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W.L. Weller is a wheated bourbon originally created by the Stitzel-Weller Distilling Company. The brand is named after William Larue Weller, a distiller who is credited by some as being the first to use wheat as the secondary grain in straight bourbon as opposed to the more commonly used rye.
Notably, William Larue Weller hired the famous Julian Van Winkle, who would later be known as “Pappy.” Van Winkle began his career working for Weller. Weller passed in 1899, and coincidentally his company, W.L. Weller & Sons, later merged with the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery which was owned by Van Winkle. The companies worked together through Prohibition operating under a medicinal license, and eventually became the Stitzel-Weller Distilling Company in 1935.
Weller 12 Year is the most sought after of the “common” W.L. Weller lineup, and is one of the three bottles that were, at one time, released on an ongoing basis and commonly seen on liquor store shelves – this also includes W.L. Weller Antique 107 and W.L. Weller Special Reserve. They were joined by the less common William Larue Weller, which is part of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and released annually each year. In December 2016, the three ongoing releases underwent a label redesign. The lineup expanded in 2018 with the addition of W.L. Weller C.Y.P.B.(short for Craft Your Perfect Bourbon), and then again in 2019 with the addition of W.L. Weller Full Proof. They were most recently joined by W.L. Weller Single Barrel.
A classic bourbon nose through and through consisting of rich vanilla, sweet caramel, and robust oak. A touch of red fruit sweetness accents the oak nicely by adding a slight degree of jest. The nose is nicely constructed, and even though it doesn’t present an abundance of depth, what it does offer is spot on. Saying this falls in the quintessential bourbon nose category would be an understatement, this is the very definition of it.
A thick buttery viscosity is immediately striking. Within it holds a wealth of rich oak notes that border between young and old. This sweet spot works well to also highlight its warm caramel and thick vanilla notes without any individual part becoming overpowering. Excellently balanced, it presents its flavors on an even keel. This forthright delivery may not be overly dramatic, but it is striking in its harmony. Where it doesn’t wow you with layers of flavor, it offers its few flavors with definitive grace and is a pure joy to drink.
Already packing a nice amount of intensity for a 90 proof bourbon, it’s during the Weller 12 Year’s finish that a gentle ramp up of heat and intensity occurs. Pecan, caramel, and a faint red fruit note are the first to take advantage of it. While it is quick and fleeting, a burst of warm oak follows that works great as the finish’s endgame. It continues what came before it and adds a manageable amount of heat to cap off the sip exquisitely.
Playing it straight isn’t always as effortless as it may seem. It’s easy to think any bourbon can be straightforward, but to offer a unique spark that wows the drinker is where the real skill lies. While there is most likely some truth to that, truly nailing the fineness of a straightforward bourbon might be just as hard or even harder than creating something with a unique twist. Going this route, a bourbon can’t hide behind its flair, and when you think about how many straightforward bourbons you’ve had – many of which probably presented a classic bourbon flavor profile – how many of them truly captured your attention?
That’s usually the rub: how do you impress by being conventional? Quality over quantity is often the answer. The flavors presented with Weller 12 Year aren’t numerous, leading to only adequate, and not abundant complexity. Yet, it’s the bourbon’s quality that wins the day. Only a few bourbons are able to pull off a trifecta of balance, quality, and grace, and 2021’s Weller 12 Year manages to do just that.
Weller 12 Year is yet another Buffalo Trace bourbon that is underpriced given current market conditions. Giving the company props for this decision is up to the individual, but taken at face value, at MSRP Weller 12 Year is a very good value for what is being offered this year. But for many in the “real world,” finding Weller 12 Year at MSRP is a fairy tale and consideration must be taken into account for its inflated secondary market prices. With the quality of Weller 12 Year often high, but not exclusively so, a given year’s quality will justify the degree of a higher asking price. This happens to be a year where a higher price is warranted, but be warned, this isn’t a bourbon that will tickle you over its showiness. It’s a straight firing bourbon offering its worth front and center.
Weller 12 Year might be a straightforward bourbon with little frills, yet it does so with a high level of perfection.
It’s easy to want to hate Weller 12 Year. It was once a bottom shelf bourbon that was flung into limelight when its connections to Pappy Van Winkle bourbons became well known. It encapsulates everything that’s currently wrong with the bourbon market: overly-frenzied consumers, store owner overreach, and an out-of-control secondary market. Yet at the end of the day, none of that has a direct effect on the bourbon in the bottle.
When I last reviewed Weller 12 Year in 2017, that bottle was notably lackluster in every department. This was especially true when I compared that release to a 2013 and 2015 bottle. It once again became a case of a hype outpacing the actual quality contents of a bottle. This year’s release is a return to form in the overall quality department, yet it also offers better balance than even the 2013 bottle offered. There are plenty of straightforward bourbons on the market that get the job done so to speak, but few that truly impress. It’s not immediately clear why this year’s Weller 12 Year is a winner based on what it offers upfront, but you know when you taste it. Ignore hype and forgo gimmicks, sometimes a classic style bourbon that nails it is all anyone ever needs.