Whiskey Review: WL Weller Special Reserve

For some whiskey drinkers, the Weller name comes with a certain level of prestige. I remember my first time — it was at a nice restaurant in Evanston with a co-worker. I had never had it before, but after a couple sips, I was determined to find a bottle. It took a little time, but I finally found a bottle of the green label for my own collection. So lets dig into what makes this so desirable, and why you might want to pick up a bottle of your own.


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History

The Weller family made the crossing from Germany to the New World in 1740, putting down roots first in Maryland before moving to Kentucky in the mid 1790s. It was there that the Weller family first fired up a still and started making whiskey, helping shape the early history of Kentucky spirits.

Samuel Weller was the second generation of Kentucky whiskey distillers in the family, and in 1825 his wife Phoebe gave birth to William Larue (W.L.) Weller. He was raised on a rich history of distilling, and continued that history as he became a whiskey wholesaler and distributor in 1849.

HIs first company was W.L. Weller & Brothers, which he stared with (surprise, surprise) his younger brother. The company was soon renamed to W.L. Weller & Sons as it grew in size and notoriety.

In 1893, a strapping young upstart named Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle Sr. started as a salesman at the company and worked his way through the ranks. After the passing of W.L. Weller, Van Winkle Sr. and Alex Farnsley purchased the company in 1908 with W.L.’s son George remaining as president of the company.

In order to produce and sell spirts under a medicinal license during prohibition, the W.L Weller & Sons company merged with the A. PH. Stitzel Distillery creating the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in 1935. After the repeal of prohibition, the company decided to invest in opening a new distillery and, as fitting for any distillery in Kentucky, this new distillery was opened on the first Saturday in May (otherwise known as Derby Day).

The distillery was a cathedral to doing whiskey ‘the right way’. Pappy’s famous motto for his distilling operation was “we make fine bourbon at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always make fine bourbon”. That dedication to craft and detail went as far as the door knockers on the front door of the administration building, which were designed as five keys — one for each of the five key components in the process of bourbon production (grains, yeast, fermentation, distilling, aging) and served to remind everyone who walked through the doors about the importance of that process.

Compared to other distilleries, things ran a little differently. The bourbon started with a 51% corn content as required by law but, rather than using rye as the secondary component, the Stitzel-Weller recipe used the more abundant and locally grown wheat. The use of wheat instead of rye was thought to give the whiskey a smoother and richer flavor. The mash was then cooked to release the sugars in the grains — but where other distilleries used commercial high-performance yeast, Pappy continued the Stitzel tradition of a sour mash process using the same locally grown yeast strain. And finally, where other distillers put their whiskey in new oak barrels at the maximum alcohol content allowed by law (to get the most whiskey at the end), Pappy barreled his whiskey at a lower alcohol content to improve the resulting flavor.

Pappy Van Winkle would continue to run the distillery until his death in 1965, which is coincidentally when things took a turn for the worse in the American whiskey market. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, the US market rejected whiskey in favor of clear spirits like vodka, and the massive stockpiles of whiskey at distilleries like Stitzel-Weller suddenly became worthless. The Van Winkle family would be forced to sell the company in 1972 to a large distilled spirits conglomerate that would eventually become the massive British firm Diageo.

While the distillery continued to operate for around two decades more, the facility eventually closed its doors for good in 1992. The ancient sour mash yeast was lost or destroyed. The equipment was left to rust. And the remaining whiskey, which had been so lovingly produced, was exported and blended with other sources to create the Crown Royal Canadian Whiskey line.

That wasn’t the end of the Pappy Van Winkle line, though. After the sale of his family’s distillery, Julian Van Winkle, Jr. (son of the original Pappy) purchased a small bottling plant nearby and began purchasing back barrels of the famous whiskey his father had produced and selling them under the old family name. As the American whiskey renaissance kicked into high gear over the recent decades, that brand of whiskey has been prized by whiskey snobs worldwide for its incredible quality and flavor. Buyers often pay exorbitant prices on the secondary market for a single bottle of the stuff. Given the dwindling stock of original whiskey and the booming demand, Julian Van Winkle, Jr. has since partnered with Sazerac and Buffalo Trace to restart production of their whiskey line.

W.L. Weller is an expression produced by Buffalo Trace in cooperation with the Van Winkle family.

Product

As mentioned, the Stitzel-Weller distillery began using a unique mash bill, replacing rye with wheat, which produced a softer, smoother bourbon. This process was started by Weller and was perfected by the Van Winkle family, and is why there are several products in the brand that bear these names to this day.

Both this product and the new Pappy Van Winkle whiskey come from the same formula, with the only difference being the aging process. While the exact mash bill is not disclosed, we know that it must contain at least 51% corn as a bourbon but in this case the majority of the remaining 49% is most likely wheat given the prominent branding as “the original wheated bourbon”.

Once the grains are mixed they are cooked, fermented, and distilled at the Buffalo Trace distillery. That newly made whiskey is then aged in a new charred oak barrel to meet the definition of a bourbon. While there is no age statement provided, it’s generally assumed that the Special Reserve is aged for around 7 years. After aging, it is bottled at 90 proof.

Packaging

In the collection of Weller products, there are six varieties that share the same bottle shape. The bottle may appear to be cylindrical at a distance, upon closer inspection you can see that the bottom half is tapered out to a wider mid-section. This then curves in at a sharp shoulder, leading to a longer neck. The neck has a flared bubble near the shoulder, eventually ending at a basic aluminum screw top.

The label also follows the same formula as the other Weller varietals – each has their own primary color adorned (mostly) with gold lettering. The Special Reserve is called the “Green Label” as the background is a deep forest green.

The label itself is eye catching, but not overwhelming. At the top of the label is a calligraphed “W” over the name ‘Weller’. My first experience with this was actually just because my co-worker could pick out the bottle on the back bar — so extra points for fact that the label is distinct enough to know what it is from across the bar, but not so large as to hide the beautiful burnt orange spirit inside.

Neat

The first thing that I notice, is that the nose is barely noticeable. Even in a nosing glass, it’s hard to pick up any notes. They are there, but faint. If you try hard enough, you will find notes of vanilla, honey, and very light tangerine.

I am not surprised to taste these exact notes — vanilla, honey, tangerine, and other fruits — in my first sip. This bourbon is very sweet, and pleasant to drink. There is a flavor of freshly baked dinner rolls that lingers on the tongue. There is a very mild spice, heat, and oak as it dissipates.

My preference in bourbon, especially experienced neat, generally varies based on the weather. Both my first sip of bourbon, and this tasting, occurred in the heat of the summer. Having a spirit that is clearly a bourbon, on the sweet side, and with a mild spice, makes for a wonderful summer evening.

On Ice

I am slightly worried to pull this on ice, as ice tends to mellow out many heavier notes… and well, this is a very light and delicate bourbon.

As it chills, any aroma that was there is all but gone. I have to breathe unnaturally deep to get a faint smell of vanilla. Taking a sip, most of the earlier notes as gone, replaced with a light toffee flavor (think Werthers Original). There are very few other flavors of note, sadly.

I do not recommend drinking this on the rocks — especially compared to neat, this feels like a complete waste of good bourbon.

Cocktail (Old Fashioned)

At first, I thought about skipping the cocktails with Weller’s all together, given how much it mellowed out on ice. Thankfully, though, this old fashioned made me glad that I went through with it anyway.

What we have here is definitely a lighter version of an old fashioned, and a sweeter one as well.  Given how this reacted with the added ice, I purposely only added one dash of bitters so as not to overwhelm the cocktail — and the result was a very nice, well-balanced Old Fashioned.  The bourbon itself does not shine as a stand alone ingredient, but worked well with everything else.

Fizz (Mule)

Nope.

Okay, this one definitely should have been skipped.  Granted, my ginger beer of choice is on the strong side, but my earlier concerns that the Weller would not be strong enough to make an appearance in a cocktail proved accurate here.

It’s so overwhelmed by the ginger and lime that I questioned if I even added the spirit. I checked, I did – but there was very little taste evidence that I did. This might be salvageable with a very (emphasis on the very) mild ginger beer, but overall I would not recommend it. Skip this altogether.


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Overall Rating

The bourbon market is getting ever more crowded, but W.L. Weller Special Reserve is an old guard spirit that has staying power. It tends to disappear quickly from shelves around me, but it’s definitely worth tracking one down if you can. There is history and uniqueness in this delicate bourbon that you do not find in newer brands.

W.L. Weller Special Reserve
Produced By: W.L. Weller
Owned By: Sazerac Company
Production Location: Kentucky, United States
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 45% ABV
Price: $30 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating:
All reviews are evaluated within the context of their specific spirit classification as specified above. Click here to check out similar spirits we have reviewed.

Overall Rating: 4/5
An excellent choice to drink neat on a warm summer evening.


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