All About Wheated Bourbon – The History, Character, and Flavors
With corn being the predominant grain in bourbon, rye is often the secondary flavoring grain in the spirit’s mash bill. But when wheat is used as the flavoring grain instead, it creates a different flavor profile altogether. Wheated bourbon has a soft, round mouthfeel and the wheat grain brings a cracker-like flavor to the mix. Wheated bourbon is also easygoing and therefore great for folks just getting their feet wet in the bourbon world. You may even be a fan of wheated bourbon without knowing it.
What is Wheated Boubon?
Wheated bourbons still adhere to the requirements to be considered bourbon — including the use of 51 percent corn and new American charred oak barrels during maturation. But for these products, the whiskey maker has replaced the more common rye grain used in a typical bourbon mash bill with wheat to produce an entirely different flavor profile. While still meeting all the criteria required of the bourbon category, this style allows distillers to create distinct flavor combinations.
History of Wheated Bourbon
Who created wheated bourbon? William LaRue Weller (that name should be familiar to some) is credited as the first distiller to dump the rye for wheat. His name still occupies the label of several wheated bourbons. Weller’s brand continued on and eventually merged with A Ph Stitzel distillery to create the now infamous Stitzel-Weller. Stitzel-Weller continued to produce extraordinary wheated bourbon until it closed in 1991. As with most bourbon history, the story is more convoluted than the scope of this post. Ultimately, Buffalo Trace acquired the Weller brand and Heaven Hill got the Fitzgerald brand. Both brands are still alive and wheated to this day.
Wheat is a grain that’s one of humanity’s most cultivated crops. It’s an excellent food source because of its tightly packed proteins. But those proteins make the starches less accessible to yeast, which requires short sugar molecules to produce alcohol.
By malting grains, you can release enzymes customarily used to help feed the germinating seed and harness them for fermentation. These enzymes evolved to break down long starch molecules into shorter sugar molecules that the shooting plant can use for fuel as it sprouts from the earth. Germinating seeds use the converted sugar as energy while establishing roots and leaves so they can conduct photosynthesis on their own.
Humans learned early on that we could hijack this process to make booze. Yeast naturally parts anytime it’s exposed to fruit sugars. But to make alcohol from grain starches, you must break those starch chains down into disaccharide and monosaccharide sugar molecules the yeast can consume and turn into alcohol. Some grains, like malted barley, have enough enzymes to convert the starches to any other grains included with them in the mash.
Flavor Profile of Wheated Bourbons
So, that leaves us with the flavoring grains. Rye is more commonly used to add flavor to bourbon, as it brings a unique spicy note to the spirit and flavors of pepper, clove, and nutmeg. You know that pleasant bite some bourbons have in the finish? That’s the rye. Wheat is a different story. It’s less flavorful than rye, so it allows more of the corn’s sweetness and vanilla from the barrel to come through. Some might see it as a slightly flavor-neutral grain, but its defenders believe that wheat retains its flavor over the course of extreme aging (10 to 20 years). A wheated bourbon still contains at least 51% corn (but typically 70 to 80%), with the balance divided between barley and wheat.
Typically, a bourbon mash bill includes three ingredients: corn (at least 51%), rye, and barley. Distilleries replace the rye portion of the mash bill with wheat to create a “wheated” or “wheater” bourbon. Wheated bourbon is a softer and often sweeter bourbon. But what does “soft” taste like? Eat a piece of rye toast next to a piece of wheat toast. You’ll quickly understand the difference. Wheated bourbon is associated with a more rounded mouthfeel as well as a mellow finish.
There are some caveats. Some mash bills contain both rye and wheat, which imbues the resulting distillate with a complex character — sweet and spicy, with lots of depth. And some bourbons contain exotic grains — cereal grains permitted in the production of bourbon but not generally considered in the average distiller’s playbook. Exotic grains include cereals like oats, sorghum, buckwheat, rice, and quinoa. These grains add notes not usually considered in the traditional bourbon flavor wheel. Some wheated bourbons contain no malted barley because distillers in the US can use lab-created enzymes during fermentation. Although they are outlawed in Scotland, products like Diazyme and Amylex are allowed in the US, giving distillers the option of bypassing the traditional use of malted barley.
Choosing a Wheated Bourbon
Here’s a rundown on some of the most common wheated bourbons you’ll find.
MAKER’S MARK BOURBON
One of the most popular bourbons out there, Maker’s Mark is a wheated bourbon made with a mash bill of 70% locally-grown corn, 16% red winter wheat, and 14% malted barley. This recipe was created by Bill Samuels Sr., who baked bread with different grains to settle on his mash bill rather than trial and error with distillation. His wife, Margie Samuels, is responsible for the shape of the bottle, the signature label, and the red wax topper. Maker’s Mark is aged in char #3 new American oak barrels for 6-7 years and it’s bottled at 90 proof.
WELLER SPECIAL RESERVE
Weller Special Reserve is the entry bottling to the Weller portfolio which comes from the Buffalo Trace Distillery. This line is named after William Larue Weller. Born in 1825, Weller was a whiskey pioneer who developed his bourbon recipe with wheat instead of rye. While the Weller portfolio was once known in inner circles as the Poor Man’s Pappy, word has most certainly gotten out. Even this entry-level wheated bourbon is tough to find on shelves, let alone the Antique 107 or the 12-Year versions. But bottles do exist. Maybe this is your year?
TREATY OAK GHOST HILL TEXAS BOURBON
Founded in 2006, Treaty Oak Distilling is located in Dripping Springs, Texas just outside of Austin. Ghost Hill Texas Bourbon is a wheated bourbon produced from grains sourced at Barton Springs Mill, which is also located in Dripping Springs. The mash bill is 57% yellow Texas No. 1 corn, 32% Texas wheat, and 11% American barley. Distilled at Treaty Oak, the bourbon ages for two years in new American oak with a #3 char level. It’s bottled at 95 proof.
PAPPY VAN WINKLE
The term cult classic doesn’t begin to do this brand justice. Many of us first heard about wheated bourbons due to the success and popularity of the Pappy Van Winkle brand.
Today, this brand is a unicorn. Any bourbon hunter out there will talk about landing “the big one” — a bottle in the Van Winkle range at suggested retail price — the way an angler describes that legendary big catch.
OAK & EDEN WHEAT & SPIRE CASK STRENGTH
While whiskies are usually brought to a set alcohol by volume (ABV) percentage or proof with added water, cask-strength whisky maintains its strength from when it’s taken from the cask. This means that when it’s bottled, nothing gets removed or added.
Oak & Eden’s Wheat & Spire Cask Strength Whiskey is a combination of 51% corn, 45% wheat, and 4% malted barley and is bottled at 90 proof. It gets distilled, aged for two years in new American oak barrels, and finished in the bottle with a 5-inch long spiral-cut piece of wood from French oak, the same species as the finishing barrel. This French oak spire remains in the bottle and was picked because it’s rich and porous, with almost double the natural botanicals as American oak. It finishes silky, rich, and fruity.
BREAKER WHEATED BOURBON WHISKEY
Breaker Wheated Bourbon Whisky is a softer version of the brand’s bourbon whiskey, as it contains wheat instead of rye in its mash bill. It’s aged in new 53-gallon charred White American oak barrels for at least five years, and Breaker’s master distiller is very selective in choosing eight — and only eight — barrels for each bottled batch.
In this wheated bourbon, you’ll smell aromas of vanilla, maple, char smoke, and coconut, and you’ll taste similar notes with a spicy, smoky finish.
How to Enter the World of Wheated Bourbon
Okay. So you’ve read through this entire primer, and you’re ready to take the next step in drinking bourbon — getting this liquid into a glass for a bourbon blind tasting or whiskey flight. It’s time to take that bourbon knowledge and get your taste buds involved!
Try putting together a lineup of traditional bourbons — a high-rye, traditional bourbon and one with a whisper of wheat — to see if you can figure out how the bourbon recipe, along with the baking spice notes gained from the barrel, influence the finished product. If you’re not sure how to pick the best bourbons to try, Taster’s Club will do the work for you when you join our Bourbon of the Month Club.
Wheated Bourbon Cocktail Recipes
Here are some fantastic cocktails that never go out of style. Make these at home with wheated bourbon in just a few steps. Enjoy!
Take a ¾-ounce each of wheated bourbon, sweet vermouth, and Campari and combine in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir well, then strain into a tumbler containing a block of ice. Garnish with an orange slice.
To a cocktail shaker, squeeze the juice of half a lemon cut into wedges, then add the wedges in as well. Add two ounces of wheated bourbon, ¾-ounces of simple syrup, three mint leaves, and ice. Shake well, then strain into a rocks glass with ice. Garnish with another mint leaf.
Combine two ounces of wheated bourbon, one ounce of dry vermouth, a couple dashes of orange bitters, a half-ounce of grenadine, and a quarter-ounce of lemon juice into an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Shake well, then strain into a cocktail glass, preferably chilled.
Now that you have an idea of what wheated bourbon is, a bit about its history, how wheat in a bourbon mash bill creates its soft, sweet flavor and mellow character, and why people love the bourbon whiskey-making style, you’re well-equipped to venture into some wheated bourbon of your own.