The Whiskey Cabinet in 2020
A $20 Buffalo Trace Bourbon Available Everywhere Is Now $200 and Nowhere to Be Found. What Happened?
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“I can vividly remember this,” says Fred Minnick, founder of Bourbon+ magazine. “I was at a bar called Jack’s Lounge, no longer in business. The bartender was Joy Perrine, an amazing, brilliant woman in the whiskey hall of fame, since passed away. She was making cocktails. I liked them fine, but they were never my thing. I said, ‘Joy, I wanna drink a really nice bourbon.’ She pulled out Weller 12 Year Old. And that’s what I drank.”
There aren’t many whiskeys that can make someone sigh like Minnick sighs after he tells that story.
Weller 12 is one of them. These days, it’s about as hard to find as Jack’s Lounge or Joy Perrine. Demand for this delicious wheated bourbon has driven the liquid underground. In 2017, it topped the list of sought-after spirits on the massive booze search tool Wine-Searcher — and in 2019 it was a close second to Blanton’s. This rise in interest has had consequences on supply. In 2014, the average price of Weller 12’s on the legal market was $47. In 2019 it was $238, according to the site’s data.
Technically, today it retails for around $30, but good luck finding it on a liquor store shelf. This year, while reporting a story about Facebook’s illegal black market whiskey selling groups, I watched an entire case of it sell in less than two minutes, at $150 a pop — a drinker’s bliss, vanishing in a puff of cash and smoke.
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The tale of Weller 12 in the past decade is a melancholy one for bourbon drinkers — a story of beautiful flavors, secondary hype and a tragedy of price increase, says Blake Riber, founder of the blog Bourbonr and the whiskey service Seelbach’s. “Probably after Pappy, Weller 12’s the hardest one to get.”
The Weller line of whiskeys is named for William Larue Weller, a whiskey salesman in the late 1800s who had a hand in the famed Stitzel-Weller distillery. Buffalo Trace says he was one of the first distillers to offer a bourbon with a high content of wheat rather than rye for flavor — a claim that has been disputed.
Stitzel-Weller closed in 1992, and Buffalo Trace bought the Weller name in 1999. They introduced Weller 12 in 2001, and it was eventually joined by a number of other Wellers, including Antique 107, Special Reserve, CYPB (Create Your Perfect Bourbon) and Full Proof as Buffalo Trace’s premiere wheaters, after Pappy and William Larue Weller, an especially rare, and especially expensive, bottle. Weller 12 was a wheated whiskey, its barrels aged at least 12 years in Buffalo Trace’s rickhouses. It retailed for around $20.
Buffalo Trace refuses to release the specifics of their mash bills, to some drinkers’ chagrin. But we know for a fact that their wheated mashbill is used for all of their wheaters, including both the Weller and Van Winkle line (exceptions being the CYPB Weller and Van Winkle Rye). That means Weller 12 is the same mash bill, age, and proof as Van Winkle Lot B — which goes for more than $400 these days on the secondary market. In fact, Buffalo Trace told me that the difference between the two is simply that the Van Winkle family selects barrels to be included in Van Winkle Lot B; Buffalo Trace tasters select the barrels for Weller 12.“We use a lower distillation and entry proof, which contributes to the soft, round, almost ‘creamy’ taste and mouthfeel of the whiskey,” Amy Preske, who handles PR at Buffalo Trace, wrote me in an email. Tasters have different ways of describing the unique flavor profile of good wheaters — “sweet,” “round,” and “smooth” are common ones — but whatever it is, Weller 12 seems to have it.
Then there’s the age. Plenty of good $30 bourbons these days have five- or six- year age statements. Weller 12 doubles them.
“In my opinion, the sweet spot of bourbon is between eight and twelve years old,” Minnick says. Age tends to marry whiskey’s most delicious flavors together and mellow any off-notes — up to a point. Any more time risks “overoaking,” when tannin flavors, which the oak barrel imbues in the whiskey, become too strong. “Eight to twelve years old is when the magic happens,” Minnick says.
What flavor profile does twelve years of sweet wheated liquid provide?
“Weller 12 is strong and smooth,” says Harlan Wheatley, Buffalo Trace’s master distiller.
“Caramel, dark cherry, and orange,” says Riber.
“The thing I’ve always liked,” says Minnick, “is that I can put on my tongue, and the flavor just sits there. Even the very best barrel-proof whiskeys, I can appreciate and enjoy them when I put them on my tongue, but eventually I feel that barrel strength. With Weller 12, I’d almost compare it to melted butter.”
Drinkers quickly caught onto this mix of age, wheat and affordability. By the mid-2000s, Weller 12 popularity was booming, but you could still find it on liquor store shelves at retail price, or for fair rates at good whiskey bars.
Then the Pappy hype train rolled in. By the late 2000s and early 2010s, celebrities and chefs had turned Pappy Van Winkle 15, 20, and 23 year old into prized collectors’ items. After those disappeared from shelves and found their way to secondary market sales at astronomical price markups, the other Van Winkle releases were next to go.
And when people started asking liquor store owners what was “like Pappy,” but available, well… they told the truth. Same mashbill, almost as old. Weller 12.
Affordable, available Weller 12 went the way of the Dodo. Today, even much more affordable (and frankly, less good) Wellers like Antique are marked up and hard to find, as demand works its way down the food chain.
This is not to say the decline of Weller 12 is Pappy’s fault. The finding and hoarding of underpriced excellent whiskeys is a reverberation of the Bourbon Boom — the bottles that are hunted down after the initial unicorns were made extinct. It’s supply and demand, plain and simple. Buffalo Trace points out that a 12-year lag between barrelling and bottling makes it hard to respond to demand. Any Weller 12 you find today was bottled in 2008, after all. But it sure would be nice if there were more of it.
In its way, the extirpation of Weller 12 was sadder than what happened to Pappy. “Pappy attracts people who don’t really follow bourbon,” Minnick says. “People don’t understand that Weller was the go-to bourbon for people who were in the trenches of the bourbon community. It was an incredible bourbon, and it was loved in the bourbon community before Pappy was ‘Pappy.’”
“The story of what happened to Weller 12 is a great example of the bourbon ecosystem we have now,” says Riber. “Weller 12 was the reason bourbon was so popular — you could get something that was so delicious for so cheap. Compared to a 12-year Scotch, it was cheap for so long. But everything has kinda caught up.”
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