There’s often too much focus in bourbon reviews on inaccessible bourbon. While those reviews can be intriguing and can help narrow your focus for bourbon hunting, the lower shelves could use some attention too. There are more than plenty low-priced bourbons to choose from, but the vast majority use rye as their secondary grain. To narrow the choices I decided to compare only bourbons that use wheat as the secondary grain (by far the minority), giving them a different profile than bourbons that use the more traditional rye mash bill.
So for this review, we compared three wheated bourbons that can be found readily at all stores for about $20.00. I didn’t actually go to the very bottom of the shelf. In fact, for each bourbon, the respective brand offers an even less-expensive version. Here is the order of blind tasting:
Distillery: Bernheim Distillery (Heaven Hill), Louisville, Kentucky
Age: NAS (but longer than Rebel Yell)
Real bottom shelf version: Rebel Yell ($12.99)
Thanks to the mayor of Louisville in 1949, Charles Farnsley, the name “Rebel Yell” refers to the battle cry of the Confederacy. Perhaps recognizing the riskiness of that name, Stitzel-Weller originally only distributed this brand in the deep-south, but it soon was more widely distributed and later gained recognition as a favorite of Keith Richards. While the Rebel Yell brand is distilled at Heaven Hill’s (new) Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, Heaven Hill sold the Rebel Yell brand to Luxco, Inc.
John E. Fitzgerald Larceny Bourbon
Distillery: Heaven Hill Bernheim Distillery (for some reason the bottle only discloses “bottled by…”)
Real bottom shelf version: Old Fitzgerald ($11.99)
Larceny is the newest brand in this comparison, making its debut in 2012, with the marketing department going hog-wild on the backstory for this reinvention of the Fitzgerald line. Despite the claim on the bottle, Larceny was not established in 1870. In a bit of marketing misdirection, that date really only applies to the date that Old Fitzgerald was released as a private brand. While not containing an age statement, Larceny is advertised as a small batch of 100 or less barrels and “hand selected by the Master Distillers to have a taste profile of a six-year-old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.”
Old Weller Antique 107
Distillery: Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, Kentucky
Age: NAS (but used to be seven years)
Real bottom shelf version: W. L. Weller Special Reserve ($14.99)
Old Weller Antique 107 is part of the famed Weller line, named after William Larue Weller (1825-1899), who is the grandfather of all wheated bourbon. After the repeal of National Prohibition, the Stitzels and Wellers built the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, opening on Derby Day in 1935. Big corporate acquisitions and mergers followed, Stitzel-Weller closed in 1992, and after moving distillation to New Bernheim, the brands were sold off to other distilleries. Without William Larue Weller, we would not be having this tasting at all, because Rebel Yell and Larceny wouldn’t exist.
1st Glass (Rebel Reserve):
The nose clearly gave away that this was a wheated bourbon. The alcohol scent was a little strong on the nose, but the caramel and brown sugar notes were enticing. Unfortunately, there was also an unfavorable scent of medicinal cherry (like cherry cough drops). The taste was not complex, mostly hot and sweet, with hints of caramel, grain and corn. Not much to it. The finish was short-ish, and predictably sweet and not complex. It was still mostly inoffensive just until it started to fade, when the cherry cough drops come back for an unwelcome reprise.
2nd Glass (John E. Fitzgerald Larceny):
The second glass was brighter in color, with more of a copper tone. The nose had a butterscotch aroma, with other sweet notes like toffee, but also a lot of cinnamon. The taste was sweet, with flavors of caramel, honey and sweet corn, with some spice and nice bite, but it turned a little bitter. Like the first glass, there was not much complexity, but there were more slight hints of fruit and spice. There was a bit of harshness when drinking the second glass neat, but it improved dramatically with ice. A splash of water helped too, but the sweet flavors opened up better just with ice. The finish was quick to medium, and slightly warm.
3rd Glass (Old Weller Antique 107):
The third glass had a hint of orange to its amber color. The nose revealed its higher proof right away, but after adjusting for the alcohol, the predominant note was caramel – lots of caramel – but also strong vanilla. Caramel was also the predominant taste, just as predicted by the nose. But there was also a nice balance of other sweet flavors like vanilla, apple, honey and toffee, along with some spicier flavor of cinnamon. It was actually remarkably balanced for a bourbon lacking rye, but for anyone who really favors rye as the secondary grain, you’ll still miss the spiciness of rye. The higher proof gives a nice bite that compensates somewhat for the lack of true spice flavors. The finish was a little longer than the others and it was a more balanced, satisfying finish of caramel, cinnamon and vanilla.
Winner: Old Weller Antique 107.
Practically all wheated Kentucky bourbons are related, and these three are no exception. They all have lineage in William Larue Weller and the Stitzel-Weller distillery, and they all tout that history. Rebel Reserve mentions Weller by name on its back label (“created from a time-honored Weller family recipe…”). Similarly, Larceny’s marketing story obviously relies prominently on Fitzgerald, but maybe because of the general perception of that name as a transitioning to a bottom-shelf brand over the past decades, the deft marketers refer to the Van Winkle family and the Stitzel-Weller distillery.
All three also claim to be made from their original recipes and methods. If true, that should mean that the mash bills, yeast strain, distillation techniques and char level should all be the same, with the only differences being barrel location and age. The variances between Rebel Reserve, Larceny and Old Weller Antique either disprove the entire story about each using the old Weller recipe, or they emphasize the incredible differences that can be imparted by the barrel, age and aging conditions. Remember also that if Rebel Yell and the Fitzgerald line are made from the same Weller recipe, they start the same as Pappy. Everybody wants to ride the coattails of Pappy, so expect more comparisons.
Despite their family origins, these three bourbons are not in the same league. None of the three were going to have peppery or spicy notes due to the lack of rye, but Old Weller Antique did the best job out of the three in delivering a well-rounded profile. Not only was Old Weller Antique the hands-down winner, we added W.L. Weller Special Reserve after the reveal, and it was preferred over Rebel Reserve too.
Keith Richards doesn’t need to be your role model for bourbon, and you don’t need to pay for new marking of old Fitzgerald. So be sure to try Old Weller Antique, although it has become rare ever since the disappearance of W.L. Weller 12 Year Old (if you see Weller 12, ignore everything written here and buy a bottle for about $26.00). If both of those are missing, grab a bottle of W.L. Weller Special Reserve and save $5.00 instead of getting Rebel Reserve, or splurge and try Larceny.
Scores on The Sipp’n Corn Scale
Rebel Reserve: 1.5
Old Weller 107: 3.5
The Sipp’n Corn Scale:
1 – Wouldn’t even accept a free drink of it.
2 – Would gladly drink it if someone else was buying.
3 – Glad to include this in my bar.
4 – Excellent bourbon. Worth the price and I’m sure to always have it in my bar.