Pappy Van Winkle is a cult favorite among bourbon lovers, but it has become such a sought-after commodity that most whiskey fans realize its exorbitant price and scarcity might mean it’s not really worth the time and expense required to secure a taste.
Pappy’s mythos is now so large, sports writer Wright Thompson even tackled the subject in the book Pappyland, an incredible look at the history of the whiskey and the trials of fatherhood. The pen-to-paper treatment only adds to the grandiose legend the whiskey holds. But, the truth is for most whiskey drinkers, the price-to-taste ratio on the juice just is not there.
Yes, Pappy is a very good whiskey, especially the 15- and 20-year-old expressions, but is it really worth spending thousands on a bottle, or hundreds for a pour at the bar? It all depends on your means, of course, and for those of us without expense accounts or trust funds, there are some excellent and affordable alternatives to drink instead. Pappy, which is distilled at Buffalo Trace, is a wheated bourbon, which means that wheat is the secondary flavoring grain in the mash bill instead of the more common rye. This generally gives the whiskey a softer, sweeter, fruitier flavor. So for those who have hopped off the Pappy wagon, here are seven alternatives that are just as good — and a whole lot cheaper — to drink now.
Sadly, WL Weller is not as cheap or easy to find as it once was. Blame this on whiskey geeks who discovered that Weller is basically Pappy (made at Buffalo Trace using the same mash bill), but aged for different amounts of time and in different warehouses. This makes Weller probably the closest thing to Pappy you can find, and for that reason it has become another cult whiskey. Antique and Special Reserve are probably easier to find than the 12YO expression these days. There’s also the new Full Proof, which is non-chill filtered and bottled at 114 proof, which is the proof it has going into the barrel. Consider yourself lucky if you can get your hands on any of these at a reasonable price.
The most obvious and popular wheated bourbon choice is Maker’s Mark. This bourbon, owned by mega corporation Beam Suntory, can be found in any liquor store or bar and has a soft, mellow flavor that is accessible even to inexperienced whiskey drinkers. There are only a few different expressions, but one of the best is the Cask Strength, with a relatively low proof ranging from about 108 to 114, depending on the barrel. Maker’s is a solid option to consider in the wheated bourbon category.
Denver’s Laws Whiskey House makes its Centennial Straight Wheat Whiskey with 100% Soft Centennial Spring Wheat and then ages it for five years. The resulting bonded whiskey is deliciously smooth. The aromas reek of fruits and flowers, while the palate grabs on to piney, tea-like notes.
Up in the Northern part of Michigan’s lower mitten, Traverse City Whiskey Co. makes quite a few delicious whiskey expressions. TC Whiskey does make a wheated whiskey, but it stays barrel strength.
Barrel Proof Wheat pushes through at a very high variable ABV after four years in the barrel, but the floral notes stay strong and the overall tone of the whiskey is sweet. But like its Barrel Proof Straight Bourbon Whiskey and Barrel Proof Straight Rye Whiskey, the wheated variant is excellent.
In the craft sphere, Wyoming Whiskey is making some very good whiskey. The core expression is a wheated bourbon made from a mash bill that includes 20% wheat that shines through on the palate. This is properly aged and expertly distilled craft whiskey, which will likely become better known now that Scottish company Edrington has acquired a minority stake in the distillery.
Vermont’s Whistlepig continues to pump out fascinating whiskies, largely, of course, dominated by the rye expressions that made them a name. However, The Whistlepig Homestock Whiskey is a wheated whiskey, at least in part. The whiskey was blended by the distillery’s fans, a blend of 4-year-old rye whiskey with 5-year-old wheat and barley whiskeys. The result is a light on the tongue, slightly sweet but spicy kicked whiskey.
When Fred Minnick likes a whiskey, the whiskey world should pay attention. When it comes to wheated whiskey, Journeyman Distillery makes a fine one, garnering Minnick’s Best Wheat Whiskey in 2020. The Michigan-made whiskey is 100% wheat, and it’s the cask strength version that came through.
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