Wheated Bourbon Battle: Pappy Van Winkle 15 vs. 2011 William Larue Weller

This year’s edition of the Buffalo Trace “Antique Collection” and the latest release of Pappy Van Winkle both recently hit store shelves (and both slightly more recently disappeared from store shelves). The Antique Collection includes the Eagle Rare 17, the Sazerac 18 Rye, the George T. Stagg, the Thomas H. Handy Rye, and the William Larue Weller Bourbon; and this year’s release was met with some tremendous reviews from bourbon enthusiasts. I was lucky enough to get my hands on exactly one bottle of this year’s William Larue Weller, a wheated bourbon just like Pappy Van Winkle 15 (also made at the Buffalo Trace distillery). The Weller fact sheet reads that it’s made from Kentucky corn, North Dakota wheat, and North Dakota malted barley. I’d love to know the exact mash bill distinction (if there is one) between the Weller and the Pappy just for comparison sake, because these two great wheated bourbons make for an interesting contrast. The Weller was put in the barrel in 1998, and while it bears no age statement on the bottle, Buffalo Trace confirms that it was 12 years and 11 months old at bottling. If you’re the kind of bourbon fan who geeks out on the details, you’re in luck: new white oak, #4 char, charred for 55 seconds, barrels from Independent Stave in Lebanon, KY, 114 proof at barrel entry, 130 proof off still, kept on the 4th and 5th floors of Warehouses N/O/P, 57.2% of the original whiskey lost to evaporation(!), only 45 barrels made, etc. Three cheers for (very close to) full disclosure from the folks at Buffalo Trace.

You won’t find that kind of detail on the elusive Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 15 year old, which is one of my all time favorite bourbons. I actually give it a slight edge over its older brother, the 20 year old Pappy Van Winkle. It’s supremely balanced and layered, a true joy to sip over the course of a long evening. The Weller? Despite the similar mash bill and similar (well, not too far off) age, it’s quite different if you ask me. There’s the fact that the Weller is bottled at barrel strength, a whopping 133.5 proof, so an apples to apples comparison is not quite so direct with the Pappy (which clocks in at 107 proof). Suffice it to say, I am very happy I got my hands on the Weller, but also very happily confirm that there is something very special about Pappy. (And an important note to many of the bourbon geeks out there – I’m still on last year’s release of the Pappy 15, so this is not the current release which many assume to be a full switchover to the stock distilled at Buffalo Trace rather than the final Stitzel-Weller stock)

Here are my notes:

William Larue Weller Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 2011 Release
133.5 Proof
Approx. $70 Retail

Lovely rich, deep amber color. The nose is BIG. Like a brown sugar praline pecan pie with some dark cherries thrown in. Are you hungry for dessert? There’s some ginger spice in there too, a touch of cinnamon. Truly impressive, not for the faint of heart, or the dessert-averse.

Tasted neat at barrel proof, this has some sharp heat from the alcohol, a good burst of that rich sweetness, and a surprisingly delicate presence of corn. While I love the nose at full strength, and recommend just breathing this baby in for a while, I prefer adding a nice bit of filtered water to open things up and get it down to a more manageable proof for sipping. I found that the water tones down the sweet intensity on the nose and brings out a bit more nuance, an almost herbal green woodiness beneath the dark caramel sugar. The entry smooths out as well, bringing in some bread-y notes, both corn and wheat bread are there, intermingling. There’s a bit of ginger and baking spice, too. The caramel and brown sugar remain through into a long finish that picks up some steam (and heat). A very satisfying sip, but I think the full strength nose is what really sets this one apart.

Overall, this earns highest honors – a full fledged WOW – for the nose, but a slight tick down (merely Excellent) for the full experience.

Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey 15 Years Old
107 Proof
Approx. $70 Retail

Like I said, this is one of my all time favorites, and it’s intriguing that the Pappy and Weller are so different.  Compared to the Weller, the Pappy 15 is a touch lighter in the glass, still a nice rich copper / amber. The nose is more subtle, more nuanced, less overtly sweet. Sure, there’s caramel and brown sugar in there, but the baking spices are much more prominent. New notes pop in and out, dark fruits, touches of vanilla and toasty wood, but the overwhelming impression is one of tremendous balance and depth.

On the tongue, Pappy is richer, fuller, a bit more like an embracing coat of honey (though far from cloying or syrupy). That sense of balance continues, sweet molasses gingerbread into more spices, a warm leather boot kicking time. I don’t get the corn here at all, which is so evident on the Weller. The warmth is deep and lingering, and it just leaves you shaking your head with a smile for minutes after each sip.

Pappy 15 is truly a WOW if there ever was one.

Also… be sure to check out our Rye Battle, featuring Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye and High West Rendezvous Rye


* Thirsty South Rating Scale:

Wow – among the very best: knock-your-socks-off, profound, complex liquid gold!
Excellent – exceptional in quality and character, worth seeking out, highly recommended
Good Stuff – solid expression of its type/varietal, enjoyable and recommended
Fair – fairly standard or exhibiting obvious though minor flaws
Avoid – move away folks, nothing to see here, a trainwreck