Cult whiskey Pappy Van Winkle still retains its appeal for bourbon fans, even those who realize that its exorbitant price and scarcity might mean that it’s not really worth the time and expense required to secure a taste. Yes, Pappy is a very good whiskey, especially the 15- and 20-year-old expressions, but is it really worth spending thousands on a bottle, or hundreds for a pour at the bar? It all depends on your means, of course, and for those of us without expense accounts or trust funds, there are some excellent and affordable alternatives to drink instead. Pappy, which is distilled at Buffalo Trace, is a wheated bourbon, which means that wheat is the secondary flavoring grain in the mash bill instead of the more common rye. This generally gives the whiskey a softer, sweeter, fruitier flavor. So for those who have hopped off the Pappy wagon, here are seven alternatives that are just as good, and a whole lot cheaper, to drink now.
The most obvious and popular wheated bourbon choice is Maker’s Mark. This bourbon, owned by mega corporation Beam Suntory, can be found in any liquor store or bar and has a soft, mellow flavor that is accessible even to inexperienced whiskey drinkers. There are only a few different expressions, but one of the best is the Cask Strength, with a relatively low proof ranging from about 108 to 114, depending on the barrel. Maker’s is a solid option to consider in the wheated bourbon category.
Sadly, WL Weller is not as cheap or easy to find as it once was. Blame this on whiskey geeks who discovered that Weller is basically Pappy (made at Buffalo Trace using the same mash bill), but aged for different amounts of time and in different warehouses. This makes Weller probably the closest thing to Pappy you can find, and for that reason it has become another cult whiskey. Antique and Special Reserve are probably easier to find than the 12YO expression these days. There’s also the new Full Proof, which is non-chill filtered and bottled at 114 proof, which is the proof it has going into the barrel. Consider yourself lucky if you can get your hands on any of these at a reasonable price.
Heaven Hill’s Larceny Bourbon is a wheater that was first released in 2012, which the distillery says has a “six-year-old taste profile.” In other words, this is a non-age statement bourbon that probably contains whiskey aged between six and ten years. Heaven Hill claims that Larceny has a third more wheat in the mash bill than its competitors, but the actual recipe is not revealed by the distillery. Whatever the case, this is a reliable bourbon that, at 92 proof, can be used to make a good cocktail.
Old Fitz is another Heaven Hill wheated whiskey, but this one is harder to find (due to limited availability) and more expensive than Larceny. It’s bottled in bond, which means the whiskey is at least four years old and bottled at 100 proof. The most recent edition was a 13-year-old whiskey — each whiskey differs in age throughout the five-year run of this BIB series. The liquid come in fetching decanters, but it’s the whiskey contained within that, up until this point, has been the real selling point.
In the craft sphere, Wyoming Whiskey is making some very good whiskey. The core expression is a wheated bourbon made from a mash bill that includes 20% wheat that shines through on the palate. This is properly aged and expertly distilled craft whiskey, which will likely become better known now that Scottish company Edrington has acquired a minority stake in the distillery.
1792 Bourbon is made at the Barton Distillery, which is owned by Sazerac. There are some interesting expressions included in the brand’s Limited Edition range, including this Sweet Wheat bourbon. As indicated by its name, this is a wheater made with wheat instead of rye, and falls closest to Maker’s in terms of flavor.
Sonoma Bourbon Whiskey
Sonoma County Distilling Co. is a true small-scale craft distillery located in Northern California. The bourbon has a high wheat mash bill of 25%, and it is produced and aged at the distillery. This whiskey is aged for about two years, as is common practice among craft distillers, but the wheat flavor does peek through the woody notes typical of a young whiskey. It begs the question what another three or four years maturation would do to the flavor, but Sonoma is making interesting whiskey that is worth a try even at this young age.