The Saga of “Poor Man’s Pappy” - Beverage Testing Institute
Weller 12 Range

The Saga of “Poor Man’s Pappy”

And How We Came to Also Love Other Wheated Bourbons

The hype surrounding Weller Bourbon starts with the air of mystique and luxury surrounding Pappy Van Winkle. For those of you haven’t drank much Bourbon or are new to the genre, maybe that bottle of Weller 12 Year Old Bourbon strategically placed in Yellowstone really caught your attention, you can find the story of Pappy Van Winkle all over the internet and in print. To oversimplify the tale starts with an uncommon mashbill, some well-crafted distillate aged in some choice barrels, and a record setting score and validation from the team here at the Beverage Testing Institute (BTI). Add in a major production move to the Buffalo Trace Distillery mixed with amazing endorsements from celebrity tastemakers like Anthony Bourdain and BOOM, an already exclusive and pricey luxury good, Pappy Van Winkle, essentially starts the secondary market for Bourbon. Following a story  line common amongst premium goods, price conscience consumers begin looking for viable alternatives, which leads us to Weller.

Circa the early 2010’s, whiskey personality and writer Fred Minnick announced a secret that most of us insiders had known about for years; since Buffalo Trace became involved with Pappy, Weller has made with the same mashbill, on the same stills, placed in the same barrels, and aged in the same rickhouses as Pappy. Now anyone with a sibling or a twin can tell you that the same upbringing does not yield the same outcomes. And don’t forget that brand principals Julian and Preston Van Winkle still have a lot to say in making Pappy Van Winkle, more than just another Weller variation.  An expert taster can clearly tell Pappy and Weller apart, but they would also acknowledge that strong similarities are there.

In addition to BTI’s famous score of 99 for the Pappy Van Winkle 20 YO in 1997, the 15 YO scored a 98 in 2004, and the 20 YO took home another 99 in 2008—all platinum medals here at BTI. Also worth repeating here, for those that don’t know, BTI’s tastings are blind and conducted by a panel of experts, so a consensus opinion of four expert tasters on such a high score is no easy feat and Pappy Van Winkle rightfully sits amongst the pantheon of world-class spirits. Absolutely no slouch and delicious on its own merits, Weller 12, based on BTI’s blind panels, was a consistent gold medal (90-95 points) winner in 2002, 2006, and 2015.

Approximately 8 or so years ago if you were one of the many people standing in line for hours or paying a 400+% markup for Pappy at a quasi-legal auction, we confidently agree with Mr. Minnick telling us all that the value play was to go out and buy a case of Weller 12 for the price of one bottle of Van Winkle. For those really looking to dial in the flavor, it was even contended that by mixing in Weller 107 to bring up the proof, you could make a “Poor Man’s Pappy.” Frankly, that would probably convince 95% of consumers in a casual tasting, but that’s why places like BTI have blind tastings with experts on the panels, right? Fast forward to today and the crux of the issue at hand is that Weller is now what Pappy Van Winkle used to be in terms of pricing and scarcity with bottles from the original Stitzel-Weller distillery jumping into the stratosphere of collectible spirits in a league with Macallan 25 and Louis XIII.

Retasting archival bottles and referencing old scores are a wonderful tool for checking in on consistency, and part of the BTI experience for brands is an invitation to taste a spirit at least once every three years to verify that consistency. So, what were our most recent findings for Weller? True to form the Antique 107, Single Barrel, and Fuller Proof were all gold medal recipients in 2020. The shock was that Weller 12 dropped down to a silver medal, based on both on the blind tasting panel, as well as an editorial tasting that corroborated the panel’s findings using archive samples of Weller 12 and side by side with the rest of the Weller line. A fluke batch perhaps, but we’ve heard similar conclusions from other professionals and aficionados. Maybe the prolific demand is straining supply to use less mature barrels, or maybe newer line extensions and single barrel programs are exhausting the stocks that used to make the previous generation of Weller 12 a “poor man’s” stand in for Pappy.

Is Weller worth the price of admission? These are excellent whiskies and at their suggested retail prices there should be zero hesitation to own, drink, and add the label’s cachet to your back bar (but please don’t hoard). However, if you have to stand in long lines, overpay because of price gouging, or get into bidding wars at auction, the juice is not worth the squeeze. While prices are going up universally, there are still tremendous values in Bourbon to be found. If having a “wheater” is a must, check out Old Elk, Larceny, Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell, and of course Maker’s Mark, especially some of the single barrel options and over-proof options of the 46. Not inexpensive but any means, but far less than secondary market prices for Weller or Pappy and widely available on store shelves. Your dollars and your choice, but we advocate for drinking great whiskey over chasing and staring at unopened liquid trophies.

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