, the man, was born in Kentucky in 1825. His claim to fame was the wheated bourbon produced by his wholesale whiskey business, which was prized for its smoothness. Weller today plays up this heritage, positioning itself as “The Original Wheated Bourbon.”
Among distillers, wheat is known for its softness compared with corn (sweetness) and rye (spice), and it is sometimes emphasized in a mash bill. Maker’s Mark is probably the best known of the wheated Bourbons, followed by Old Fitzgerald and Larceny from the Heaven Hill distillery. In a piece on Reservoir and another on Dry Fly, Adam expostulates at length about the merits (or lack thereof) of wheated whiskey. Again, frequent attention is drawn to the fact that a similar wheated mash bill is shared by the Pappy Van Winkle bourbons.
In 1935, Weller’s business was combined with the Stitzel distillery, owned by former Weller salesman Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle. How many times can I mention Pappy in a review of a non-Pappy whisky? Whoops, I did it again. Pappy. Pappy Pappy Pappy. Pappy! OK, I think I got it out of my system.
The Stitzel-Weller distillery was later sold and closed in 1972; today it is the visitor’s center for Bulleit Bourbon. Sazerac purchased the Weller brand in 1999, and it has since been produced at the Buffalo Trace Distillery, the same place they produce Pappy. Damnit!
Adam called this Special Reserve “pretty mediocre” in his review of the other Weller expressions, which piqued my interest. Exactly how pretty mediocre is it? I’m quickly becoming the house expert on pretty mediocre bourbon, so I couldn’t resist when I noticed a 1 liter bottle of this for $29 at one of my favorite local retailers. It is bottled at 45%.
Weller Special Reserve – Review
Color: Polished brass through a brownish-amber lens
On the nose: Floral and fruity, with dried lavender and sliced lime. There’s a soft vanilla frosting aroma and the faintest caramelized fat note of pan-fried pork belly. Exceedingly subtle.
In the mouth: Light bodied. Starts with a floral flavor of rosewater and some faint acetone. Midpalate is all limestone and sweet, corny heat. Again, though, very light. This perks up with a citric bite of tangerine, then lingers with a woody note and a hint of cherry licorice whip.
Pretty mediocre. This is to the Van Winkle bourbons as a lightning bug is to lightning. It’s so soft and airy, I’m not really sure who this is aimed at? Maybe someone who hates bourbon but is trying to learn to like it? I should save a bit for Jason. At the price I paid this is more or less fair value for the money, all things considered.