As seemingly straightforward as the spirit is, whiskey (and/or whisky) is actually a pretty complicated alcoholic beverage. In fact, the greater category has a surprisingly large number of distinct sub-categories within it, including things like scotch, Irish whiskey, Canadian whisky, Japanese whisky, rye whiskey, Tennessee whiskey, and — of course — bourbon whiskey. Furthermore, even some of those smaller categories can be broken up further by region, variety, etc.
In the case of the spirits you see before you today, we’re going to concentrate on a type of distinctly-American whiskey called wheated bourbon. Specifically, we’re interested in this particular variety because Pappy Van Winkle, an extremely sought-after label, falls under its umbrella. The thing is, Pappy Van Winkle is exceedingly hard to find and, even when you can track it down, it can be absurdly expensive, even for seasoned and well-off collectors. However, if you know where to look, there is actually a pretty wide range of alternatives to Pappy that are more widely available and a good deal less expensive. You’ll find eight of the best on our following list of wheated bourbon alternatives to Pappy.
What Is Wheated Bourbon?
And Why Pappy Van Winkle Is So Popular
The basic processes for distilling any kind of whiskey are mostly the same no matter where you go around the world. In fact, there are a few must-haves for a distilled liquor to even be considered bourbon in the first place — including a mash (the baseline mixture of water steeped with grains) that’s at least 51% corn, a period of aging in charred oak barrels, and a lack of any other additives. However, outside of those parameters, distillers are free to toy around with other ingredients, specific varieties of charred oak barrels, and even the amount of time a spirit is aged.
One of the most popular styles in recent days is wheated bourbon. What differentiates wheated bourbon from its brethren is that, after corn, wheat is the secondary flavoring grain — rather than rye or barley — in the recipe. The result is a smoother spirit with less harshness and bite that allows many of the other flavors and aromas to come through a bit more. The most popular (or at least most fabled) label to specialize in this style is Pappy Van Winkle. Owned by Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery (which isn’t actually a distillery) but actually produced by Buffalo Trace, Pappy is widely considered the wheated bourbon that set the standard in the industry.
There’s no denying that Pappy’s recipes certainly set them apart from their competition, as does the label’s rigorous aging standards, which starts at a minimum of 15 years (twice as long as, say, Jim Beam). However, there’s also another significant determining factor in what makes Pappy cost sometimes in the thousands of dollars: rarity. The Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery actually only produces a few thousand cases per year. For reference, a case has 12 bottles in each. Jack Daniel’s, by contrast, produces over 100 million bottles a year. It’s so rare, in fact, that the brand uses a lottery system just to select people who have the opportunity to buy it. These alternatives, by contrast, are much easier to find and purchase, as they’re not as sought-after and are widely available for purchase off-the-shelf.
WL Weller Special Reserve Wheated Bourbon
The first wheated bourbon alternative to Pappy on our list might seem too good to be true, as it certainly seems a bit questionable with a price tag of just $20. But before you look past it, there’s one very important fact that makes this spirit such a bargain: it’s actually made using the exact same mashbill and in the same distillery as Pappy. Granted, this particular bottle is only aged for seven years (as opposed to Pappy’s bottom line of 15), but the prospect of getting something even minutely similar to Pappy for just $20 is too good to pass up. Of course, if you want a version of this that’s even closer, the brand also makes a 12-year version.
Larceny John E. Fitzgerald Wheated Bourbon
Originally produced in 1870, Old Fitzgerald is one of the oldest American whiskey brands around and was, in fact, purchased by the now-legendary Heaven Hill company in 1999. To celebrate the history and legacy of “Old Fitz,” they decided to put out Larceny as a tribute to the wheated bourbons that came before it — including the original Pappy recipe. And while they’re keeping their recipe a bit close to the vest, they have unveiled that Larceny has approximately 1/3 more wheat in its recipe than its competitors. That means, while this wheated bourbon whiskey has plenty of spice and a kick at 92 proof, it’s also a bit smoother than its similarly-priced counterparts.
McKenzie Bottled-in-Bond Wheated Bourbon Whiskey
For those not familiar, bottled-in-bond whiskeys are special and especially American. These government-regulated spirits must come from a single distiller during a single distilling season, have to be aged for a minimum of four years in a government-approved facility, and must be bottled at 100 proof. McKenzie’s Bottled-in-Bond Wheated Bourbon Whiskey meets all that criteria and also happens to be an exceptional alternative to Pappy at a much lower price point. It’s got spice, just enough kick to let you know what you’re getting yourself into, and it works just as well on-the-rocks as it does neat or mixed into a classic cocktail.
1792 Sweet Wheat Bourbon
The first wheated bourbon to come out of the 1792 lineup, this particular expression, as you might have guessed from its name, is a bit on the sweeter side of the spectrum — marked by notes of vanilla and caramel with subtle flavors of dried fruit. However, that sweetness is balanced out by an abundance of oak tannins, which helps round it out a bit. And while this one might not be a mindblowing revelation of a spirit, it’s still very drinkable — even when put up against some of the industry’s longtime staples, like Maker’s Mark. And that’s not a bad place to shine, as the price point is more than a bargain for what you get out of this whiskey.
Wyoming Whiskey Wheated Bourbon
When people think of Wyoming, they might think of cattle ranchers, ski resorts, and vast plains. What you probably don’t think of is wheated bourbon whiskey — but that’s about to change, as Wyoming Whiskey’s Wheated Bourbon should absolutely be on your radar if you’ve got even a passing interest in figuring out what all the hype is surrounding Pappy Van Winkle. Though admittedly on the more expensive side of the spectrum, this is a spirit that’s unique, even when put up against those with similar recipes. It’s sweet but not too sweet, smooth without being forgettable, and still has a prominent flavor profile despite its relatively-low proof of 88. It might not quite qualify as a unicorn whiskey, but it’s absolutely worth a try if you haven’t had it before.
Redemption Wheated Bourbon
Considering that Redemption is known for their rye bourbons, it’s quite interesting to see them come out with a wheated option, especially considering that this spirit is so exceptional. Its mashbill contains a whopping 45% winter wheat (higher than most of its competition) and is aged for a minimum of four years in charred oak barrels. Pair that with a 96 proof, floral notes alongside touches of vanilla and walnut, and a score of 91 (exceptional) at the 2019 Ultimate Spirits Challenge make this a wheated bourbon you’ll not what to pass up.
Maker’s Mark Private Select Wheated Bourbon
It’s important to note that all of the available Maker’s Mark bourbon whiskeys are, in fact, wheated. And while the brand’s standard offering is both popular and widely available (and actually pretty damn good for what you’ll pay), their Private Barrel Select is just better by all accounts. And that’s due to a couple of noteworthy differences. For starters, this expression starts out as a cask strength version of regular Maker’s Mark. But then each barrel has 10 custom wood finishing staves added to them, before being sent to age in the brand’s limestone cellar. With 1,001 possible combinations, each expression of this liquor is unique — meaning you might just have to try a few to find your favorite.
Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey
The first legal bourbon distillery in the state of Texas, Garrison Brothers was founded in 2006 and has very quickly built up an impressive reputation. In fact, next to Pappy, Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey might just be the most sought-after wheated bourbon around — or at least it should be because it is just that good. What’s even more interesting is that, up until recently, you couldn’t get your hands on it unless you actually went to Texas yourself and picked up a bottle or twelve. It also garnered the brand a silver medal at the 2013 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, which is no small feat, as that’s one of the stiffest competitions in the entire spirit industry.
The 12 Best Bourbon Whiskeys You Can Buy
While the wheated options are fairly limited, the world of this truly-American spirit is quite vast. Become better acquainted with it by picking up any of the bottles on our list of the best bourbon whiskeys you can buy.