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What Gives Weller Bourbon Its Cultish Appeal?

The original wheated bourbon has been mythologized by collectors inflating prices, but for many buyers and consumers its reputation is justified

A bottle of Millennium Bourbon
Weller Millennium, an ultra-aged, first-of-its-kind blend, is one of the expressions that give the Weller line its experimental reputation. Photo by Buffalo Trace Distillery.

On a Tuesday night in May, a group of media and whiskey-industry insiders gathered at the highly awarded Blue Hill at Stone Barns for dinner. The host was Buffalo Trace, the distillery known for the ever-coveted Pappy Van Winkle, the equally sought-after Antique Collection (the annual release featuring Thomas Handy and George T. Stagg among others), and other ferociously experimental, ambitious series, like the Single Oak Project. The occasion was the grand reveal of Weller Millennium, an expression consisting of straight bourbons and wheat whiskeys distilled in 2000, 2003, 2005, and 2006. It’s bottled in a crystal decanter and it fetches $7,500. 

Weller has become a top prize amongst the community of high-rolling bourbon collectors in recent years, and the four-figure prices the older expressions command have led to price-inflation on- and off-premise, even for the flagship Weller Special Reserve, which has an MSRP of $26.99. Nevertheless, it’s endured as a go-to among whiskey drinkers of all stripes, from seasoned connoisseurs to aspiring enthusiasts. 

Building on a Bourbon Legacy

One reason for its more recent uptick is because those who know the American whiskey industry are well aware—and its widely mythologized in bourbon enthusiast community forums—that whatever doesn’t get bottled as Weller will continue to age until it becomes Pappy Van Winkle—though nobody at Buffalo Trace will outright confirm that.“We only have one wheated recipe. People know that and compare,” says Harlen Wheatley, Buffalo Trace’s master distiller, with regard to the two brands. “Weller starts off as a seven-year-old and we don’t have any Pappy that young. As it ages, nuances come out in that aging process.” 

Buffalo Trace’s head of archives Nick Laracuente is a little more forthcoming. He offers context: In 1893, William Larue “W. L.” Weller, the grandson of the original distiller in the lineage, Daniel Weller, hired Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle as a salesman who later bought the company from W. L.’s sons. “It’s not until after W. L. Weller dies that Pappy takes over the company in the early 1900s. Weller came first. Pappy is Weller from a historical perspective.” Nonetheless, Weller was so popular that Daniel Weller’s thumbprint continued to appear on barrel heads and records to certify authenticity. 

Mike Vacheresse, the co-owner and beverage director of the whiskey-focused Travel Bar in Brooklyn, sees that Pappy connection as a factor in the flagship expression’s staying power. “Everyone knows that when those barrels go in, they don’t know what it’s going to be coming out,” he says. “Weller 12 is consistently among my top ten selling whiskeys each year.”   

He also points out that despite the inflated prices generated by the online “flippers”—meaning collectors who buy and resell Weller’s at a mark-up—it’s Blanton’s that’s suffered the backlash, earning the sobriquet “hater whiskey” because people overpay for it. “Weller 12 always escaped that,” he marvels. 

The Original Wheated Bourbon 

Weller carries the trademark “The Original Wheated Bourbon,” but the innovation that moniker implies isn’t a modern phenomenon. William L. Weller, born in 1825, defied the status quo by using wheat instead of rye in his bourbon mashbill when nobody else had tried it. 

“The wheated story starts with Weller. That was so experimental at the time,” says Andrew Duncan, Weller’s brand manager. “He was the first to bring a whiskey that replaced rye in the recipe to market. And Pappy learns the craft working for Weller.” 

But why wheat? Wheat was readily available, but that doesn’t mean it was a cheap commodity. “Wheat is so fragile. People used it for food well before they used it for whiskey,” says Laracuente. “Even when used for whiskey, it was luxurious at the time. So they were making premium whiskeys in the 1850s and we continue to honor that.” 

A bottle of Weller Original Wheated sits on a table with a roaring fireplace in the background
William L. Weller was the first distiller to use wheat instead of rye in his bourbon mashbill in the mid 19th century. Photo by Buffalo Trace Distillery.

That tribute manifests as line extensions—and not just products for the super premium market. In June 2023, the distillery launched Daniel Weller Emmer Wheat, the inaugural expression of an experimental line, at an SRP of $500. The use of an ancient wheat, which is more commonly used to make beer and bread than whiskey, nods to the namesake’s keenness for innovation.  

An Icon Not Without Contention 

Not everyone, however, has been swept up in the brand’s mystique. Brad Bonds, the co-owner and curator at Revival Vintage Bottle Shop in Covington, Kentucky, specializes in vintage brands and old rarities, which enthusiasts refer to as “dusties.” Back when Weller was introduced it was popular, Nick notes, but that’s not to imply it was high-end—it can never be what it once was. 

“The aura around it originates with old stuff, and Buffalo Trace does the best it can to pay homage to the old way, but it’ll never be made like it used to be,” says Bonds. Back before any distillery was computerized, he explains, the batches were smaller and ingredients were better quality, he contends. Plus without mechanization, there were inconsistencies, which made it more interesting. “Think about the trees. In the 70s and 80s, there was a glut. They weren’t selling bourbon quickly. Staves would season outside for five or 10 years. Now you’re lucky to get a barrel with staves aged for two years.” Beyond seasoning, cooperages sometimes use blowtorches to sear barrels. Decades ago, coopers would char the barrel with fire made from wood. “It’s just different.”

Other whiskey experts express resigned exasperation that the collecting community has become so fanatic about the brand that they’ve driven the price up to a sum that makes it inaccessible to many. Aaron Goldfarb, the author of Dusty Booze: In Search of Vintage Spirits, remembers going into liquor stores a decade ago and seeing Weller Special Reserve for under $20. It was sold in a plastic flask and it was top-rate bourbon. Today it commands several hundred dollars off-premise––if you can even find it, that is. The bottle is glass now, but that fancier packaging doesn’t justify the dramatic price leap. Moreover, Goldfarb contends, the premium pricing is not aligned with the brand’s history. “Like a lot of things, Buffalo Trace realized that a mid-tier bourbon was becoming lightning in a bottle,” he said. 

And yet, even with so many bourbons—small-batch and extremely small-batch bourbons,  bourbons distilled using long-lost heritage grains or aged in carefully curated wood—entering the market each year, Weller’s ability to capture attention doesn’t fade. Maybe it’s the discrete, elegant softness the wheat provides, or maybe it’s just the inescapable allure of the legendary namesake, a true innovator at a time when innovation was a rather radical novelty.


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Liza Weisstuch is a New York City-based journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Bon Appetit, Robb Report, and The Wall Street Journal, among others. She is the U.S. contributing editor to Whisky Magazine. You can reach her on Instagram (@livingtheproof) and X (@livingtheproof)

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