In early June, the Buffalo Trace Distillery announced its latest release: “an experimental line exploring the impact of different strains of wheat on its storied bourbons, inspired by and named after the trailblazer of the Weller family,” according to the accompanying press release. Called Daniel Weller — named after the grandfather of William Larue Weller — the bourbon was produced with Emmer wheat, an ancient Egyptian grain, aged for nearly 12 years, and bottled at 94 proof. Packaged in a lavish clear glass bottle with a compass stopper, the suggested retail price checked in at a cool $499.99.
As with any new Buffalo Trace release over the last decade, the reaction among the online bourbon community was swift and often fierce.
“That’s a lot of money for a bottle sharing almost the same specs as Weller 12 albeit in a much cooler bottle,” wrote the blog Bourbon Culture.
“Another Overhyped 🦄 Bottle from Buffalo Trace, No Thanks (sic),” commented a man on a private Facebook group. While others more bluntly labeled it a gimmick. There were also the standard memes and mockery on both Instagram and TikTok — “good luck taters!”
Meanwhile, on Reddit, a user reminisced about the more humble days of the line. “Weller got too big,” they wrote. “The good old days where you could roll into any Kroger and get Weller Special Reserve for [$]9.99 are long gone.”
Indeed, the times have changed. A brand that was, for decades, a reliable shelf staple, an economically priced “daily drinker,” has become, in the last five years or so, the epitome of all the hype surrounding bottle hunting and the bourbon industry.
While many people online think the rise of Weller is an intentional ploy to excite overzealous bourbon collectors — otherwise known as “taters” — while parting them of their money, Buffalo Trace claims otherwise. But, are we, the bourbon drinkers, actually the ones to blame for the brand’s ascension?
Alive and Weller
The Wellers were German immigrants, farmers who first came to Maryland before heading to Kentucky in the 1790s, where they began distilling. Born in 1825, William (W.L.) Larue Weller would carry on the family tradition of distilling, starting W.L. Weller & Brothers with his younger sibling Charles before changing the name to W.L. Weller & Sons. (Their father was Samuel Weller, also a distiller, giving Buffalo Trace yet another future possible line extension.)
In 1893 W.L. Weller & Sons hired one Julian P. Van Winkle Sr. as a traveling salesman. “He got a horse and buggy and took off selling W.L. Weller whiskeys,” his granddaughter Sally Van Winkle Campbell writes in “But Always Fine Bourbon.” “Pappy,” as he was known, would later purchase the company after W.L. Weller’s passing in 1899. Eventually, the company merged with the A. PH. Stitzel Distillery to create the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, which opened on Kentucky Derby Day in 1935.
Stitzel-Weller quickly garnered acclaim for its atypical wheated bourbon recipe — reportedly 70 percent corn, 18 percent wheat, and 12 percent malted barley — tasted in brands like Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell, Cabin Still, and, yes, Weller.
That Weller, released over the years with product names like Old W.L Weller Special Reserve (a 7-year-old, bonded offering), Old Weller Original (variously at 106 and then 107 proof), and Weller’s Antique Reserve (10 year, 110 proof), doesn’t exactly have anything to do with today’s Weller line, though it is some of the most coveted bourbon among vintage spirits enthusiasts today, selling for thousands of dollars a bottle.
In 1965, “Pappy” Van Winkle died. In 1972, his son, Julian Van Winkle, Jr., sold the Stitzel-Weller Distillery to conglomerate Norton Simon — it was the start of the darkest days of bourbon history. Stitzel-Weller was later acquired by Distillers Corporation Limited, then Guinness, which then became United Distillers. The Stitzel-Weller facility finally closed in 1992. This whole time, some sort of wheated bourbon with “Weller” on the label continued to be sold with little ceremony. (That Norton Simon renamed the distillery after its best-selling product, Old Fitzgerald, after the 1972 acquisition says much about the general opinion of Weller at the time.)
Weller as Commodity
With the creation of Diageo from United Distillers’ 1997 merger with Grand Metropolitan, all of Stitzel-Weller’s old brands were sold off. Old Fitzgerald and Cabin Still moved to Heaven Hill. Rebel Yell went to the company today known as Luxco. And Weller moved to what was soon to be known as the Buffalo Trace Distillery.
“I remember they [Diageo] called and asked, ‘Do you need us to forward over the recipes?’” says Harlen Wheatley, Buffalo Trace’s master distiller who started at the company in 1995. “And I said, ‘well, we’ve actually been making it since 1991 as a contract [brand]. So, I think we’ve got it figured out by now.’”
In fact, Buffalo Trace had been distilling Stitzel-Weller’s exact wheated mash bill recipe and already had plenty of barrels aging.
“I wouldn’t say it was commodity, though, because there wasn’t very much of it. But, over the years, we did upgrade the packaging, and it just naturally evolved from there.”
In 2002, when Julian Van Winkle III entered into an agreement with Buffalo Trace to produce his line of whiskeys — Pappy Van Winkle among others — it likewise wasn’t hard to also use this wheated mash bill for them. (Remember, with rare exception, the original bottlings of Pappy Van Winkle also came from wheated Stitzel-Weller distillate.)
Nevertheless, in the early days of Weller under Buffalo Trace it was hardly a coveted product. There was W.L. Weller 12 Year, W.L. Weller Antique (at the historic 107 proof), and W.L. Weller Special Reserve. They were all certainly good, but they were also well-priced, reliable shelf staples. As recently as 2010, Special Reserve was just $15 — certainly not top-shelf bourbon. In fact, I still own a Special Reserve from the aughts that came in a flimsy plastic flask.
“I would say that it was definitely leaning more toward the commodity style [of bourbon],” Wheatley says. “I wouldn’t say it was commodity, though, because there wasn’t very much of it. But, over the years, we did upgrade the packaging, and it just naturally evolved from there.”
This evolution would include more allocated releases seemingly positioned toward the newly emerging higher end of the marketplace. I suspect what happened began around 2012 when Pappy-mania was reaching a fever pitch. That year, Anthony Bourdain offered a paeon to it on his show, “The Layover,” noting, “If God made bourbon, this is what he’d make.” The next year, the bottle would make a cameo in FX’s neo-western “Justified.” “Pappy Van Winkle. Holy shit. What’s the occasion?” asks a character.
Now bourbon neophytes were aware of it and began trying to find bottles — unfortunately, they were striking out. Meanwhile, on the internet, bloggers like Blake Riber were alerting many to the fact that the Van Winkles and Wellers shared the exact same mash bill. Riber’s blog, Bourbonr, would even popularize, in late 2013, the idea of a “Poor Man’s Pappy” blend composed of a mixture of Weller 12 and Weller Antique, both of which were still, for the most part, under $30 a bottle at retailers.
Suddenly, many folks were willing to accept Weller — any Weller — as a sort of consolation prize, and my theory is that’s why Buffalo Trace upgraded the packaging in 2016 to taller, more elegant bottles with black (Weller 12), red (Weller Antique), and green (Weller Special reserve) labels while beginning to release rarer and rarer variants year after year. Wheatley rejects my theory.
“I would say that almost had nothing to do with it,” he says. “I think we were attempting to stay focused on our long-range plans on that brand. We always knew we wanted to upgrade the package and then the extensions are because we have this large portfolio of wheated experiments, and it just naturally fits.”
Of course, Weller was probably the one Buffalo Trace brand that would be easiest for its owner, the Sazerac Company, to create line extensions for. The Van Winkles are, at least, somewhat still controlled by Julian Van Winkle III (how much so has never exactly been stated); the also-popular Blanton’s is still tied up with Japanese company Takara Shuzo International. It’s no surprise, then, that neither brand line has really changed much over the last two decades.
(Wheatley did agree with my theory on that point: “I guess when you think about what you just said, it is pretty easy. Weller is a Sazerac brand and it does lend itself to line extensions.”)
But, starting in 2018, the 100 percent Sazerac-controlled Weller began to release new, allocated bottlings nearly every year.
“The cool thing with the Daniel Weller [line] is it gives us the ability to offer wheat-focused, experimental whiskeys for people to try.”
In 2018 there was W.L. Weller C.Y.P.B. (Craft Your Perfect Bourbon), a higher-proof, 8-year-old, white-labeled release literally designed by internet voters. (Could there have been better foreshadowing for how much the internet’s love/hate relationship with the brand would grow?)
2019 brought W.L. Weller Full Proof, a 114-proof release in a blue-labeled bottle.
(Since 2005 there has also been a barrel-proof strength William Larue Weller in the vaunted Buffalo Trace Antique Collection; today it’s probably the second most coveted release in the series after George T. Stagg.)
2020 added W.L. Weller Single Barrel, contributing an orange label to the rainbow lineup.
Every single one of these releases elicited vicious online backlash the second they were announced. Yet, every single one of these releases also ended up being well reviewed by critics and then exploding in secondary-market value.
“Pretty cheesy, especially in light of the reality that they can’t keep standard Weller products on the shelves,” wrote one Reddit commenter in 2018 regarding C.Y.P.B. Nevertheless, its $40 MSRP soared to a secondary market value of over $500 almost instantly.
“Weller Single Barrel doesn’t break any new ground on the proof or age,” the Bourbon Culture blog wrote upon its release. Its $50 MSRP was 10 times less than its eventual black-market value of $600.
“So why does it exist and why is it only released once per year?” they asked. “I think we all know the answer to this.”
All’s Well That Ends Weller
The answer, Wheatley claims, for why the entire (and growing) Weller line of eight bottles now exists, is because he has lots of experiments he wants to conduct with wheated bourbon.
“There’s hundreds and hundreds of varieties of wheat and there’s lots of really exciting things coming that we have in barrels right now,” he explains. “The cool thing with the Daniel Weller [line] is it gives us the ability to offer wheat-focused, experimental whiskeys for people to try.”
You can believe him or instead think this is all a marketing ploy, but ask yourself: How could this new brand have been created as pure tater bait when Wheatley had the thought to distill an experimental bourbon using Emmer wheat, among other obscure wheat varieties, at least 12 years ago — well before any Weller chatter had taken over the internet, and well before Weller had any secondary market value whatsoever?
If anything, Wheatley claims, new releases like Weller C.Y.P.B. or Weller Full Proof or even Daniel Weller aren’t created solely with the modern drinker in mind, but more with drinkers 20, 30, or 40 years from now. By then, releases like Weller Special Reserve, Weller Antique, and Weller 12 might be produced in a great enough volume to again be economical shelf staples, and drinkers will want even more variety.
But statements like that won’t pacify the current bourbon fanatic, complaining on the internet about the newest Weller, struggling to find the latest Weller, willing to pay anything just to taste another Weller. That’s just the state of the bourbon industry today, and Wheatley knows it.
“I like it when people say, ‘Oh, you’re just releasing this to excite people,’” Wheatley says. “Well, you’re kind of right! We want people to be excited about our bourbon.”